A Terrible Blogger is Born!

March 19, 2009

The trouble with Sacha Baron Cohen

So Sacha Baron Cohen, creator of Da Ali G Show and the movie Borat,  has a new movie coming out featuring another one of his characters from his show. This time it’s Bruno, the gay Austrian fashion designer. I have little doubt it will be a success. Reflecting on the previous movie, and Cohen’s general modus operandi, I am compelled to recall two seemingly disparate figures he has much in common with: first, the famous cultural Marxist, German expatriate, and one of the most pessimistic writers of the 20th century (no mean feat), Theodor Adorno; and second, the vapid boy pin-up turned MTV star and trucker-hat popularizer, Ashton Kutcher. This odd assertion I will explain momentarily. But first, a scene from the upcoming Bruno, which happens to feature a personal hero of mine, Texas congressman Ron Paul. Slate describes Dr. Paul’s “insane cameo”:

The scene with Paul, filmed in early 2008, occurs about halfway through the movie, after Bruno gets the idea that you have to make a sex tape to become famous. (Stop reading here if you want to see the movie unspoiled.)

Cut to a nondescript hotel suite where Bruno sits across from Ron Paul. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, a light blows out on the set. Bruno apologizes for the technical difficulties and suggests that he and Paul wait in the other room while the crew fixes the light.

The other room, it turns out, is a bedroom. The lighting is low, and the film is now grainy—not unlike a sex tape—as it cuts to a hidden spy camera. There’s a spread of Champagne and strawberries and caviar on a table.

Bruno tells Paul to make himself comfortable. Paul sits down on the bed. Bruno turns on some music and starts dancing. Paul is visibly uneasy but doesn’t say anything at first. He picks up a newspaper and pretends to read it. “You can tell at each weird gay detail, he [chalks] it up to, This guy is European,” says one of the attendees.

Finally, Paul asks what’s going on. “Don’t worry about it, Dr. Paul,” says Bruno, who then unbuckles his belt and drops his pants. At that point, Paul snaps up and storms out of the room.

As Paul is walking away, you can hear him say, several times, something like, “This guy is a queer!” “The word queer comes out of his mouth three or four times,” says an attendee.

A press secretary for Paul, Rachel Mills, claims Paul said “weird” and not “queer”. But perhaps we can assume that Paul shares an unfortunate prejudice with most conservative men his age. He has thus far not made it part of his political campaign, putting him way ahead of the Republican pack. Nonetheless, the scene will serve as ample reason for liberal cognoscenti and other dialectically illumined types to toss Paul back into the cave with Rush Limbaugh, David Duke, and all the other right wing troglodytes. (One wonders though, what Justin Raimondo, the openly gay founder of anti-war.com and a staunch Paul defender against what the late Murray Rothbard called the “smearbund”, would have to say. But then Raimondo will no doubt be said to suffer from an internalized, subconscious self-loathing common to black and gay Republicans and Jewish critics of Israel.) And all that without having to make a single coherent intellectual point in critique of Ron Paul’s politics. It is, in other words, a cheap shot. Am I reading too much into the scene? Should I don my tinfoil hat? I think not, based on what critics have read into Cohen’s previous movie.

I might as well admit that I am reacting to the embarrassment of someone I feel is one of the best hopes for anything resembling liberty in my lifetime. (I should point out as well that I also disagree with Paul on immigration and abortion, both of which I support and he opposes, but perhaps this is just special pleading.) I hope the reader will understand this in itself ought not diminish one iota the veracity of my critique. I also want to head off from the start two possible misconceptions about my complaints against Sacha Baron Cohen, and Borat in particular. I do not object, as some critics have, to his so-called “anti-Americanism”. In the first place, I believe the U.S. government since it emerged as an imperial superpower (especially since World War II, but even as far back as the McKinley administration) has been overwhelmingly a force for evil in the world, and has been oppressing domestic minorities since its inception. But then I no more identify the American people with its government than I identify a host with its parasite. As for the former, I see little to disagree with in H.L. Mencken’s estimation:

He  likes money and struggles to amass property, but his cultural development is but little above that of the domestic animals. He is intensely and cocksurely moral, but his morality and his self-interest are crudely identical. He is emotional and easy to scare, but his imagination cannot grasp an abstraction. He is a violent nationalist and patriot, but he admires rogues in office and always beats the tax-collector if he can. He has immovable opinions about all the great affairs of state, but nine-tenths of them are sheer imbecilities. He is violently jealous of what he conceives to be his rights, but brutally disregardful of the other fellow’s. He is religious, but his religion is wholly devoid of beauty and dignity. This man, whether city or country bred, is the normal Americano.

I would add, though, that the same could be said about the great mass of people in any country at any time in history, a fact reviewers of Borat conveniently ignored. Apparently, they thought the movie revealed the innate and unique stupidity and hatred lurking in the “normal Americano”, and this is what I object to vehemently.

Secondly, many viewers found Borat simply gross and obscene. “Tasteless” is generally the preferred term. Well, fine for them, but I am not the artistic integrity police, and I believe in contrast to the prevailing wisdom that sex, violence, and fart jokes are the eternal stuff of human amusements and are justified in their own right. What I am against is the notion that Sacha Baron Cohen has anything to offer us beyond these, i.e. anything interesting or original to say about American society whatever.

I first saw Borat in the theater and, like everyone else, fairly laughed my ass off. (I will assume for my own convenience that everyone has seen the movie and therefore will not recap the plot.) Sacha Baron Cohen seemed to have a natural comedic timing, gift for conjuring ridiculous scenarios, and a commitment to his role no matter how absurd, that recalled Peter Sellers and Andy Kaufman. Subsequent viewings on DVD, especially the cut scenes included on the special features (more on which later), and listening to what critics as well as Cohen himself in interviews had to say about the “meaning” of this movie, caused me to revise my opinion entirely, and I now find it to be a cheap, dishonest, and cowardly piece of exploitation, and its uncritical and near-universal celebration to be a sure sign of decadence (in the older sense of “decaying” and not the vulgarization connoting sensual indulgence the word acquired from being too often applied to late Roman emperors) in the liberal intelligentsia. Never has the bar been so low for being considered a satirist. Much applause was generated when the character Borat would say or do something sexist or anti-Semitic, and the hapless person he was interviewing would go along. Yet, interestingly, whether the person emphatically agreed (as in the case of the elderly cowboy at a rodeo who eagerly embraces Borat’s explanation of Kazakhstan’s medieval treatment of homosexuals), or whether they went along out of politeness (the vast majority of cases), or whether they became incensed at his behavior (as when a car salesman tells Borat that women in America get to choose who they sleep with), laughs are generated in any case. I am not the only one who found the supposedly “exposed” Americanos in the movie to be in the main polite bystanders. Christopher Hitchens wrote, in his original review also for Slate:

Oh, come on. Among the “cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan” is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse. At a formal dinner in Birmingham, Ala., the guests discuss Borat while he’s out of the room—filling a bag with ordure in order to bring it back to the table, as it happens—and agree what a nice young American he might make. And this is after he has called one guest a retard and grossly insulted the wife of another (and remember, it’s “Americana” that is “crass”). The tony hostess even takes him and his bag of shit upstairs and demonstrates the uses not just of the water closet but also of the toilet paper. The arrival of a mountainous black hooker does admittedly put an end to the evening, but if a swarthy stranger had pulled any of the foregoing at a liberal dinner party in England, I wouldn’t give much for his chances. “The violence that Borat encounters on the New York subway after trying to greet male strangers with kisses is frighteningly real,” writes Gilbey [reviewer Ryan Gilbey of the New Statesman], who either doesn’t use the London Underground very much or else has a very low standard for mayhem.

Is it too literal-minded to point out what any viewer of the movie can see for himself—that the crowd at the rodeo stops cheering quite fast when it realizes that something is amiss; that the car salesman is extremely patient about everything from demands for pussy magnets to confessions of bankruptcy; and that the man in the gun shop won’t sell the Kazakh a weapon? This is “compliance”? I have to say, I didn’t like the look of the elderly couple running the Confederate-memorabilia store, but considering that Borat smashes hundreds of dollars worth of their stock, they bear up pretty well—icily correct even when declining to be paid with locks of pubic hair. The only people who are flat-out rude and patronizing to our curious foreigner are the stone-faced liberal Amazons of the Veteran Feminists of America—surely natural readers of the New Statesman. Perhaps that magazine’s reviewer believes that Borat is genuinely shocked when he finds—by video viewing—that Pamela Anderson has not been faithful to him and he will thus not be the first to “make romance-explosion on her stomitch.” (And either the love goddess agreed to stage the moment when Mr. Sagdiyev tries to stuff her into a “wedding bag,” or she and her security team displayed a rare indulgence to the mustachioed interloper.)

The joke, in other words, may well be on the prankster.

This is never more the case than in the most infamous scene, where Borat sings the song “Throw the Jew Down the Well” in a bar, to a crowd cheering and singing along. It was apparent, to me at least, that the crowd was mostly laughing at Borat and not with him. Even if this is not so, and Borat did expose some racism latent in the average American, this would still not attest to Cohen’s satirical gifts. I find nothing more emblematic of his approach than aforementioned scene in the confederate memorabilia store. Cohen shows something he knows in advance to offend the sensibilities of his intended audience, and then simply smashes it up. “High-five!”, as Borat’s catchphrase goes. Jonathan Swift this guy aint. His style more resembles the MTV hit Punk’d, (or for those of us old enough to remember it, Candid Camera), Ashton Kutcher’s show devoted to playing pranks on unsuspecting celebrities. This is pretty much the same thing Cohen does in the scene with Ron Paul I mentioned earlier, and in one from Borat where he offers Bob Barr some cheese, and after he tastes it reveals it was made from his wife’s breast-milk. You just got punked, Bob Barr!

That’s the cheap part (and the cowardly part too, for real satire and political comedy boldly skewers taboos and received opinions, makes human foibles seem absurd, and speaks truth to the powerful, while nothing can be more calculated to garner applause from the media establishment than saying that America is racist). The dishonest part is found in a couple of cut scenes included in the special features. In one, Borat tries to adopt a dog, asking the lady helping him if he could train it to attack Jews. “Probably not,” she says. “Jews are Jesus’ children. She probably loves Jews.” Well this is typical Christian sentimentality and definitely not funny, but it is a striking counterexample to the “the tacit acceptance with which Borat’s ghoulish requests are greeted”. No wonder it wasn’t in the movie. Neither was a scene which included some real (albeit unintentional) political commentary on racism in contemporary America, in which Borat and his friend run into trouble with the police while driving around the city (I think it’s Houston) in an old ice-cream truck they’ve rented. The cop explains to them that as long as they drive around in a vehicle like that, looking like they do (that is, like Arabs), they’re going to be suspected of being terrorists and are bound to have future confrontations. I should point out that although the term “anti-Semitic” now almost always connotes anti-Jewish animus, Jews are only one of a group of Semitic peoples hailing from ancient Mesopotamia, which includes extinct cultures like the Akkadian, as well as Arabs. I would venture to say that if there is fear and hatred directed at any Semitic group, it would have to be the latter. Rather than confront that reality, Sacha Baron Cohen would prefer to resurrect irrelevant Jewish stereotypes from the middle ages. Borat itself, while shrewdly making its title character a Kazakh and therefore not Arab or Muslim, is rife with crude sterotypes.

In seeming to expose a racist, hate-filled center beneath the polite, tolerant crust of American society, Cohen was preceded by Theodor Adorno, an influential writer of the Frankfurt School, and German emigre who fled Hitler to find himself in Los Angeles. Influenced by Marx and Freud (which is a common enough combination of influences now, but was novel at the time), Adorno was a highly educated product of European high culture and detested both American capitalism and the popular culture it produced. He spent much of his career writing a doom-laden version of what is called “critical theory”, an odd combination of Marxism, sociology, and literary criticism, but in 1950 he participated in a study that was published as The Authoritarian Personality. The Frankfurt School theorists had come to the conclusion that the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany had less to do with the state or political factors than with a certain psychology prevalent in the German middle classes, which sublimated sado-masochistic desires and anxiety over social status into a demand for authoritarian leaders. While there may be some validity to the claim (indeed, it jibes somewhat with Mencken’s diagnosis of homo americanus), what is disturbing about their approach is the tendency to claim abnormal psychology as the origin of ideas deemed politically incorrect, thereby circumventing the need for rational debate and leading to the conclusion that some beliefs are best dealt with through institutionalization. Conservative scholar Paul Gottfried writes, in After Liberalism, about how this redefinition served the needs of a class of social engineers:

By defining emotional well-being as both a social good and the overcoming of what is individually and collectively dangerous, the behavioral scientists have been able to impose their absolutes upon a culturally fluid society. In The True and Only Heaven [left-wing populist writer Christopher] Lasch explores the implications for postwar politics of The Authoritarian Personality. A chief contributor to this anthology, Theodor Adorno, abandoned his earlier work as a cultural critic to become a proponent of governmentally imposed social therapy. According to Lasch, Adorno condemns undesirable attitudes as “prejudice,” and “by defining prejudice as a ‘social disease’ substituted a medical for a political idiom.” In the end, Adorno and his colleagues “relegated a broad range of controversial issues to the clinic- to ‘scientific’ study opposed to philosophical and political debate.” . . . . The Authoritarian Personality speaks about the need to “indoctrinate” the working class “so as to modify those attitudes centering around authoritarianism, which are more pronounced in this group than in most others.”

Adorno & Co. claimed to be working to defend a liberal democratic society against the fuhrer-principle that arose in Germany , but this was disingenuous, as the majority of them were lifelong communists (unless you think that a communist can be a liberal). It is no surprise that only traditionalist and conservative attitudes arise as the result of mental illness. In the Soviet Union, we now know, political dissidents were often locked up in mental asylums after being declared insane by the State’s psychiatrists. Ironically, the authors of this study may have skewed their readings of the data because of a psychological factor:  paranoia over anti-Semitism. “Almost all the contributors, such as Paul Lazarfeld, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Leo Loewenthal, and Bruno [Bruno, eh?] Bettelheim, were refugees from Nazism with Jewish ancestry.” Gottfried elaborates:

The obligatory focus in The Authoritarian Personality, anti-Semitism, skews the research in several ways. First, it exaggerates the depth and incidence of anti-Semitic prejudice in American life. It takes what even in 1950 was a residual bias, and probably not as widespread as anti-Catholic prejudice [or anti-Muslim prejudice today], and treats it as the leading danger to American political institutions. . . . They also link anti-Semitism arbitrarily to any critical attitudes expressed about the American welfare state. . . . More important than the assumption of unproved prejudice are the interpreters’ insistence that Mack’s [one of the interviewees] anti-Semitism typifies his attitude toward “outgroups like the Jews, Roosevelt and the Washington bureaucrats.” [I have to admit, I did a triple-take upon reading that Washington bureaucrats and Roosevelt, who nearly ruled as a crippled god-king in this land for over a decade, described as an “outgroup”- perhaps it was my anti-Semitism talking]. Curiously, Adorno himself in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, written during the war, had offered a far more devastating criticism of the modern bureaucratic state . . . Adorno attacked administrative collectivism as spurious democracy and identified it with a totalitarian development leading from the Enlightenment to Nazism.

I guess it never occurred to Adorno that if the average German in the 1930’s had been more suspicious and resentful of the Berlin bureaucracy, there might not have been a war or a holocaust. At any rate, Adorno was closer to the truth the first time around. Roosevelt’s New Deal was indistinguishable in all but cosmetic aspects and rhetoric from the fascist states of Germany and Italy. But then this would make its conservative opponents actually bulwarks against fascism, rather than its harbingers. But apparently a totalitarian bureaucracy is bad when “saving capitalism”, but okay if needed to combat anti-Semitism (as defined by those who run it, of course). Adorno was probably overreacting to the very real barbarism of Nazi Germany, but he may have helped give justification for a rise of a new secular priesthood of social engineers in the name of tolerance.

I am now back to where I began. Borat strikes me as a synthesis of The Authoritarian Personality and Punk’d. Cohen’s punking of Ron Paul serves far more effectively to marginalize his point of view, since those branded as crazy can be perceived as persecuted martyrs, while those who seem laughably un-hip have little chance, in this day and age, at being rehabilitated in the popular mind. Do I claim that this is what Cohen has specifically in mind? No, I really don’t think he wants anything more than a cheap laugh. But he serves as a useful proxy and frontman for the political class, such as Obama’s Attorney general Eric Holder who has accused the America of being a “nation of cowards” on racial issues. I might agree with that, though not quite in the way Holder thinks. According to Politico.com:

Holder said that the country is now a “fundamentally different” place than it used to be, but that the nation “still had not come to grips with its racial past, nor has it been willing to contemplate, in a truly meaningful way, the diverse future it is fated to have.”

Ominous words, those last. Accept the Brave New World your enlightened administrators have prepared for you, or stand accused of racial cowardice. As Robert Weissberg writes,

In a nutshell, if Holder and company get their way, white America is to be put on the couch and coaxed to confess its selective misanthropic urges, and that done, we can be properly weaned from the thoughtcrimes debilitating blacks.

And,

this focus on bad thinking breeds totalitarian measures just as it did in religious wars that decimated Europe. And make no mistake, if such forum come to pass, private life may return to the days when heresy regarding the official orthodoxy is a capital offense. Holder is right—we are cowards and for good reason, and it should stay that way.

The new Bruno movie will likely be the same contrived hatchet-job that Borat was, and considering the character probably doing for homophobia what the latter did for anti-(Jewish) semitism. It may be objected that I’m placing too much political baggage on a comedy. But other critics have already done that in praising Cohen’s brilliance. Although I think it’s possible to combine lowbrow comedy with political commentary, these films have neither the courage nor the intellegence for that. Admit that Sacha Baron Cohen has nothing worthwhile to say, that he excells in nothing more than madcap poo-flinging, and I’ll be rolling in the aisles along with the rest of you.

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2 Comments »

  1. I must say that for poo-flinging, Sacha Baron Cohen knows no equal. I thought that Borat was the funniest movie made that year, because of the gross-out, physical comedy that came from Cohen and the co-star (the Azamat guy.) I think that the movie can certainly be enjoyed that way, and it doesn’t make very strenuous demands on the part of the viewer to insist that we look at the REAL America being presented. Cohen puts funny first and politics second. I’d agree with you on the dishonesty of the film making. Not only is he very mean and sadistic in pigeonholing his random targets, but the watching smart people react (early on, as they often do) to the fact that it’s all a joke but they’re still trapped and the cameras are rolling makes you feel very embarrassed for them and that’s not terribly funny. I saw an interview with Cohen after Borat was made where he said that he chose Kazakhstan as the home of Borat because people didn’t know where Kazakhstan was and there’s not a lot of pre-existing stereotypes about Kazakhs. He’s basically trying to say that people are dumb because they don’t know where Kazakhstan is or what Kazakh people are like, so they deserve to be targets for his hijinks. But, Cohen forgets that Kazakhstan IS a real place and he’s denying that Kazakhs themselves could ever have a voice or opinion about what he’s doing because they MUST be totally disconnected with the real world, because people don’t know anything about them. By trying to satirize an actual place rather than a fictional, moronic country, Cohen makes himself look insensitive, ignorant, and kind of xenophobic. So why should we get on his side?

    Comment by Michael — March 22, 2009 @ 12:14 am | Reply

  2. I’ve been doing some more reading on this, and it appears that Cohen’s choice of Kazakhstan is one more example of his basic dishonesty, since it hides the fact that the Borat character is derived from Polish stereotypes. When Borat is ostensibly speaking Kazakh, it’s really Polish. The whole film is like one big Polish joke! It turns out also that making fun of Polish peasants is a staple of traditional Yiddish culture. You can read a negative review which discusses this, as well as accusing Cohen of misogyny and homophobia at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443453/usercomments-165. There’s definitely some interesting mass psychology at work here, as audiences get to laugh at types of people they feel superior to, while not feeling themselves racist since that racism is projected upon someone else. “Borat” astoundingly gets to have it both ways: it’s bigoted and PC- just the kind of comedy our age needs.

    Comment by rmangum — March 29, 2009 @ 7:39 pm | Reply


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