Borat and the Spectacle of Bigotry

In The Nation, Richard Goldstein asks: what are we laughing at when we laugh at Borat?

Variations on these themes shape Baron Cohen’s new film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. This flimsy mock doc, in the spirit of gross-out shows like Punk’d and Jackass, might have faded into dating-movie oblivion but for the vehement reaction of the Kazakh government. It didn’t appreciate Borat’s references to a national wine made from equine urine, or his observation that “America is strange country: Women can vote but horses cannot.” By protesting, the Kazakhs gave Baron Cohen a place on US news pages. But there’s more to this comic than politically incorrect creds.

Not too long ago, stand-up stars like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay went after women, gays and immigrants in a revanchist show of spleen, and it was boffo. But backlash entertainment has lost its sting–if only because it no longer represents a dissent from the orthodoxies of social politics. There’s a new comedy in which the ambiguities of laughter are explored and the connections between mockery and sadism are revealed. If you examine your response to Borat, you’ll have to face some dicey truths about the joy of bigotry.

After all, who is the butt of his jokes: those Americans straining to be polite to a foreigner or the foreigner who appalls them by expressing primitive sentiments? Are the rich and famous who curdle at the stupidity of Ali G the objects of our laughter, or is it Ali G, who could be the ignorant son of immigrants? Baron Cohen’s comedy rubs against fear and loathing of the Muslim Other. But what about those Jew jokes–why are they so funny? And why are some of the friendly Americans Borat encounters so willing to join in the fun?