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November 17, 2006

Borat and Anti-Semitism
Posted by Michael Signer

At the risk of forever marking myself as a dour, humorless scold (see my critique of Talladega Nights, to which one reader, "Mikedbot," crisply responded, "I don't think you fully understood the movie, but then I don't think I fully understood your post.") I want to say here that I thought Borat was a problematic movie -- and even risky. 

I was heartened to read a story yesterday on CNN where Sacha Baron Cohen found himself on the defensive about the film's obsessive anti-Semitism.  His argument:

He said he always had faith in the audience to realize this was a fictitious country and the mere purpose of it was to allow people to expose their own prejudices.

"I think part of the movie shows the absurdity of holding any form of racial prejudice, whether it's hatred of African-Americans or of Jews," said Baron Cohen, a devout Jew who keeps Kosher and observes the Sabbath when he can.

There is a fine line between entertainment and satire; there is another fine line between satire and education.  I don't believe the movie even crosses to satire, much less education.  And this is because of its strangely obsessive, almost totally raw, depiction of anti-Semitism.

If you've seen the movie, you'll recall the scenes.  Near the beginning, a parade is depicted in Borat's fictive Kazakhstan, where enormous papier-mache heads of two iconically devilish Jews are being walked through a crowd of jeering, violent laypeople.  The heads have horns, enormous, crooked noses, and leering, rapacious expressions.  Later, Borat accidentally takes up residence in a bed and breakfast run by a friendly Jewish couple.  Afraid that his food has been poisoned, he escapes through a window.  At another point, he goads a fraternity brother on a bus into overt and unabashed anti-Semitic statements about Jews.

What's most striking about these events in the movie is that they receive no critical treatment, no synthesis into a larger idea.  We do not see Cohen's express aim -- "to allow people to expose their own prejudices" -- translated into what he claims is the larger purpose -- to "show the absurdity of holding any form of racial prejudice."

Borat's vulgar and clumsy treatment of other minorities in the film -- African-Americans, gypsies, and women, to name three -- is relatively mild, comic, and always resolved in a way that highlights his idiocy and the relatively attractive and sympathetic character of the groups he's vilified.  To take the most prominent example, the character actually ends up falling in love with a sweet-dispositioned African-American prostitute, thereby expressly giving the lie to his earlier jokes.  The film, in this instance, seems dedicated not just to satire but to education.

Not so with anti-Semitism.  There is no true rehabilitation of a Jewish character, and no "absurdity."  On the contrary, there is an unreflected-on earnestness in the film's depiction of anti-Semitism.  There is no commentary, for instance, on the frat boys' crudeness in the bus.  The parade where the Jewish puppets are beaten does not lead to some sort of larger comic commentary on the citizens.  It is absurd, but to those who might not get the joke, it is not explained to be absurd.  For many, I fear, these moments will remain simple entertainment -- not the "exposure of prejudice" Cohen claims they are.

I'm sure the underlying joke is that, because Cohen himself is a devout Jew, any and all depictions of anti-Semitism are funny.  But they're not really that funny.  They don't really work.  I used to have a couple of friends who did stand-up comedy, and they always maligned the shallowness and unfunniness of the "easy" joke -- obsessively making fun of handicapped people, say.  The jokes are fragile and easily turn unfunny because they don't really turn on any actual adventuresomeness on the comic's part.  They are plodding, methodical, and do not spin off into the sort of rocket-burst of insight that makes a truly funny joke funny.  So it goes with Borat.

My deepest concern is that, because the film does not really aim for insight, it will simply cast seeds of prejudice in the hearts of some people who watch it and see the grossest depiction of anti-Semitism for the first time.  You now have a generation of American youth who have grown up for the most part free and clear of the horrendous, inherited myths about Jewishness that haunted European societies and, directly and indirectly, led to the Holocaust -- the rapacious, hook-nosed drinkers of children's blood; the horns and tails; the killers of Christ.  For many American youth today, these would be myths as archaic and mysterious as the notion that women were congenitally unable to vote; or that African-Americans have brains smaller than those of Caucasian descent.

But, no more.  Now, thanks to this number-one comedy, tens of thousands of American youth now have the image dancing in their heads of iconic Jewish puppets being beaten by crowds of angry people -- with no commentary, no historical information, no attempt to enlighten.  Yes, the B&B couple are sweet and make Borat appear to be a total ass, in that scene -- but I fear that it's not enough. 

Keep in mind -- we are still at a place where George Allen, a sitting U.S. Senator, upon revealing that he was of ethnic Jewish descent, would feel the need to reassure his audience by saying it was "just an interesting nuance to my background" and adding this stunner:

"I still had a ham sandwich for lunch. And my mother made great pork chops."

Allen's statement was absurd, and I believe said more about him than Virginia or the nation.  But still.  There can be a cost to entertainment, and I think that Cohen himself probably understands this.  There is a defensive, improbable tone to the concluding paragraph in the CNN story on the interview with him.

Cambridge-educated Baron Cohen said his parents "love" the Jewish humor in Borat, and his 91-year-old maternal grandmother even went to a midnight screening in Israel, then phoned to compliment him.

Indeed.  Cohen's parents "loved" the parade scene?  If true, it explains a lot.  If not true, then Cohen is living inside the same twisted world that  his film depicts but does not resolve. 

But -- aside from all this -- I would admit the movie was very funny... the scene where Borat sings at the rodeo, for instance, had me doubled over.  So I'm not really a total scold -- just a selective one, I guess. 


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I myself prefer real-life humor over message movies.

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I haven't seen the movie, but having seen Baron-Cohen's Borat schtick a few times on television, I don't think you have quite put your finger on what's really disturbing about his act and approach.

Everybody gets the fact that Borat is an absurd, ridiculous, way over the top caricature. But what is he a caricature of? Satire works by exaggeration: by turning something real and truly bad into something comically ridiculous by augmenting its worst features beyond real proportions. By ridiculing antisemitism and misogyny, Baron-Cohen seeks to call attention to it and critique it through humor. But who is Baron-Cohen implicitly accusing of such egregious antisemitism? Borat is not just a "generic bigot". He comes marked with many stock identifiers of particular places. The effect of Baron-Cohen's routine, as I see it, is to slander a huge (though somewhat indistinct) class of people.

Borat purports to come from Kazakhstan, but his character is also vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely eastern European and vaguely Central Asian. These are all parts of the traditional "orient" in Western European and American eyes. My sense is that Baron-Cohen is saying: "Yea, I'm making light of anti-semitism and ridiculing it. But my satire has the serious purpose of pointing to the monstrous antisemitism of all those evil and ignorant "eastern" peoples." I find it very frustrating that so many critics and commentators willfully ignore this part of Baron-Cohen's routine, or pretend these identifying components of the Borat character incidental - as though Baron-Cohen settled on the geographical and cultural background of Borat by a random choice.

While purporting to mock bigotry, Baron-Cohen's Borat is itself just as much a bigoted pastiche as earlier English comic depictions of the Irish, white anglo 60's comedians mockery of "wetbacks", and early Hollywood's racist portrayals of blacks as comically ignorant and fearful. Baron-Cohen himself is obviously filled with hate and contempt for the people who occupy the broad region he mocks, and he pulls eagerly from the bag of eastern stereotypes.

Lots of kid's see this movie. They are more sophisticated than you make them out to be. They are not going to come away with any positive feelings about antisemitism. They get that joke. But they are going to come away with is the view that Borat's lampoon of Kazakhstan and its environs is roughly on target, and that the antisemitism and misogyny out there are roughly as blatant, hateful and murderous as Baron-Cohen suggests they is.

Baron Cohen's absurdist depictions of his fictitious oriental locations in Borat is something like Mel Brooks's "Springtime for Hitler" number in The Producers. Nobody who saw that film could possibly interpret it as containing any endorsement of Nazism or antisemitism. Everyone gets the obvious joke, but the joke they get is that staging a light musical about Hitler truly would be outrageous because of the grossly inappropriate incongruity between the gravity of the evil and the comic lightness of the treatment.

The same is true of Borat. Everybody gets the joke that his character's antisemitism and misogyny are absurd and cartoonish. But what some then go on to assume is that the cartoon is designed to make a gravely serious satiric point about the awful antisemitism misogyny of someone. Of whom then? Well, it's those people out in the "stans" of course: those ignorant, backward, violent, authoritarian, beard-and-mustache wearing, women-hating, jew-hating "others".

I think Mikedbot was on to something. I would suggest lightening up just a tad...

Go see the movie.


If there was any doubt about his point with the anti-semitism, it is removed in the part where Borat and his producer go to a bed and breakfast, only to find that it is run by a very nice, non-threatening, elderly Jewish couple. Their reaction unambiguously makes them look ridiculous, not the Jewish couple.

To Mr. Kervick, the target is not the stans but us. There were several scenes in the movie where real Americans echo, applaud, or even top his racist remarks like before when he sings the national anthem at a rodeo, tells the crowd he supports America's "war of terror" and cheer wildly as he escalates the absurdity, up to and including when he says that Bush should kill every Iraqi and drink their blood. He got similar extremes of racism in the othe sequences. In the dinner party scene, they tolerate him calling one of the guests retarded, implying that a woman at the table is not attractive, and going to the bathroom and bringing back his feces in a glad bag. But when a BLACK hooker he called shows up...well, THAT is just going too far.

The episodes of anti-Semitism are meant to reflect the common stereotype that Muslims are hateful toward Jews and that Jews do not live in Muslim countries (both are entirely false).

These scenes are as poignant in their representations of American misconceptions about Muslims as the scenes depicting misogyny, bad hygiene, and socially-backwards in general. All of this you pointed out, of course. However, I think that the movie made it's point by triggering your annoyance. That's what it's meant to do. The movie addresses issues that run through the heads of most Americans, but that nobody dares to mention, much less joke about.

In short, "Borat" a crass movie, but valuable because it exposes issues which make us uncomfortable--that is, they irk us because they hit very close to home. Only things that have truth in them can offend us.

The world could do with some more outrage and insults. Tolerance is not learned without objects and ideas to be tolerant of and tolerance is exactly what we need more of. It is good for the health of society that it is mocked and insulted. Bravo. We need more insulting movies, books, and cartoons- especially more cartoons.

It's the people that tell us there is some right not to be offended or insulted that are the danger. Better we had 100 more Borats.

I haven't seen the movie, because what I have seen on TV -- mainly the SNL bit, but also his appearance on the Tonight Show -- has been sufficiently stupid and insulting to my intelligence that it is hard for me to conceive of it getting BETTER with more watching. Trying to decide whether I don't like it because it is insulting to Jews, or because it is insulting to me, seems like a real waste of time.

One attitude that I find a little bizarre is the notion that if you don't watch a "crass" movie all the way through to derive the deeper meaning, you must be a Philistine. It could just be that I don't find his shtick about feces and sex with sheep very interesting. To me, if "Borat" is anything like its trailer and like its publicity, it's a lousy movie.

It is not an issue of a "right not to be offended" -- if people want to watch it, go for it. But I am sure I could come up with better ways to spend 2 hours. And $8.50.

where was Islam specifically mentioned at all? I think Cohen was mocking the crass anti-semitism still alive and well in old Xtian Europe, especially in the backwards, oppressed regions of the old Soviet Block.

you know, as much ass all of your complain and rant, what it comes down to is this: you cannot arrest Baron-Cohen for his movie, he is exercising free speech. if everyone who released something someone objected to was penalized, there would be no art. if you are not going to punish him for his actions, there is nothing you can do, since he is not likely to care about some whiners when he is making a lot of money. now, are you going to waste your time posting your opinions on the internet, or are you just going to make sure you don't let your children watch it (or explain your point of view to them if they do) and shut up?

I havent seen the movie, but the conflict between Michael and Dans perspective on the movie actually make me want to see it. There is something powerful and interesting about how this guy has sparked so much dialogue about just what is 'wrong' with his movie. I have always wondered whether Mel Brooks could have pulled off 'Blazing Saddles' today, given the extremes of the rightist class warriors and the leftist PC police. He was even kind enough to explain the joke in the ending, to help those who might not get the joke along a bit. Perhaps Baron-Cohen has found a sweet spot where these themes can still be thoughtfully examined in our society through natural experiment, without the knee-jerk canned memes that have solidified around discussions of race and class in the U.S getting in the way.

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