On the Road

Sacha Baron Cohen's howlingly funny mockumentary goes looking for America

Borat is not just blatant but proselytizing; his statements precipitate the latent anti-Semitism around him. (The most outrageous example, not in the film, is the widely circulated TV bit in which Borat incites the patrons of an Arizona bar to join him in singing a Kazakh folk song, "Throw the Jew Down the Well.") Small wonder the Anti-Defamation League has expressed concern. The organization deemed it unfortunate that Borat is identified with an actual nation—as though the joke would work if Baron Cohen were passing himself off as a TV reporter from Upper Slobovia—but that's a displacement. Their real anxiety is that by satirizing anti-Semitism, Borat will legitimize it.

It's a measure of Baron Cohen's dexterity that he plants his alter ego on both sides of the Jewish Question. "Kazakhstan"—actually shot in Romania—is a nightmare Eastern Europe where peasants bunk with livestock, torment Gypsies, and stage a traditional "Running of the Jew," chasing giant-fanged puppets through their muddy village. But as a native of this barbaric shtetl, Borat is also a non-Christian other who—by virtue of his primitive nature—ridicules the hypocrisy of the dominant social order.

The ADL identifies Baron Cohen as an "observant" Jew. (I'm not sure what that means but it seems less revealing than the subject of his Cambridge dissertation, namely the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement.) In any case, this comic has a distinctively Jewish sensibility. As sociologist John Murray Cuddihy notes in The Ordeal of Civility, his classic account of newly enlightened Jewish thinkers assimilated into the modern world, Marx, Freud, and Claude Lévi-Strauss were all similarly obsessed with "the raw, the coarse, the vulgar, the naked" and exposing the way in which these things were sublimated by the civil "niceness" of Western culture. So too, Borat (who might add the superstitious, the stupid, the sexist, and the xenophobic to that list).

Indeed, the man who invented Borat is a masterful improviser, brilliant comedian, courageous political satirist, and genuinely experimental film artist. Borat makes you laugh but Baron Cohen forces you to think.

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