Volume 18 Numbers 2, 3, & 4, 2008
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan:
August 27, 2008 from http://www.foxstore.com/ detail.html?item=2782
The man who would have known why so revolting and tasteless a film as Borat could be so successful was the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes knew that laughter is aggressive, and that it stems from a "sudden glory," an elevation of one's self or one's group at the ludicrous degradation of another person or people. Borat is funny because it is racist and xenophobic, because it makes a real people from Central Asia seem not only hopelessly primitive and backward, but utterly bigoted and lacking in all self-control and decency. The supposed "Kazakhs" are comic savages but those who are watching the film are not; therein lies the glory.
When Borat tells us with pride that his sister, with whom he commits incest, is the Number 4 prostitute in the whole of Kazakhstan, we know exactly what kind of a place it is. We see pictures of Kazakh women squatting ineptly on lavatories and a flushed Borat drinks from the bowl. What makes those scenes so funny is that the Kazakhs are a real people and Kazakhstan a real country. The filmgoers can enjoy the breaking of all the usual conventions about not insulting and abusing others.
The humorous advantage of the Kazakhs being a real people, rather than a fictitious one, is schadenfreude, a prominent aspect of much humor. Schadenfreude is the extra pleasure those who laughed at the film gained from knowing full well the embarrassment, discomfiture and anger that Sacha Baron Cohen's coarse slanders would induce in this friendly, virtuous and harmless Central Asian people.
As Henri Bergson has argued, humor involves an "anesthesia of the heart" and, as a Frenchman, he should know. It is not that the Kazakhs will see the film in their own language but rather that they will know of its existence and know that they have been ridiculed and humiliated in the eyes of the world. Humor is an essentially nasty enterprise. Not just Hobbes, that famous theorist of power, and Bergson, who stresses ridicule, but all the other leading humor theorists such as Freud with his emphasis on tendenz and Koestler who insists that the adrenalin of aggression is ever-present in humor, acknowledge humor’s harshness. We don't laugh with people, we laugh at them. Ideally we would prefer to laugh at people we dislike and resent, such as the French, but in practice this is often not possible and, as in Borat, we are left to laugh at a very distant and innocuous group, the Kazakhs.
Borat the Kazakh spends relatively little of his time in Kazakhstan and most of it traveling across the United States, where his creator and actor Sacha Baron Cohen uses him to deceive ordinary Americans and make them look foolish, which admittedly is not difficult. Sometimes the target deserves mockery as when Borat, posing as a visiting Kazakh journalist, interviews and shocks with his gross and sexist views about women, a group of middle-aged, middle-class, seriously committed American feminists. How enjoyable it was to the audience to see expressions of aversion and outrage creep across the feminists' sucked-out mango faces, particularly because you knew they were real people not actresses. The audience could imagine how a feminist in the cinema watching this scene at the same time must be cringing - and the audience’s amusement would be amplified twenty-fold.
Other targets are not so fair, as when Borat interrupts a Pentecostal service, as the sacred gift of tongues is descending on them, just as it had when the original apostles had been filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues on the day of Pentecost. It also reveals just how cowardly the filmmakers were. They would not have dared to film and ridicule Kazakh Muslims in prayer with their foreheads on the ground and their butts in the air, because it would have led to violence and even murder, not by the Kazakhs themselves, who are far from being fanatics, but by Arabs, Somalis, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, all willing to kill to avenge a slight to the honour of the Prophet. They would probably also have used Baron Cohen's Jewishness as an excuse for some anti-Semitic outrage.
in the film there is much mockery of the Kazakhs' supposedly vicious anti-Semitism (which is true of many Muslims but not of the Kazakhs) but at no point is it linked to the Muslim identity of the local population, which is only very obliquely hinted at when Borat says that he is a follower of the hawk, that is to say of al Haqq (truth, righteousness), one of the names of Allah. Possibly there may be trouble over this in the future; spontaneous indignation takes time to organize, as we saw in the case of the publication of cartoons of Mohammed by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005.
The Pentecostals by contrast are peaceable folk, many of them are even pacifists. Have you ever heard of a Muslim pacifist? So the filmmakers stuck to the Pentecostals; they are a humble, peaceable and powerless people whom it is safe to kick.
Easily the funniest scene, though, is the savage mockery of a patriotic crowd at an American rodeo, with a cowgirl sitting proud on her horse holding high an enormous American flag, Old Glory itself. Borat addresses the crowd in patriotic terms. They applaud. He calls for the total destruction of every man, woman and child in Iraq. They are uneasy. He parodies the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. They boo. The cowgirl falls off her horse, dropping the flag in the dust. Borat flees as they give chase. The Americans have been made to look, or more accurately revealed to be, ‘complete assholes’. - what a wonderfully expressive language American is, far superior to other versions of English. I doubt if Baron Cohen's baiting of an irate crowd of American patriots is as brave as he would like us to think. Were there not bodyguards and security men in attendance who were edited out? Would he have tried to pull such a stunt in a seriously xenophobic country such as Greece?
Those on the left, who normally get offended if a colonial or post-colonial people are mocked, have been happy to praise Borat and to tell the Kazakh ambassadors and politicians who objected strongly to the film that they have no sense of humor. Yet the colonial history of Kazakhstan under the Soviets was far worse than anything experienced by the colonies of other powers. During the Soviet collectivization of agriculture a million Kazakhs starved to death or were murdered and many others fled. The population fell from 3.63 million in 1926 to 2.31 million in 1939, even on the official Soviet figures, and the cattle and sheep of the Kazakh herdsmen were decimated. During World War II millions of deportees, notably Tartars, Chechens and Volga Germans, were taken in cattle trucks to Kazakhstan and dumped there.
Under Khrushchev large numbers of Russian settlers were brought in to carry out the calamitous Virgin Lands program and to try to make the Kazakhs a minority in their own country. Soviet agricultural policies ruined the soil with their incompetent irrigation and reckless use of chemicals. Kazakhstan is the place where the Soviets put into practice Bertholt Brecht’s prelude to the Caucasian Chalk Circle, where land is taken away from its original owners and handed over to those who are more productive at filling in forms. Brecht would have known full well of the millions of deaths in Kazakhstan and in the Caucasus. His play is still popular in progressive circles.
To finish matters off the Soviets tested their atomic weapons in Kazakhstan, with their customary disregard for people and environment. Because so many Russians were murdered under communism, it is often forgotten how very racist the Soviet Union was, with victim peoples in Kazakhstan, the Ukraine, the Baltic States and the North Caucasus suffering most of all.
Can we then with a clear conscience go and see Borat, given this horrendous political backdrop and the knowledge that Kazakhstan’s denigrators are also enjoying the film? Yes, we can, for humor operates in a special world of its own to be judged by non-serious standards; it is a parallel argument to that employed by Kant when speaking of the autonomy of aesthetic judgments. Once you leave the cinema, it is back to the real world in which we sympathize with the Kazakhs but for the duration of the film you can enter and revel in the nasty world of laughter.
Dr. Christie Davies is the author of Jokes and their Relation to Society, New York, Mouton de Gruyter, 1998, and The Mirth of Nations, New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction, 2002. He has visited Kazakhstan and received the hospitality of its splendid people. He thanks Michael Mosbacher of the Social Affairs Unit (http://www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk/) for his help and encouragement.
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