Movies

Yes, It's Funny, but What Are You Laughing At?

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Because I live in the U.S. rather than Russia, last night I had the opportunity to see Borat, which I highly recommend. In addition to making me laugh so hard I couldn't breathe (the look on former Georgia congressman Bob Barr's face during his brief encounter with Sacha Baron Cohen's Kazakh alter ego is by itself worth the price of admission), it made me sympathize a bit (a teeny-weeny bit) with the Anti-Defamation League's concern that people confronted by the outrageous anti-Semitism of Borat and his compatriots might not get the joke.

During the Running of the Jew, a traditional festival in Cohen's version of Kazakhstan, the townspeople chase a giant papier-mache figure that looks like a Nazi (or Arab) caricature of a Jew down the street. The Jew is followed by the Jewess, who lays a huge Jew egg that the children of the village attack with gusto, smashing it to bits. It's pretty damned funny, but I couldn't help wondering if the rest of the audience at the theater in Dallas was laughing at it for the same reasons I was. Another scene that I'm sure upset the ADL, in which Borat and his producer throw dollar bills at cockroaches they think are Jews in disguise, did not trigger the same concern because they're clearly the butt of the joke. A nice touch that most of the audience probably did miss: When the ridiculously anti-Semitic Borat speaks what is ostensibly Kazakh, he is actually speaking Hebrew.

What the ADL misses, I think, is that part of Cohen's talent is to amuse and discomfit his audience at the same time. Sometimes you laugh because you're so uncomfortable. I still have reservations about his mistreatment of perfectly nice people whose patience he tests with Borat's boorish and disgusting behavior, but it produces some undeniably hilarious moments.  Many of his targets, who include misogynists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and anti-Muslim bigots, deserve  to be goaded and mocked, and their comments tend to make you uncomfortable in a different way. 

Whatever your view of Cohen, there's no denying that he's a brave man—brave enough to kiss randomly chosen men on the New York subway (the traditional Kazakh greeting, supposedly); to sing the Kazakh national anthem to the tune of The Star-Spangled Banner (with suspiciously rhyming English lyrics that boast of Kazakhstan's superiority to all countries, especially in the quality of its potassium) at a rodeo; and to inform a group of uptight feminists that a leading Kazakh scientist has demonstrated that women's brains are about the size of a squirrel's. I'm not sure which feat was the most dangerous.

Addendum: A few commenters and at least one blogger (Stephan Kinsella at LewRockwell.com) seem to think I meant to imply that Dallas is rife with anti-Semites and/or idiots. I did not. My reaction, which may reflect my own paranoia more than the attitudes of other moviegoers, would have been the same anywhere, North or South, where the audience consisted mainly of non-Jews—in other words, pretty much anywhere outside of Israel and certain parts of New York. For what it's worth, I encountered a lot more anti-Semitism (and racism) growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania that I have in the South—including a year in South Carolina and five years in Virginia (albeit the D.C.-adjacent part) as well as my so-far brief sojourn in Texas.

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  1. Wait.

    The Running of the Jew was a joke?

    What a rip.

  2. This all assumes, as I am unwilling to assume, that all those “mysoginists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and anti-Muslim bigots” were not (at least in some cases) actors and extras in on the joke.

  3. “Quickly, children, crush the egg before it hatches!”

  4. I don’t think Bob Barr was in on the joke, unless he’s a better actor than politician.

    I also don’t think Alan Keyes was either, but maybe.

  5. couldn’t help wondering if the rest of the audience at the theater in Dallas was laughing at it for the same reasons I was.

    Yes, we residents of Dallas are famous for our barbarically anti-Semitic attitudes.

    We’re positively French in our enthusiams for vandalizing synagogues.

    Thank Yahweh we have Jacob’s Olympian musings to shame us into tolerance.

  6. I share your (and ADL’s) concern that the film’s outrageous anti-Semitism doesn’t seem to strike some as so outrageous. It’s hard to believe that anti-Semitsm is more than a marginal these days. But those pushing noxious conspiracy theories hope there’s enough latent anti-Semitism out there to tap into. Borat is very funny, but I too laughed just a bit nervously.

  7. I have a serious question. Why didn’t Colonel Hogan do something about the slaughter of the Jews? Given his frequent dealings with the Underground and with the Gestapo, he had to know what was happening. Was Hogan an anti-Semite?

  8. Was Hogan an anti-Semite?

    Why not? FDR was.

    (I call this ‘joe-baiting.’)

  9. Whats the big deal if anti-semites don’t get the joke? I could understand seeing a problem if you thought that people would start hating Jews by seeing the movie, but whats wrong with anti-semites enjoying a joke they believe to be anti-semitic?

  10. Whether I laugh at anti-Semitic jokes or not is irrelevant. It is also irrelevant whether or not I am anti-Semitic.

    The only thing that matters is if I attempt to harm others. And I don’t consider the fact that someone’s feelings may be hurt to be ‘harm’.

  11. Well, as a Jew [or as Borat would say, a Jeew] I thought the film was pretty funny and if I was offended by anything it was the idea that a nice, clean Jewish home would have cockroaches in it.

  12. Aresen,

    What, you don’t believe in thought crimes?

    Behind the times, dude!!

  13. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I heard Borat also mocks fundamental Christians. Horrible things are written about Christians on this site constantly (see last night’s Santorum post). What makes Jews special? If it is OK to defame Christians then it should be fine to defame Jews.

  14. Aresen

    Your point is taken. You have a right to your anti-Semitism. There has never been a case in history when hostile attitudes toward Jews have been translated into physical acts of violence against them. Jews who worry about anti-Semitism are just indulging in a silly political correctness. Like, call in the thought police, you know. Anti-Semites have a long history of non-violence and peaceful co-existence with the objects of their hatred, so everyboby should just get off the anti-Semites’ backs. Silly Jews.

  15. it’s ok to defame both.

    or neither!

    i don’t see why anyone would think this stuff was staged, though.

  16. Uri ben Tzvi

    Your point is also taken. By all means, fight anti-Semitism and worry about it.

    However, I am arguing for free speech, not anti-Semitism.

    The nice thing about free speech is that, when anti-Semitism appears, I can recognize the ‘smell of evil’ and treat anything that the speaker says with extreme skepticism.

    Get it out in the open where it can be fought. Don’t try to repress it by law.

    BTW: I did not say I was anti-Semitic. That was a conclusion you drew from the fact that I stated it was irrelevant to the issue.

  17. What’s all the trouble about? I saw nothing.

  18. Sam: The distinction is that antisemitism is generally directed towards the Jewish race, not the religion.

  19. Aresen

    I agree with you that there should be no restrictions on anti-Semitic speech, except, of course, incitement to kill. In the free market of ideas, though, Jews do have a right to point out the inherent dangers of anti-Semitism. And I didn’t assume from what you said that you’re an anti-Semite. I was being ironic (or trying).

  20. My wife is an anti-Semenite, damn her hide.

    Free Scotland!

  21. Uri ben Tzvi

    Apologies for missing the irony. Should have spotted it in context.

  22. SC

    Is your wife anti-Semenite or just anti-your-Semenite?

  23. Sound’s like you’re both anti-semantic.

  24. Aresen,

    You’ve hit the nubbin on the sword hilt with that question, lad. Oh, she claims that it’s all semenite that she doesn’t care for, but I suspect that she lies like a witch’s teat. Whore!

    She doesn’t irony, either. Perhaps I should bitch slap her again, like I did on our wedding night. Good times.

  25. I’m Auntie Mame.

  26. Bergamot said-“Sam: The distinction is that antisemitism is generally directed towards the Jewish race, not the religion”

    That is a good point, but is antisemitism really a problem in the US? My entire 30 years on this planet I have never actual heard an Americian say someing anti-semitic that wasn’t just slang (where is my change- you Jew?”) I have never heard anyone really say they didn’t like Jews, but have meet many people who hate hispanics, asians, blacks, ect.

  27. Borat, it seems to me, is playing to the elites of the world, who see themselves as sophisticated enough to laugh at average people being humiliated and to enjoy antisemitic jokes because they, of course, are not prejudiced.

    Borat’s “Candid Camera” has the same mean “I’m better than them” approach to humor.

  28. Aresen

    One last point. Anti-semitism isn’t irrelevant to the issue. If Borat was exposing anti-Semitic attitudes, then anti-Semitism is the issue.

  29. sam_h

    I agree that serious anti-Semitism is marginal in the United Sates. It’s mostly confined to the far-right fringe. Because Israel is so much in the news, some worry that Jews can become a convenient scapegoat–a traditonal Jewish role–if things go bad. Will fringe comspiracy theories that are laughable now find a wider audience in different circumstances? I think it’s good to be vigilant. There is no “Jewish race,” by the way.

  30. The Jew stuff is funny, for the right reasons, but the gypsy stuff is hilarious.

    “Gipsy! Give me your tears! If you will not give them to me, I will take them from you!”

    Gypsies = un-mined comedy gold.

  31. Halp me Jakop Sillum Im stuc n Dalas

  32. I knew a Romanian girl who absolutely hated Gypsies. Apparently, that’s a common feeling among Romanians, too, though I’m going by her opinion, not by personal experience.

  33. “There is no “Jewish race,” by the way.”

    Bingo.

    There is however, a Jewish culture, which as an athiest of WASP descent, I am completely unqualified to discuss in detail. What little I know of it seems to give great respect to learning, emphasis on hard work, self-reliance, family, and honesty. Which is the closest you can get to a sure-fire formula for success and probably accounts for the disproportionately large contribution of Jews to Western Civilization.

  34. Well, sure, Arensen.

    But what if Jew come at you with his claws?

  35. Sacha Baron Cohen himself said that racism doesn’t just feed on bigoted attitudes – it also feeds on popular assent and people needing to fit in. That’s why Borat’s racism makes people feel so uncomfortable – how many people have the courage to call him out if he was standing right in front of you with a charming smile?

  36. But what if Jew come at you with his claws?

    And and don’t forget his pointy teeth.

    I knew a Romanian girl who absolutely hated Gypsies. Apparently, that’s a common feeling among Romanians, too, though I’m going by her opinion, not by personal experience.

    Pro, are you the guy from Clearwater? The Romanians and Albanians I knew there hated Gypsies too. I remember that the Gypsies were active in Florida. Every few months there would be a mini crime wave when the Gypsies would come through town. Petty theft, shoplifting and the like was their MO.

  37. ralphus,

    Clearwater? Heavens, no–I’m no Scientologist. I’m live in Tampa.

    Is there a big Romanian contingent in the Bay Area? Huh. This particular girl was a USF student. She told me that the Gypsies were all criminals and that Romanians resented them even more because a lot of Europeans think Gypsies come from Romania (probably confusing “Roma” with “Romanian”). That pisses the Romanians off to no end.

  38. Oops. I meant, I’m a livin’ in Tampa. Or maybe “I’m live in Tampa” could work, if I had a radio show.

  39. There was a big Albanian and Romanian contingent in Clearwater. And the women are smoking hot, at least until 30ish. Then genetics and gravity kicks in.

    Speaking of weird beliefs (Scientology) my sister’s best friend was Albanian. When her family built a new house they poored goat’s blood on the lot and burried gold coins at the four corners of the foundation.

  40. You’re right about the women. My brother referred to this girl as “The Spy Who Loved You”. She was an interesting person in other respects, too. She was an art student, but she was, by American standards, quite the right-winger. Living under Communist rule will do that to you, I suppose. Still, that’s such a strange juxtaposition in the U.S. as to be worthy of note.

  41. “But what if Jew come at you with his claws?

    I use my escape clawse, of course.

  42. is antisemitism really a problem in the US? My entire 30 years on this planet I have never actual heard an Americian say someing anti-semitic that wasn’t just slang (where is my change- you Jew?”) I have never heard anyone really say they didn’t like Jews, but have meet many people who hate hispanics, asians, blacks, ect.

    Uh, Mel Gibson, anyone?
    I have met anti-semites. As a kid when I met someone who hated Jews, I was bewildered, because if someone hated foreigners or people of different colors, I could follow that they did not like people obviously different from themselves. I did not like it, but I could see the thought process behind it, as irrational as it was. When someone made an anti-semitic remark, I was very confused. Hell, I still am. Now I’m even more confused by all the racists and bigots.

  43. It just occurred to me that the Jewish cockroaches may be an homage to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” When I saw that scene in the theater, Borat reminded me of The Blair Witch Project by talking directly to the camera.

  44. Kafka never mentions a cockroach, just a large bug. Surely Borat is drawing on the Jews-as-vermin trope of Nazi propaganda.

  45. Anti-semitism is really out there, and not just at klan rallies and bean pie bake-offs.

    I am Jewish, but with an uncommon and not clearly “jewish” last name or look (don’t start!). Unless people ask or I say, they don’t normally assume I am.

    I have worked in media in major markets. I’ve been told (to my face) by co-workers that Jews control the media. Were they mustachioed white men? No, one was a Korean-american woman!

    There was a press release about me and a new job I was taking. The first email in to the company about it was raving about how the Jews were allowed to take over and that something would be done about it.

    I went out with a Hispanic woman whose mother only referred to me (in Spanish) as The Jew.

    I met a woman from Azerbaijan*. She told me that it was good that I was a Jew because everyone knew they were smarter and craftier than others and would always end up rich because they could outsmart others. She was an artist.
    I was in my junior year abroad in England. One man asked me if he could see my horns. He was going to the same university.

    * She looked like Borat’s relative with gold tooth, hair on face, and vagine that hang like sleeve of wizard

  46. “I have worked in media in major markets. I’ve been told (to my face) by co-workers that Jews control the media.”

    Have you heard the argument that this sentiment isn’t anti-Semitic because it doesn’t refer to All Jews, just the bad ones?

  47. I can’t wait to see the movie. The Borat videos (and his Borat skits on the Ali G Show) are just too funny. He acts so innocent that most people don’t even get offended by his ridiculous comments.

    I liked him so much I even wrote a Borat inspired top 10 at my silly humor website (Say No to Crack) … I think you’ll find it pretty funny if you’re a fellow Borat fan.

  48. all my friends are jews (ey, ahm a new yawkah heer) and the jew jokes we make amongst each other would make borat blush. mocking racism through parody is a good thing. nothing defeats popular myths like poking at them.

  49. This all assumes, as I am unwilling to assume, that all those “mysoginists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and anti-Muslim bigots” were not (at least in some cases) actors and extras in on the joke.

    I think I have seen you make this claim before. Do you have any evidence to back this up?

  50. I grew up Jewish in a heavily Jewish part of Long Island. The only anti-Semitism I encountered was a general loathing for the “Jewish American Princess”, which seemed a generic appellation for any materialistic young woman with big hair. The term was not unlike the equally common “Guido”, which described a certain type of young man, not necessarily Italian, who was equal parts Christopher Moltisanti, Andrew “Dice” Clay and gay body builder – another Long Island type. Anyway, apart from ridiculous teenage skinheads in the 1980s, as long as I lived in the US I never met anyone who even disliked Jews a little bit. I’ve lived in Ireland for much of the last decade and let’s just say things are much different here – and I figure this is the least anti-Semitic country in Europe.

  51. Norway is probably the least anti-Semitic country in Europe. The Scadanavian countries rate very low in anti-Semitism and very high in support for Palestinians. This shows that not all critics of israel are anti-Semites.

  52. Sullum–you’re Jewish? Or was I supposed to know that already?

    Guess my nationality. Or is it religion?

  53. Depending on which theater in Dallas you were at, there very well may have been more Jews there than you would assume; Dallas has some areas with surprisingly large Jewish populations. Granted I went to a sort of snotty prep school, but my graduating class in high school in Dallas was between 30 and 40% Jewish.

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