Kazakh like me?
and stop worrying
When I was a prof at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, I would regularly show my combined classes Dr. Strangelove: Or How I learned to Love the Bomb and Stop Worrying. Though Peter Sellers's sinister portrayal of Werner von Braun is dated, most of my students got the point about the absurdities of US nuclear war strategies.
Peter Sellers came to mind a few days ago when I saw Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. In many ways Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat seems to be channeling Sellers's most famous character, the bumbling Inspector Clouseau.
Both are satirical figures; clueless foreigners poking fun at society's conventions. Each takes himself very seriously but greatly overestimate his social skills, particularly when it comes to English. The humor is mostly physical as both stumble through inevitable misunderstandings with a host of straight men and women. They even look similar with their brushy mustaches.
Of course everyone knows that Sellers is acting. His foils are actors like himself. Their humorous encounters are tightly scripted plots. Cohen, on the the hand, improvises with real, unsuspecting people. There gullibility is assured because, as far as I know, Cohen plays Kazakhistan's #2 journalist with a straight face every time he has appeared in the media. Just check out his recent appearance on The Tonight Show with Martha Stewart.
That being said, everyone is now in on the joke whether they like it or not. Cohen's mocumentary of a Central Asian's excellent adventures in US and A is playing to sold-out audiences. Two of the frat-boys appearing in the film are suing him for defamation of character. And the blogosphere is awash with cultural critics arguing, not whether it's funny, but whether it's appropriate.
Not surprisingly, the lefty champions of a multi-culti, politically correct America are loudly declaring that scenes like The Running of the Jews are not funny ... period. Those farther to the right damn Cohen with faint praise. Christopher Hitches sniffs, that while his ridicule of painfully polite Americans exposing their prejudices may be spot-on, Cohen is no Lenny Bruce.
The debate brings me back to Dr. Strangelove. One of my students, a young German woman on a one-year exchange, thought the film was dreadful. How could anyone make fun of such a serious issue as nuclear war? At first I thought the criticism reflected the stereotypical sternness of the humorless German left. Why didn't she just relax and enjoy the film? Didn't she realize that good satire does speak truth to power?
What I didn't realize until I saw Borat is that her response had a strong personal context. For the later quarter of the 20th Century, Europeans (especially Germans) knew that nuclear war between the USSR and the US would devastate, if not destroy, their continent. That this could be a laughing matter to Americans was yet more proof of our gross arrogance towards the rest of the world.
With Borat, Cohen wickedly targets the very same arrogance. Despite two wars, one in the Middle East and the other on the borders of Central Asia, most Americans still know next to nothing about these two regions. To be sure, the folks he runs into are cringingly hospitable. At times, as with the earnest Pentecostals and the drunken frat boys, they can be downright sweet.
But I don't think, as many have written, that Cohen's genius lies in exposing us as insincere, racist hosts. American as well as foreign comics have been doing this in cultural drag for years. Who can't forget Andy Kaufman's East European bumbler, Latka Gravis?
Cohen's genius lies in forcing Americans to confront the paradoxical reality of our global power. Most of us; whether blue-staters or red, racist or tolerant, cosmopolitan or parochial, truly believe that America is the greatest nation in the world. Most of us honestly believe that everyone out there, no matter how odd, wants to be here. In other words, there is no such thing as a foreigner; merely a potential American.
All this we believe despite a context in which every day our government kills or supports those who kill significant numbers of these potential Americans. We all should remember this the next time a befuddled and perplexing foreigner inconveniently stumbles across our path. It might just improve our sense of humor and protect us from those embarrassing moments on YouTube.