Martin Luther King famously described dreaming of a day when his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Racial and ethnic stereotyping hasn’t been eliminated in the 43 years since he said that, but it has been diminished a good deal.
Tolerance has disappeared for Polish jokes, Italian jokes, Chinese jokes, even Dumb Blonde jokes — in short jokes the teller uses to proclaim his/her superiority by demeaning others.
The only exception: lawyer jokes, because lawyers chose their trade; it was not an accident of birth.
Now comes a movie in which Sacha Baron Cohen, an Orthodox Jewish comedian from England, plays Borat, a supposed television reporter from Kazakhstan in Central Asia, touring the United States interviewing Americans supposedly at random. His ostensible purpose is to learn about America and Americans and report his findings to his government. (The full title of the film is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.) Cohen’s intention is to satirize sexism, racism and other isms by getting his real-life interview subjects to say bigoted things. With the exception of a couple of South Carolina college students, however, his subjects are scrupulously polite, not quite sure what to make of this boorish, racist, sexist yokel from afar.
Some of the scenes are very funny and if an Oscar were awarded for best pre-release hype, this film would win it, but a new genre it is not. Rather, it is the latest twist in faux reality television which began decades ago with Candid Camera. In media interviews, Cohen always appears in character as Borat. We never see or hear the man behind the role, thus reinforcing the “realism” of Borat and the impression that Kazakhstan and its people are fit subjects of merriment.
While Cohen’s Borat fails to show that ordinary Americans are hopeless bigots, his satiric technique tells us he thinks that making an entire country and its people the butt of his shtick is okay. Thus, we “learn” that in Kazakhstan fermented horse urine is the national drink (it is actually fermented mare’s milk, an acquired taste, to be sure); most women are prostitutes (Borat’s sister is the country’s Number Four hooker); and mentally handicapped citizens are caged. At one point, Borat introduces his 11-year-old son and the boy’s wife along with their baby, which is for sale.
The audience understands this is all for laughs, but not one in a million Americans is going to take the trouble to learn about the real Kazakhstan, so will be left with the impression that, at best, it is a very backward place.
In reality, it is very rich in oil and other minerals; a big producer of wheat; has 15 million people (about the population of The Netherlands) in an area larger than all Western Europe. The Kazakhs are descendants of the soldiers of Genghis Khan. When they settled in Central Asia, they did so as nomads, moving about the steppe as their livestock sought greener pastures. They lived in yurts, ingeniously efficient, comfortable structures that could be easily folded and packed on the backs of horses.
The horse is central to Kazakh culture. It was a faithful worker to the nomads. When it died, virtually every part of it was used: meat, skin, tail, hooves. The Kazakhs love horse meat, as well as fermented mare’s milk.
Kazakhstan was the first of the former Soviet states to voluntarily give up all nuclear weapons after the collapse of the USSR.
Democracy has been coming gradually but steadily to Kazakhstan — not as quickly as government opponents would like, but inexorably. The middle class is growing. The country has a steadily growing per-capita Gross Domestic Product (now $8,300 annually). Its capital, Astana, once a dusty wheat-loading railroad town, is filled with handsome new buildings. Almaty, the business center, has a dramatic mountain backdrop and many cultural activities.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev is playing the good sport, saying he understands that Borat is all in fun. I’d bet that in private he doesn’t think it’s very funny. Meanwhile, Cohen, co-producer Jay Roach, and director Larry Charles are laughing all the way to the bank, proving that at least one kind of bigotry is acceptable in Hollywood.
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