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Commentary

In Defense of “Borat”


     
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WASHINGTON—I don’t remember seeing more absurd charges leveled against a film than the comments I keep reading about “Borat,” British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s phenom. He ought to make another “mockumentary” just about the twisted interpretations his movie is giving rise to.

For those who have not seen it, “Borat” is a documentary by a faux Kazakh journalist who sets off on a journey across America, encountering as he drives from New York to Los Angeles ordinary people and shocking them with extremely politically incorrect antics designed to put cultural differences to the test.

Critics say “Borat” is anti-American. In fact, the U.S. government could not begin to match Borat’s contribution to the image of the United States abroad if it increased the budget of the under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs by a factor of 10. The most important thing the movie has done for America is to show that it is a society capable of laughing at itself. The millions of Americans who are flocking to the theaters are sending the message that they are able to look at themselves as if from outside. And that, precisely, is what made this country great in the first place. Economic power was a consequence of the self-critical mind. By contrast, when the Muslim world stopped looking at itself as if from outside, around the 11th century, it began its long decline.

The gags depicting intensely offensive situations with all sorts of real American people—the car salesman, the humor coach, the etiquette instructor, the feminists, the rodeo fans, the owner of the gun store, the Pentecostals, the students, and Pamela Anderson—actually dispel the idea that most Americans are militaristic, imperialistic and xenophobic. Not one of these people initially shows anything other than hospitality toward this weirdo who defies every social convention imaginable.

Yes, some of these people are anti-Semitic, homophobic, or inclined to think anyone who looks Middle Eastern or Central Asian is a terrorist. But that is nothing compared to the way Borat depicts Kazakhstan, a country that has more Muslims than Russian Orthodox Christians—and where people, according to him, drink horse urine and have cows in their bedrooms. If this is an anti-American movie, the Russian government would not have banned it in theaters there. In any case, the anti-Semitic and homophobic gags expose the stupidity of prejudice in any society.

I have read that Borat is a left-winger in disguise. This doesn’t square with his mockery of feminists (“give me a smile, baby, why the angry face”) and of a black politician with whom he discusses homosexuality. I have also read that Borat is a right-wing fascist. It doesn’t quite square with the scene at the rodeo in where he persuades the organizers to let him sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” only to launch into an intentionally satirical tirade against Iraq (“I hope you kill every man, woman, and child in Iraq, down to the lizards”). No, Borat is simply anarchic—there is no institution, idea, cultural value or government he does not find worthy of being picked apart through humor. It’s always healthy to take a second look at the way we all live.

Cohen as Borat has been accused of fraud for duping people by having them agree, sometimes for a fee, to be interviewed for a Kazakh documentary, not for movie screens the world over. But there are three redeeming factors here. One is the fact that all these people knew they were being filmed. Second, the racist, misogynist, anti-Semite or homophobic comments many of them made were for real; Borat’s genius consisted of merely prompting them. Third, and more definitively, Borat never breaks character and takes the joke to the ultimate consequences, refusing to shed the pretense even when he gets into potentially life-threatening situations. There is real commitment here.

We live in a time when cultural diversity has become a cloak for intolerance on the part of two very different groups. One group uses multiculturalism to excuse authoritarian impositions by those who purport to speak for minority groups. The other group thinks any unconventional conduct is a threatening “cultural value” that needs to be countered. Taking all of this apart with profane and offensive humor is something we badly needed to clear the air we breathe.


Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His Independent Institute books include Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America, Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.

(c) 2006, The Washington Post Writers Group

  New from Alvaro Vargas Llosa!
GLOBAL CROSSINGS: Immigration, Civilization, and America
The erosion of national boundaries—and even the idea of the nation state—is already underway as people become ever more inter-connected across borders. A jungle of myth, falsehood and misrepresentation dominates the debate over immigration. The reality is that the economic contributions of immigration far outweigh the costs.






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