Sexual Fables

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Letters from Africa

Borat and anti-Semitism


I am a big Borat fan but I think Sacha Baron Cohen unwittingly strayed into the very thing he criticizes. Whether he likes it or not, his use of Kazakhstan is racist and Kazakhs got upset (as did Roma, the Gypsies). Maybe that doesn't bother you but Cohen professes to be surprised at this - not a good sign if you are setting yourself up as exposing anti-Semitism. It's - well - hypocrisy.

It happens to most satirists. Of course, it wouldn't have been as effective if he'd made up a country. Comedy always hurts somebody -- see Team America: World Police for a film that works better because its targets can take the hits. It directly attacks hypocrisy itself, whereas Cohen's satire is a form of incitement directed at people who aren't habitual hypocrites.

Before and after the release of Borat the film, the most interesting critiques were from Jewish writers, worried that American Christians were being insulted, but none leapt to defend Muslim-majority Kazakhstan.

One took Cohen to task for "an unintentionally revealing demonstration of the unfortunate attitude many liberal Jews have toward working-class American Christians, especially evangelicals" (Washington Post)

A second wrote "we are concerned that the irony may have been lost on some of your audience — or worse, that some of your viewers may have simply accepted Borat’s statement about Jews at face value" (in response to the 2004 Da Ali G Show episode with "Throw the Jew Down the Well" in a country and western bar in Arizona).

That's the trouble with irony... In an interview with Rolling Stone, Cohen's position was that he was revealing either anti-Semitism or indifference to anti-Semitism. He's wrong in the sense that this is only a small part of what he's revealing really (that's another story), but he's right to do what he does since like all good comedians he is putting risky subjects on the table for discussion.

Perhaps one day he will satirize stereotypes within the Jewish community (some of the e-mail blasts I'm on are appallingly racist about Arabs), but that's a risky career move too. No one else would be interested.

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