Maybe Norris Sweidan, owner of Warrior One Guns & Ammo in Riverside, ought to be the one on the November ballot for a congressional seat. I don't know Sweidan's political views, but he showed more savvy than some current and former lawmakers who were duped by comedian and prankster Sacha Baron Cohen into appearing in a Showtime spoof promoting the arming of toddlers in a "Kinder Guardian" program.
Sweidan recently released a store video to Fox News in Los Angeles showing a bearded man in leather pants entering his store last year with a film crew. They claimed to be making a documentary about a Hungarian immigrant buying a gun. "I'm looking at the producer and I'm just like am I being fooled right here?" Sweidan told Fox. "And I just kept looking at the guy and I was like you're Borat, as soon as I said that his eyes just looked at me like, and he did a turn right out the door." Showtime didn't reply to the station for a comment on Sweidan's claims.
Cohen is best known for Borat, a "mockumentary" about a Kazakh journalist who travels around America to learn its customs. It was a vile film that left me feeling dirty for having watched it. I loved Cohen in "Talladega Nights," which also was released in 2006. But the butt of Borat's jokes were ordinary people who were played for fools. Laughing at people who, say, behaved graciously when Cohen brings a bag of poop to the dinner table is like laughing at someone who falls down because you yanked his chair from under him. That's not humor, but cruelty.
Cohen's latest spoof is a Showtime satirical series called Who is America? In the first installment, Cohen pretends to be an Israeli gun-rights activist who is promoting a program that would train children to protect their fellow school children by using weapons. He managed to get two American gun-rights activists and current and former lawmakers to say some amazing things.
Cohen, pretending to be Israeli Colonel Erran Morad, introduces kids in an instructional video to "Puppy Pistol," who "is part of a whole group of new friends" called "Gunimals." Morad's guest, "gun-rights hero" Philip Van Cleave, says Gunny Rabbit is "ready to put the naughty man on a very long time-out." (Van Cleave reportedly said in a social-media post that he was just playing along to find out who was behind it.)
It's a cringe-inducing video. Larry Pratt, executive director emeritus of Gun Owners of America, reads a statement saying that "Toddlers are pure, uncorrupted by fake news or homosexuality. They don't worry if it's politically correct to shoot a mentally deranged gunman. They'll just do it." But surely lawmakers would be too clever to be tricked, right?
Sadly, that's not the case. U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson (R–S.C.) read this script, "A 3-year-old cannot defend itself from an assault rifle by throwing a Hello Kitty pencil case at it." Former Illinois GOP congressman Joe Walsh, now a talk-radio host, read that "In less than a month, less than a month, a first grader can become a first grenadier." Former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was filmed saying that Americans should think about "putting guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens, good guys, whether they be teachers or whether they actually be talented children or highly-trained preschoolers."
U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who represents Huntington Beach (or Moscow, as his critics facetiously allege given his views on Russia), made the most reasonable point: "Maybe having many young people trained and understand how to defend themselves in their school might actually make us safer here."
Rohrabacher told the Orange County Register that he was referring to high-school students, he was never told about the "Kinder Guardian" program and the video was sent "earlier this year for a bogus Israeli television company supposedly celebrating the country's 70th anniversary," in which he spoke "broadly of making sure young people could get training in self-defense." He certainly wasn't punked as badly as the others, but it still is embarrassing for a long-serving congressman.
Rohrabacher also accused the show of trying to "deceive the American people for political purposes." Yes, the Cohen satires have a political message. The apparent goal is to mock those who support gun rights. Then again, many conservatives were gleeful about conservative prankster James O'Keefe's undercover videos that embarrassed liberal foils, such as the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). I likewise expect that many liberals who reviled O'Keefe to applaud the Cohen antics.
When are such antics morally acceptable? That's the subject for a longer article that wrestles with distinctions between undercover video journalism and political stunts. But this much is certain: It's disturbing that these prominent lawmakers and activists didn't have as good of a BS meter as the guy in the Riverside gun store.
This column was first published in the Orange County Register.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998–2009. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.