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Free Borat! By: Ben Johnson
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, November 03, 2006

The steady minds at the Anti-Defamation League have discerned that this weekend the Jewish people stand on the precipice of a new pogrom. No, it’s not due to Iran holding military maneuvers named the “Great Prophet.” It’s not from medieval Jewish conspiracy theories re-emerging in “moderate” Palestinian media. It’s from today’s opening of the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan – a movie starring a British-born Jewish comedian whose intent, the ADL acknowledges, is “to unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism.

The film putatively follows the adventures of Borat, one of the most influential journalists in all of Kazakhstan. (His sister is the nation’s fourth-ranking prostitute.) Along the way, unsuspecting Americans respond to the obnoxious, bigoted, yet disarmingly naïve inquiries of their foreign guest.


The comedic tension has produced uproarious results during its run on HBO’s Da Ali G Show. The brainchild of Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat freely spouts the virulent anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia stereotypical of a rural Muslim. However, Cohen takes pains to fleck his bigotry with liberal chunks of buffoonery, making his prejudice a laughingstock. He skillfully manipulates the conversation in such a way that when some of his targets let down their guard and reveal their own deep-seated resentments, they come across as nuts, imbeciles, and extremists. When Cohen goads a hunting enthusiast into suggesting Jews be classified as Big Game – or when he convinces an entire roadside bar to join him in singing a rousing chorus of “Throw the Jew down the well!” – the audience isn’t laughing with the mark.


This is, in fact, one of the objects of the film: to belittle hatred until it is laughed out of existence – surely a noble goal for a film that is otherwise dominated by bathroom humor. Borat is perhaps the most effective satire of anti-Semitism since Archie Bunker.


So, why is the ADL concerned that Borat's new movie will increase anti-Semitism? Because you’re too stupid to get it.


The ADL condemned the film, presumably sight unseen, via encyclical on Sept. 28. The statement confesses “there is absolutely no intent on the part of the filmmakers to offend, and no malevolence on the part of Sacha Baron Cohen, who is himself proudly Jewish. We hope that everyone who chooses to see the film understands Mr. Cohen's comedic technique, which is to use humor to unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism and other phobias born of ignorance and fear.” In fact, his “intent is to dash stereotypes, not to perpetuate them.” However, the ADL is “concerned” that “the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.


This is, in fact, the second time the Jewish civil rights organization condemned Borat. In response to the “Throw the Jew down the well” episode, the ADL wrote a letter on August 9, 2004, stating, “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 statements about Jews at face value.


At face value – what, that Jews have horns? That you have to watch out for their teeth?


The ADL acknowledged two years ago that Cohen’s segments are “vehicles by which you seek to unmask the absurd and the racism and homophobia that often go with it.” And the gatekeepers of tolerance asked him to please stop it.


Their absurdity lies in holding a guiltless actor liable for the reaction of his audience. By this logic, Jodie Foster was guilty of shooting President Reagan. Unstable or idiotic individuals may miss the point of a film. If they see Borat as reinforcing their prejudice, isn’t it revenge enough that eight dollars of their paycheck was diverted from purchasing an armband to line the pockets of a Jewish comedian who studied the American civil rights movement?


More disturbing is the chilling effect the charge has upon satirists and the cheapening of genuine prejudice. At one time, in order to be accused of anti-Semitism, one had to do express antipathy, hostility, or stereotypical derision of the Jewish people. Now, the ADL is condemning an egalitarian Jew for producing an anti-racist film on the grounds that some of his viewers might take home the exact opposite message of the one they acknowledge he sends. No good deed goes unpunished.


To add to the hypocrisy, this writer did not find any similar ADL warning about Mel Brooks’ brilliant play The Producers, nor the original film version, in which Brooks himself exclaims, “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty; come and join the Nazi Party.” Brooks – who also parodied Der Fuehrer in the films Blazing Saddles, History of the World Part I, and To Be or Not to Be as well as in his 1983 song “The Hitler Rap” – once explained, “It's been one of my lifelong jobs has been to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler.” When his play won the Tony award, he began his speech by saying, “I’d like to thank Hitler, for being so funny!” To inoculate the public against racism, laughter may indeed be the best medicine – as proven by Bunker, Brooks, and Borat.


The ADL spent 2004 sweating out a mythical backlash of white Christian fundamentalists who viewed The Passion, predicting 30 of the last zero Christian fundamentalist pogroms. While it’s refreshing that the ADL has momentarily suspended its harassment of conservative Republicans, Christian Zionists, and traditional Catholics (who may commune at a Latin Mass celebrated by a priest whose bishop was ordained by a cardinal whose aunt may have once listened to five minutes of a Fr. Coughlin sermon), its attention might be better focused elsewhere: on Iran’s nuclear saber-rattling, Fidel Castro’s legacy of repression, or Europe’s continual march to dhimmitude. It may move its spotlight from Sacha Baron Cohen to fellow Jews with a far more dubious rhetorical history: men like Norman Finkelstein, Israel Shahak – or even Noam Chomsky.


The only people who should be offended by Borat are the people of Kazakhstan and other Arabs, whom Cohen portrays as backward hatemongers. And the pathetic Western racists who view Borat as a hero, because they’re too stupid to realize the roar in the theatre is the civilized world laughing at them.



It is worth viewing Cohen’s other work on Da Ali G Show, in which he portrays a would-be white gangsta rapper who interviews unsuspecting political figures, of both sides of the political spectrum. Ralph Nader and Newt Gingrich comported themselveswell, considering. And Cohen’s send-up of environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists would thrill any South Park conservative.

Ben Johnson is Managing Editor of FrontPage Magazine and co-author, with David Horowitz, of the book Party of Defeat. He is also the author of the books Teresa Heinz Kerry's Radical Gifts (2009) and 57 Varieties of Radical Causes: Teresa Heinz Kerry's Charitable Giving (2004).

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