If you haven't heard this word yet, it's safe to assume you are severely isolated, hostile to everything that you assume goes on outside the confines of the hole in which you live. Well, friend, via the non-infringing medium of the printed word, let me try to enlighten you on the cultural phenomenon known as Borat.
Borat — brainchild of the extraordinary Sacha Baron Cohen (not to be confused with the also amazing figure skater Sasha Cohen) — is a television persona played by his creator. This character, an extroverted, culturally sheltered, curious journalist from an archaic-seeming Kazakhstan, and he originated on Cohen's "Da Ali G Show" (a hit comedy program in the U.K.). In a recently released movie, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," Borat is commissioned by his native government to accomplish essentially what the title implies — observe American culture to advance his own.
Flaunting Borat's anti-Semitic, chauvinistic, homophobic, racist personality whenever given the chance, Cohen, brought up in an Orthodox Jewish family, exempts his character from typical limitations on comedic excess and exempts himself from limitations imposed by common sense. The result: total hilarity.
But Sacha Baron Cohen does more than provide the audience with a laugh.
In seeking to observe American culture to "make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan," Cohen quickly and effectively slices through the fictitious moral pedestal of the United States, exposing the many ills that plague this society. Utilizing the guise of Borat to his advantage in a flawless manner, Cohen is able to provide a more accurate picture of reality than any "real" journalist could ever dream of. The actor employs his fictional character in such a way that almost every response he procures is purely candid.
In an age where many people believe that the most extreme forms of American prejudice were left behind in 1955, "Borat" provides an alarming reminder of the many cultural circles throughout the United States wherein extreme ignorance, isolation and fear combine to create the worst kind of hatred. Speaking to a rodeo audience, Borat is exulted with cheers for both his expressed support of "your war of terror," and for his proclaimed hopes that "Premier George W. Bush will drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq." The character receives boos only when he begins to sing the lyrics of his own national anthem to the tune of the United States' (a brilliantly funny concept made only funnier by the absurd lyrics of the supposed Kazakh national anthem).
Other fruitful instances of Cohen's muckraking abound.
In a modern glimpse of southern aristocracy, Borat is expelled from a Gone-With-the-Wind-style dinner party, not because he brings a bag of his own excrement to the table, but because his scantily clad "girlfriend" — a black woman — shows up at the door (at which point the police are immediately called). While binge drinking in a RV full of frat boys, Borat's exclamation of surprise at the lack of slavery in the United States is met by the young men's sorry lament that the situation is so. In a gun shop, Borat's stated purpose for purchasing a firearm — "killing Jews" — is simply brushed off by a proprietor eager to make a sale. And upon hearing Borat's claim that homosexuals are executed in Kazakhstan, one man says, "That's what we're trying to get done here." It is these and many other examples in "Borat" that comprise Cohen's depiction of the moral void in American culture — a void perhaps as glaring as even that of the movie's fictional Kazakh culture.
In order to properly accredit Cohen for his revealing glimpse into America's underbelly, the unfair representation of Kazakhstan he provides must first be explained. One might forgive Cohen — a Cambridge scholar who wrote his thesis on the role of Jews in the American Civil Rights Movement — because his characterization of the central Asian country could be considered a long-due chance at revenge toward a culture notorious for its vicious anti-Semitism and historically infamous for its Jewish purges. On the other hand, maybe Cohen's Kazakhstan is simply something to be taken lightly and laughed off.
A more worrisome concern might be a possible misinterpretation of "Borat." The Anti-Defamation League, in a statement issued last month, acknowledged the positive message conveyed by "Borat," but also expressed reservations concerning whether every audience would be "sophisticated enough to get the joke." How disheartening it would be to hear people reciting the most offensive lines from "Borat," not sarcastically, but in a manner of agreement.
Perhaps, though, these few who so badly miss Cohen's point will simply expose their ignorance to a public that — having seen "Borat" — is better informed of the harmful nature of such a mindset. This is what Cohen is aiming for.
And, so far, I think he is succeeding.
Rob Rossmeissl ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism and political science.