Kazakh Like Me
Borat reveals the painful politeness of American society.
I knew this would happen. I pick up my copy of the New Statesman, London's leftist weekly, to find a review of Borat, bannered on the table of contents as "Sacha Baron Cohen's exposure of crass Americana" and on the review page itself with, "The Kazakh ace reporter uncovers uncomfortable truths about the US." The author, Ryan Gilbey, proceeds to say the following:
A redneck rodeo crowd shows no compunction about cheering Borat's gung-ho speech about Iraq, clearly not realizing that what he actually said was: "We support your war of terror!" And it's shocking to witness the tacit acceptance with which Borat's ghoulish requests are greeted. Trying to find the ideal car for mowing down gypsies, or seeking the best gun for killing Jews, he encounters only compliance among America's salespeople.
Oh, come on. Among the "cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan" is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse. At a formal dinner in Birmingham, Ala., the guests discuss Borat while he's out of the room—filling a bag with ordure in order to bring it back to the table, as it happens—and agree what a nice young American he might make. And this is after he has called one guest a retard and grossly insulted the wife of another (and remember, it's "Americana" that is "crass"). The tony hostess even takes him and his bag of shit upstairs and demonstrates the uses not just of the water closet but also of the toilet paper. The arrival of a mountainous black hooker does admittedly put an end to the evening, but if a swarthy stranger had pulled any of the foregoing at a liberal dinner party in England, I wouldn't give much for his chances. "The violence that Borat encounters on the New York subway after trying to greet male strangers with kisses is frighteningly real," writes Gilbey, who either doesn't use the London Underground very much or else has a very low standard for mayhem.
Is it too literal-minded to point out what any viewer of the movie can see for himself—that the crowd at the rodeo stops cheering quite fast when it realizes that something is amiss; that the car salesman is extremely patient about everything from demands for pussy magnets to confessions of bankruptcy; and that the man in the gun shop won't sell the Kazakh a weapon? This is "compliance"? I have to say, I didn't like the look of the elderly couple running the Confederate-memorabilia store, but considering that Borat smashes hundreds of dollars worth of their stock, they bear up pretty well—icily correct even when declining to be paid with locks of pubic hair. The only people who are flat-out rude and patronizing to our curious foreigner are the stone-faced liberal Amazons of the Veteran Feminists of America—surely natural readers of the New Statesman. Perhaps that magazine's reviewer believes that Borat is genuinely shocked when he finds—by video viewing—that Pamela Anderson has not been faithful to him and he will thus not be the first to "make romance-explosion on her stomitch." (And either the love goddess agreed to stage the moment when Mr. Sagdiyev tries to stuff her into a "wedding bag," or she and her security team displayed a rare indulgence to the mustachioed interloper.)
The joke, in other words, may well be on the prankster. I thought the same about Da Ali G Show. As far as one can tell, most youth culture is as inarticulate and illiterate and mannerless as Sacha Baron Cohen made it out to be: The elderly dupes who did their best to respond (Gen. Brent Scowcroft on the anthrax/Tampax distinction being the most notable) were evidently resigned in advance to quite a low standard of questioning. You can see the same fixed expressions on the faces of politicians when they attend a "real" event, like Rock the Vote, where wry, likable smiles are obligatory, and the only dread is that of appearing uncool.
Having gone this far in a curmudgeonly direction, I may as well add that any act that depends too much on the scatological is in some kind of trouble. Borat—and Borat—rely on excremental humor from the very first frames. This isn't unfunny just because it's infantile and repetitive and doesn't know when to stop; it's unfunny because the revulsion produced by feces is universal and automatic and thus much too easy to exploit. This is especially true when, in a cheap knockoff of Luis Buñuel, our hero decides to introduce the unmentionable topic at the dinner table. (To be honest, I am still reeling at the relative composure of that Birmingham society lady. If I wasn't trying to change the subject, I would say that I admired her phlegm.)
In the days before he began to take himself seriously—and, even worse, to be taken seriously by others—Michael Moore was quite good at guerrilla stunts like buying slaves upon discovering that Mississippi hadn't actually ratified the 13th Amendment. The concept is essentially the same as the imperishable Black Like Me, which really did get people to say what they privately thought and felt. Kazakh Like Me has been a howling success because it has induced the luckless Kazakh government to make solemn disavowals, as if to dispel mistaken "perceptions" about horse-urine cocktails and the obligatory date rape of sisters. It's too much like Karen Hughes making nice with audiences of unsmiling Saudis, pleadingly reassuring them that the United States is not one long replay of The Running of the Muslim. But it's that attitude of painfully maintained open-mindedness and multiculturalism that is really being unmasked and satirized by our man from the 'stan. In what other country could such a character talk his way into being invited to sing the national anthem at a rodeo—where the horse urine is not so highly prized, and where horse excrement, and indeed all excrement, is still a term of abuse?
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat by Stephane L'hostis/Getty Images.