The current Borat movie has audiences rolling in the aisles over the premise that America is a narrow, intolerant, homosexual-hating, anti-Semitic nation unmasked by the comedian masquerading as a Moslem.
I'd like to offer a different interpretation. I think it shows clearly that Americans are by far the most tolerant, cordial, open and accommodating people in the world.
Just look at what happens in the movie. When approached by a weird-talking, weird-acting foreign guy from a strange country, what did the vast majority of the people do? They sat down to be interviewed by him, they allow him in their homes and offices to be videotaped, they sat there politely and try to be cordial while his behavior becomes ever more bizarre and insulting, and they demur occasionally when he makes anti-Semitic or anti-homosexual remark.
At least that's what we're allowed to see. According to the current issue of Rolling Stone, Alan Keyes, the former Republican candidate for President, didn't cooperate. When Borat sat down with him, the first thing he did was offer a gift he said was the "bone of a Jew." Keyes immediately ripped off the microphone, stalked off the set and refused to cooperate anymore. Of course you don't see that in the film. The great power of the documentary filmmaker is the power to edit the final cut.
A friend of my son just spent six months in Japan and was amazed at the cultural differences. If you ask a store clerk for batteries, he said, they will run to get them and run back, expressing gratitude all the way. Everyone in the country is extraordinarily polite.
But that's only half the story. The other half is that Japan is 98 percent ethnically pure. They don't like foreigners and don't allow immigration. In order to vote, you have to show your ancestors go back four generations -- to about the time of the American Revolution. After a fierce national debate, the 1990 Immigration Act opened the door to foreigners who could prove they had Japanese ancestry going back three generations. A lot of Japanese Brazilians repatriated -- and even that caused resentment. Yet of course we regard Japan a democracy, a Western ally and a relatively open economy -- in other words, our friend. I doubt Borat would be able to make his movie over there.
THIS IS ALL IMPORTANT to keep in mind as we try to figure out what to do next in Iraq. The premise of the war is that we are going to establish democracy in the Middle East. That will make Middle Easterners more like us, reduce the poverty and violence in Muslim societies, and make them more accepting of Israel. Frankly, I don't think it's going to work. The Iraqis are still tribal. As someone said, that last vote wasn't really an election but a census. Sunnis voted for Sunni, Shi'ia for Shi'ia and Kurds for Kurds. To have a democracy you need a fairly sophisticated population. That doesn't exist in Iraq.
Oh sure, you can always find some educated Westernized leader who will say all the things we want to hear. Heather Robinson described one in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago -- Mithal al-Alusi, head of the Iraqi Nation Party, which claims all of 15,000 members.
Not only does Mr. al-Alusi champion values many in the West hope will define the new Iraq, he has risked his life -- and lost more than his life -- for the cause. In September 2004 he attended a counterterrorism conference in Herzliya, Israel.
For this, insurgents attempted to assassinate him and murdered both his sons in the process. "He has not given up the fight," says Robinson. "How can we?"
You can't argue with Mr. Al-Alusi's heroism but it is also important to ask whether we can attach our hopes -- and place American soldiers' lives in danger -- to back a man who represents 15,000 people in a country of 25 million. This is how we got in trouble in Vietnam, by getting attached to a thin, Westernized elite who were themselves essentially aliens in their own country.
America is a remarkably cosmopolitan, tolerant country where people allow idiot foreigners to come into their homes and set up television cameras because they are open to new things and don't feel threatened by them. I personally wouldn't want it any other way. I disagree completely with Dennis Prager and those conservatives who are trying to prevent Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison from swearing in on the Koran. I think people should be allowed to practice any religious faith they want.
But it is very unrealistic to expect the rest of the world to act the same way. It won't. And it isn't going to for a long, long time.
I THINK OUR BEST STRATEGY right now is to let Iraq sink or swim -- but not necessarily to expect the worst. There is something oddly compelling about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "letter to the American people." Why not allow him to join the discussion? After all, Iran will be living cheek-by-jowl with Iraq much longer than we will. Whatever influence the Iranian Shi'ia have in Iraq, it will be offset by Sunni intervention from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and so on. They can do a much better job of calming the civil war than we ever will. The Sunnis and Shi'ia have been killing each other for centuries. If we can put them under the glare of world opinion, they may learn to get along better -- which would make the whole Muslim world less lethally violent.
Of course the lurking danger here is that once all Muslims, Sunni and Shi'ia, get together, they will try to destroy Israel. That isn't going to happen either. We can offer a conventional and nuclear umbrella. But we don't have to invade the Middle East to maintain this protection. It's like West Berlin -- there's an extreme vulnerability but we just let them know that any incursion triggers a much wider and more catastrophic war.
America is a democratic exception in a tribal world, a place where ethnic loyalties are largely forgotten, where people are open and tolerant, and where we use this cooperation to create a rich and prosperous society. That's why most people in the world would like to live here. But let's lead by example, rather than trying to impose our tolerance on everyone else.