Bigotry in Translation
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, March 12, 2007
Borat behaving well
For those of us in the extraordinary rendition program known as early-childhood parenthood, particularly those of us on scribes’ salaries who can afford neither nannies nor babysitters, nor even illegal aliens (who’d command higher wages in our book for having to deal with so much more crap), seeing movies at the movie theater has the pre-historic feel of the Lascaux cave paintings (I’m not knocking the paintings. They exceed the beauty of all seven greatest wonders of the world combined). So it was only on Saturday that Cheryl and I got our hands on the “Borat” DVD. We’d known the skit from its Ali G incarnations. We were curious about its ability to carry over into a full-length feature, or live up to its hype. We were only somewhat disappointed.
It’s not that the movie isn’t funny. It was explosively so at times. Only what makes it funny has too much of a necessary feel about it. It’s funny as long as you’re in on the unfunny prevalence of various bigotries in the United States. It’s also funny because American gullibility enables it to be funny—to get that far before the intended targets catch on. But for Borat to get that far he must rely on an underlying American naiveté, an initial acceptance of otherness that, all bigotries aside, is one of this country’s most endearing, and by foreigners most unappreciated, qualities: Americans instinctively give the benefit of the doubt to the weird, the foreign, the inexplicable. They may turn on you once they realize where you’re coming from. But their initial impulse is welcoming, un-cynical, unquestioning to a fault. They don’t just want to know you. They like to know you (as long as their sense of control of the situation is unquestioned, as long as they’re the tour guide and you’re the docile follower).
At its best it’s a wonderful impulse, and it’s rare in other cultures—where immense hospitality, as in Arab cultures, should not be mistaken for a suspension of mistrust and guardedness; those are never suspended. Or in European cultures where a mistrust cajoling cynicism and condescension not only aren’t suspended, but compete for expression depending on where you happen to be. Borat couldn’t do as well in other cultures because he couldn’t get his camera crews and his character that far into other cultures’ set pieces of prejudicial comfort before being booted out. The world laughs at America through Borat’s eyes only because American openness in that regard, its unwitting impulse to play along even as it’s being played, enables the joke. It’s not that Americans are more bigoted. It’s that they hide their bigotries so much less, so poorly, that they come off looking like bigotry’s champions. They’re not. I’d much rather see bigotry in the open than have to suffer its consequences from mysterious sources. In that regard, America is extremely cooperative. And it cooperated with Borat very well.
That said, the movie had its strengths in utterly funny and tragic moments and its weaknesses in mildly mean moments as well: It’s not exactly feminists’ fault that they’re compulsively humorless, that doctors are flatly inquisitive, that bankers aren’t into sexual bartering, at least not openly, and what they stand for certainly isn’t quite a fault, though Borat uses them all as equal-opportunity springboards to his demolishing humor. We want him to demolish. But his strikes could be more surgical once in a while, and less reliant, again and again, on the furry qualities of Kazakh pubes and his sister’s vaginal turnpike.
I’m not of the opinion that it’s not quite funny to make fun of things one can do nothing about, as Borat is told early on by the humor coach he spends a few moments with. The scene illustrates the hypocrisy of American fairness, when it comes to humor. The coach tells him people can do nothing about mental retardation, so it’s off limits. But why is it so easy for people to make fun of cultural differences, which people can’t do much about either? For that matter I can do nothing about my father’s death, or my impending one (no matter when it comes), or about my mother’s terminal illness, or my Arab blood, or my own retardation when it comes to math or literary criticism or telling a joke. But it’d be a hell of a depressing life if those things were taken too seriously. Everything is fair game, the subjects closest to one’s nerves especially, as Roberto Benigni or Spike Lee would be first to tell you. It’s a matter of treatment of course. Spike Lee and Sacha Baron Cohen aren’t Andrew Dice Clay. And some things are fairer game than others. Those are the things in which “Borat” excels: Racism, classism, sexism and Confederate, heritage-bred stupidity, even religiously induced retardation, which unfortunately isn’t made fun of enough, though it’s one of the most potently destructive forces corroding reason and civilization. At his best, Sacha-Borat brings out the worst in people, the very people who stand on presumptions of virtue, of god, patriotism and pater familias. All those elements come together in the Borat scene at the Salem, Virginia rodeo—not only in the movie as Cohen renders it, but in the surreal reality that accompanied Cohen’s appearance at the rodeo, in the news reports that followed and the way those involved reinforced the very bigotries the scene laid bare.
The rodeo organizer in Salem, Virginia, is John Saunders, assistant director at the Salem Civic Center. He’s a thinnish, late fiftyish, whitish, bespectable man, the whitebread look of the father of six who preaches on Wednesdays and Sundays and does the rodeo for extra pennies and duty to country: pleasant, courteous, grandfatherly. He wears a yellow neckerchief and an orange-tan leather jacket that might’ve won him a few squeezes of the left buttock on Manhattan’s Christopher Street, though he’d be squeezily offended. The rodeo has agreed to let Borat sing the national anthem. So Saunders lectures Borat on the etiquette of Rodeo appearances: “Of course every picture that we get back, from the terrorists or anything else, the Muslims, they look like you. Black hair and a black mustache.” Sacha: “Yes.” “Shave that dadgum mustache off so you’re not so conspicuous. So you look like maybe an Italian or something, as far as when people are looking at you. I see a lot of people and I think, ‘There’s a dadgum Muslim. I wonder what kind of bomb he’s got strapped to him.’ And you probably aren’t a Muslim. Maybe that’s not your religion.” “No,” says Borat, “I’m a Kazakh. I follow the hawk.” “Yeah, but-but you look like one of them. This thing gets over with, and when we win it, and kick the butts over there, all of them son of a bucks hanging from the gallows,” “Yes!,” “… by that time you will have proven yourself, and they’ll understand, you’ll be accepted. Take care.” “Thank you!” Borat leans over to kiss him. “I ain’t gonna kiss you,” Saunders says. “Why not?” “The people that do the kissing over here are the ones that float around like that.” Saunders makes a wavy flow with his hands and dances about, fairy-like. “Oh, they all la-la-la?” Borat says. “Yeah, stay away from them that kiss. You don’t want nobody kissing.” “In my country,” Borat says,” they take them, and they take them to jail and finish them. Take ‘em out and hang them.” “Yes,” Saunder says with a lusty grin on his face—the kind of grin one guy who likes to call blacks niggers gets when he discovers another fellow bigot—and says, “That’s what we’re trying to get done here.” Borat and Saunders high five. Borat is introduced to sing the national anthem as a horseman waving an enormous American flag trots in the background. Borat speaks: “My name is Borat. I come from Kazakhstan. Can I say first, we support you war of terror! (Hearty cheering and applause.) May we show our support to our boys in Iraq. (More cheering.) May U.S. and A. kill every single terrorist. (More cheering.) May George Bush drink the blood of every single man, woman and child of Iraq! (A man is caught on camera screaming “Yeah!”) May you destroy their country so that for the next thousand years, not even a single lizard will survive in their desert. (Much lighter cheering: who, the people in the crowd must be thinking, will get our oil then?). To show our friendship now I will sing our Kazakh national anthem to the tune of your national anthem. Please stand.” And so he sings the famous anthem. Some excerpts:
Kazakhstan greatest country in the world.
All other countries are run by little girls.
Kazakhstan number one exporter of potassium.
Other countries have inferior potassium. […]
Kazakhstan’s prostitutes cleanest in the region.
Except of course Turkmenistan’s […]
Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan you very nice place.
From Plains of Tarashek to Norther fence of Jewtown.
Come grasp the might phenis of our leader.
From junction with the testes to tip of its face!
He was booed off of course and supposedly the scene got ugly enough that Cohen and his crew had to high-tail it out of there in a hurry—exactly what the script called for, in other words. The Roanoke Times reported the story on January 9, 2005, without being quite sure who “Boraq” was, referring to him, in keeping with the prejudices of the occasion, as “that Middle Eastern man in an American flag shirt,” and peppering the story with the requisite inaccuracies that come with assumptions (including this detail: the reporter had Borat telling the crowd to sit when he readied to sing the anthem). Salon decided to do its own investigation of what was scripted and what wasn’t, as far as audience reactions were concerned. Jim Saunders and his Civic Center crowd apparently weren’t. And Saunders didn’t have a problem with his homophobic comments: “As long as [homosexuals] don’t mess with me and get me involved, if that’s their choice, just have at it. Just don’t come in my household and try to demand, as they’re doing now, all sorts of things. All this marriage and this mess. If you want to go live together, go live together, but don’t drag everyone else into it. It’s, like, before you could just pump your gas, but the thieves ruined it for everyone. Now everyone has to go pay for their gas first. Homosexuals, they want their rights for marriage and all this stuff, and they want respectability. If you want to live that life, live that life, but don’t involve the whole rest of the country.”
That’s the thing about the tragic dimension of social humor. The jokes tell themselves if you’re on the receptive audience, in which case you’re among the converted. You see the raw horror behind the joke. If you’re not, you’ll merely be offended, probably confirmed in your prejudices even as you ought to have been embarrassed by them. Lacking the capacity to be so offended is the problem, obviously. But lacking that capacity also means that there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s another form of retardation. Or as the humor coach would have it, it should be off limits. The point is: prejudices persist because they’ve been off-limit so long.