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November 13, 2006


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Syd Webb

I'm going to spend eleven dollars on something I can experience just by calling a relative?

I've always understood, and Wiki backs me up here, is that Borat is no more mocking Khazakhs than Norman Gunston was poking fun at Maltese-Australians - the target is the interviewee who takes them seriously. The joke, such as it is, is that Borat is a Kazakh journalist so of course folks expect him to have a live chicken in his suitcase. Just as we expect Norman's face to be covered with shaving nicks despite the fact he uses an electric razor. [In fairness to Sally Struthers, I felt she got the joke.]


Sasha Baron Cohen is actually practicing the comedy of discomfort, by using the Borat character to push against unspoken (Anglo-American) cultural assumptions, in the movie especially about hospitality and the treatment of strangers.

It might be funnier if one didn't have to navigate those waters all the goddam time, and with much less success than Mr. Baron Cohen's character.

Noel Maurer

I dunno, Carlos. You may have read too many reviews. It's just hilarious slapstick. People are overintellectualizing this. I understand why, since Borat was making political points on HBO. But here? Not really. You're overanalyzing ... based on other people's overanalysis.

I suspect you'd find yourself laughing yourself sick. Assuming that you liked, say, flicks like "Something About Mary" or "Airplane," only with the added spice that Cohen is, like, making a fool of himself in public!

The bear, man, the bear is hilarious.


Um. I actually know some of SBC's writers. It's slapstick, but not just slapstick. I've asked around, and the consensus is that I'd probably hate the thing.

As a personal observation, creepy guys in bars are becoming even more creepy as they do Borat impressions to make asshole comments. Through irony and out the other side.

Randy McDonald

_Borat_ might be funny if Cohen hadn't chosen to identify, even humourously, the Kazakhs as crazy barbarians. As things stand, the several genocides directed against the Kazakhs on the grounds of their alleged barbarism makes his choice rather unfunny. Yes, there's Montesquieu's _Persian Letters,_ but Montesquieu wasn't mocking the foreigner. At least, not very much.

A thought experiment: Say for argument's purposes that Cohen was a gentile, and that he'd picked instead, oh, a Jewish journalist as his outsider figure. Wouldn't we be within our rights to say that Cohen's act was profoundly anti-Semitic?

Randy McDonald

Re: Borat's manipulation of common stereotypes of anti-Semitism, see Ron Chamach's Toronto Star article "Borat's inner Jew". Somewhat amazingly, Chamach doesn't see the problems inherent in transferring the malicious caricatures that passed as Jewish traits among anti-Semites to another ethnic group.

Is this overanalysis? I dunno. Let's say that, in order to investigate the complacencies of Canadian society, I outfitted myself for a movie as the worst possible caricature of an American: a fat suit because I'm grotesquely obese from all the fast food, carrying handguns, talking about the joys of my country's troops torturing and killing "Ay-rabs," referencing Jerry Springer shows as referencing my lived reality. (This exercise can be repeated almost indefinitely with multiple groups, of course.) Could I claim comedy as a defense, even if I made a fool of myself in public?


... Randy, manufactured outrage does not look good on anyone, no matter how noble the sentiments behind it.

Listen to the voice of experience: neither anger or disgust are constructive emotions. Nussbaum is wrong. And trying to center your life around these emotions, trying to put yourself in situations that will generate these emotions, just so you can feel passionate about something, is not the way to go.

I speak as an incredibly angry man. I have been angrier in my sleep, in the middle of the night, than many people are ever in their lives. And I would cheerfully throw all my anger into the Marianas Trench if I could, and never look back.

If you'd like to continue this discussion, I believe you have my private e-mail address.

Randy McDonald

My anger is not manufactured. It's rooted substantially in a certain measure of empathy, I grant you; I'm thankful that I've encountered as few stereotypes about my sexual orientation as I have. I've a certain amount of self-interest in this issue.

My concern, at root, is this: If there is a global audience for a sort of humour that projects the most bizarre and dehumanizing stereotypes on peoples of which the world knows little and cares less, what might possibly happen next? Nussbaum might be wrong about anger, we might well talk about this elsewhere, but she was quite right to note that it's easier to deal roughly with a particular group if you've decided that they've placed themselves beyond the bounds of humanity. Cruel jokes help in this.

_Borat_ is a success. It really shouldn't be.


Randy, you made yourself angrier by contemplating hypothetical strawmen. That's manufactured outrage, the same thing that Bill O'Reilly does.

(I should think you had more respect for me and the readers of this blog than to try to convince us via haystack people.)

Your motivation may be based on empathy, but your argument is very far from empathetic. To understand a work of art requires some empathy with the artist. Have you done that with Sasha Baron Cohen? No?

Again, I get the strong sense that this isn't about your sympathy for the Kazakh people, and I would be more than happy to discuss this privately.

Noel Maurer

Plus, dressing up like a fat American and referencing Jerry Springer could be hilarious!

But go talk to Carlos.

Randy McDonald

I should think you had more respect for me and the readers of this blog than to try to convince us via haystack people.

I'd have thought that you would have had more respect for me (and, perhaps, the readers of this blog) to suggest that I'm trying to mislead people.

Your motivation may be based on empathy, but your argument is very far from empathetic. To understand a work of art requires some empathy with the artist. Have you done that with Sasha Baron Cohen? No?

People might mean well, and Cohen's comedy might have worked better for me if he'd picked a fictional ethnicity--that distinguishes Borat from Molvnia for me. As things stand, it's a minor irony that he tried to defend Borat by claiming that it shows "how racism feeds on dumb conformity as much as rabid bigotry." Well, yes, exactly.

Maybe I expect too much theoretical and intellectual rigour out of my comedy. Maybe I don't have a sense of humour. Maybe I forget my Montesquieu, and maybe The Persian Letters really was written as, among other things, an incidental insult to Persians. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Ah, well. We already knew that the 21st century was going to be interesting.


Plus, dressing up like a fat American and referencing Jerry Springer could be hilarious!

So, you'd be a fan of Talking to Americans and Eurythmics' "The King and Queen of America"? Good for you!

Noel Maurer

Randy, Cohen's act is funnier because Kazakhstan is a real place. That adds to the ludicrousness of it all. I don't believe that you lack a sense of humor --- neither do you, of course, and you clearly didn't mean it seriously --- but you are going through a phase of Taking Things Too Seriously.

If you had to make an SAT-like analogy, I am to Bernard Guerrero as you are to me. Hmmm. Putting it that way makes me think that perhaps I should have more sympathy for Bernard. (His positions on terrorism and civil rights don't fit the analogy, sadly, but the rest does.)

If "Talking to Americans" is that show where they asked Americans what they thought about the national igloo, then yes, it's hilarious! Haven't heard of the Eurythmics thing, as you might have guessed, but you've got my email address, so send me the mp3.

And hey, man, an apology for the "good for you" shot would be nice, what with its assumption that I'm a hypocrite and all.

Noel Maurer

No mp3, no apology? Strangely, I actually am surprised.

Randy McDonald

Strangely, I actually am surprised.

Over the weekend, thinking about my comment and the thread that produced it, I realized that I was angry at you. My fault for confusing "politeness" with "being quiet." I apologize for the insinuation and the prejudgement. In the context of our most recent E-mail exchange, your suggestion that I was angry and should talk to someone struck me as manipulatively disingenous. (The Eurythmics video, by the way, is available at YouTube.)Although now I believe that question was made not out of nerve but rather out of ignorance, at the time the question seemed resolved. That evaluation was rude of me, and I regret it.

Other evaluations, not so much. Your E-mailed reply back in September claiming that for the past while you had been applying a "praise-condemnation" technique towards me, to inspire me to do something, was unbelievable. Never mind my failure to encounter this tactic in my run through academia, or your dubious assumption that this would work on me and not (say) accentuate my depressive tendencies. I didn't like being jerked around, I still don't, and I don't think that I should. It would probably be more surprising if I wasn't angry.

Over time, I've found my interactions with you become increasingly stressful and unproductive. You're a smart guy and a decent guy, and I wish that I knew how I could break out of this pattern of communications. There's clearly a lot of work to be done at my end, I'm not denying that, but the fact remains that I don't know what I can say to you without triggering something at your end and starting everything going again. What _can_ be done at this stage? If you have constructive suggestions, I'm all ears.

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