Borat at White House

Sacha Baron Cohen‘s best jotting so far in his theatrical put-on campaign for Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (20th Century Fox, 11.3) wasn’t inviting “Premier George Walter Bush” to a screening of the film (Cohen actually went up to the White House gates on Wednesday to try and hand-deliver the invite), but the announcement that “Mel Gibsons” has also been sent one.

Cohen’s was at the White House to capitalize on today’s official visit by Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan press secretary Roman Vasilenko expressed again his and Nazarbayev’s concern that some might get the idea that Cohen’s Borat — an anti-Semitic Kazakh TV reporter — is a reflection of real-life Kazakhstan culture. Cohen “is not a Kazakh…what he represents is a country of Boratastan, a country of one,” Vasilenko told Reuters.

  • NYCBusybody

    Hilarious, and I’ll be the first in line to see this – but it IS an easy target. That of course doesn’t make Cohen anything less than brilliantly funny and intelligent (which I think he is), but it’s hardly brave, fearless satire.
    Attacking an Islamic culture for its anti-Semitic, regressive cultural ways would be a very brave thing to do if it were Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc. Kazakhstan was chosen, I’d imagine, because not to many people are going to be vocally upset, except Kazakhs.

  • fnt

    The more obvious answer is that Kazakhstan was chosen because no one knows much about the country and you hardly ever meet anyone from there. This is also why Borat and his producer can get away with speaking Hebrew to each other and everyone assumes it’s “Kazakh.”
    If he’d been from Saudi Arabia, I think he would have encounter a VERY different reaction. People know and have assumptions about that country. For Kazakhstan people know nothing and therefore the show is about Borat taking advantage of that ignorance.

  • Mark

    An Oscar nom won’t happen, but Cohen is likely guaranteed a Golden Globe nod for best actor in a comedy, and i think it’s an easy bet that he won’t show up to the ceremony as Cohen.

  • Jeremy Smith

    I want to know if he still hasn’t cleaned that suit. If not, I’d love to see the reactions of folks unlucky enough to be seated with Borat at the Globes.

  • NYCBusybody

    Yes, I agree, fnt, that if Borat had been from Saudi Arabia, many Middle-Eastern Muslims would be burning effigies of Cohen in the streets.
    It’s an interesting point I think you’re making, though, that the movie is about Cohen pointing out peoples’ ignorance about Kazakhstan. I’m not sure about that. My guess is that it’s really as simple as Cohen making fun of their culture for being anti-Semitic, but again, I don’t know that for sure.

  • KevinTC

    Exactly, fnt. Cohen is hardly attacking an Islamic culture (which Kazakhstan only sort-of qualifies as), but exposing ignorance and prejudice in America. That Borat’s from Kazakhstan is almost incidental, which makes the choice of continuing to goad their overly upset government an easy one.

  • MrThompson

    I think anyone who’s at least seen the “Throw the Jew down the Well” video knows that Kazakhstan is not the butt of the joke.

  • NYCBusybody

    Again, that’s partly my point Kevin. The only target easier than Kazahkstan is America – anyone and everyone attacks American culture, on every conceivable point, 24/7, and has for at least the last 40 years.
    Very few are willing to criticize Islamic cultures, for obvious reasons, although it’s politically incorrect to say so. Cohen is no different, as funny as he may be.
    Although, in this specific instance (Borat), I hardly see how he could be satirizing American prejudice when the Kazakh President met with Bush a few months ago at Camp David, and Bush himself expressed concern over the unfair and stereotypical portrayal of Borat).

  • L.B.

    Kazakhstan sounds funnier than any of the other countries mentioned. I’m sure that had more to do with the choice than anything. That and the fact that most people wouldn’t know whether his accent was accurate or not.
    Regardless I can’t wait and will be second in line.

  • MrThompson

    Despite his existential posturings over The Stranger, I doubt Bush gets the joke. However, I will agree that fundamentalist islamic states get treated with the ten foot pole that is “cultural relativism” far too often.

  • Rich S.

    I hate to sound like D.Z. here, but I don’t think we’re even having this conversation if Kazakhstan wasn’t oil rich. Seriously, does Bush take an audience with the Albanian president if Borat were from there? I honestly don’t think so.

  • NYCBusybody

    The “Throw the Jew Down the Well” scene indeed shows some American anti-Semitism, but no more than is found daily on Huffington Post or DailyKos, and no more than was found on the blogs of liberal Democratic Congressional candidate Ben Cardin’s staffer, who was fired after talking about “hook-nosed” Jewish people she knew on Cardin’s blog site.
    Of course, anti-Southern prejudice is an easier target; the racist anti-Semitism of lefties gets a pass, and is swept under the rug.

  • L.B.

    America is the big kid on the block. We make a lot of noise and everyone knows who we are. And our decisions affect just about every country on the planet. We weild a great deal of power. So, we’re a juicy target for satire. It’s part of the currency of being what we are.
    Which is not to say that there isn’t a lot of satire to be pulled out of the other countries you mentioned. A lot is made out of those on shows like THE DAILY SHOW and such. Maybe no big movies. But political satire isn’t really selling at the theaters, so we shouldn’t expect it any time soon.

  • NYCBusybody

    My guess would actually be that Bush met him for oil reasons only, I don’t doubt that, or argue against it.
    But considering that Europe is the area with the most consistent, virulent anti-Semitism (which now infects the American left), going after a bunch of rednecks in a small bar is EASY.
    Artists are too cowardly and morally inept to go after Islamic culture, where gays are hung from trees, women treated as chattel, and Jews made fearful to even exist. It’s much easier to say “Pat Robertson hates gays!”, and I understand that. But it’s also cowardly and facile.

  • Jeremy Smith

    I hate racist anti-Semitism.

  • MrThompson

    “Artists are too cowardly and morally inept to go after Islamic culture, where gays are hung from trees, women treated as chattel, and Jews made fearful to even exist. It’s much easier to say “Pat Robertson hates gays!”, and I understand that. But it’s also cowardly and facile.”
    Artists are apt to do as they please, even if it doesnt always make the headlines. A production of Mozart’s Idomeneo in Germany was just shut down because the artists involved decided to include the severed head of Mohammed. And we know what happened to Theo van Gogh and Salman Rushdie. Unfortunately those who have the money (and therefore the power) will not give anything that criticizes either Israel or Islam a fair shake in today’s market.

  • http://shanehazen.blogspot.com Shane
  • NYCBusybody

    MrThompson, interesting points, but I would say that the German production being cancelled HAS made major headlines, just not in the U.S.
    It’s also interesting to note that the production was to also show the severed head of Jesus, but was cancelled due to pressure by Islamic groups in Germany.
    And I think criticism of Israel get quite a large shake in media, just not mainstream, major media.

  • Edward

    Shane, thanks for the clips, but I just don’t find his humor funny.
    NYC, I wish we had a choice. The right is obviously out of touch and traveling down a very slippery and dangerous path, while the left is not any better.

  • KevinTC

    “It’s much easier to say ‘Pat Robertson hates gays!’, and I understand that. But it’s also cowardly and facile.”
    Who is doing this? No other comedian has come close to the brilliance in tactics and execution of Cohen’s comedy. It’s hardly “cowardly” — you can’t fault it for what it’s not, especially when it doesn’t aim for Islamic culture in the first place.
    It’s not “morally inept” — it’s just focused singularly on something that will have relevance and resonance with American audiences. Who cares if the criticisms are obvious? Clearly this means the prejudices he exposes are widespread — a simple understanding that makes the comedy all the more valid.

  • NYCBusybody

    Either way, I agree that there is prejudice in American society, and that pointing it out is fine and dandy.
    I’m just saying it’s easy – everyone does that. Ad nauseum. Christianity, particuarly American Christianity, is mocked and ridiculed in every conceivable way, and has been for years. They’ve actually finally gotten the message that angry boycotts don’t work, and they ignore it much more than they used to. Fair enough, if you’re anti-Christian, as most of Europe is.
    It would be much braver and riveting to see an Islamic country attacked for the same things, but you won’t see that. At least not for the forseeable future. It’s much easier to make the 932,948th lame joke about Jerry Falwell than to go after Muslims.

  • NYCBusybody

    “you can’t fault it for what it’s not, especially when it doesn’t aim for Islamic culture in the first place”
    If you can’t understand the point I’m making after saying that, you never will.
    It’s PRECISELY because OF COWARDICE, that he’s not “aiming for Islamic culture in the first place”.

  • MrThompson

    “And I think criticism of Israel get quite a large shake in media, just not mainstream, major media.”
    In the media, maybe. I’d say the mainstream media is a bit light on it and the underground media is quite overboard. But in art, which I was referring to, cancelations for percieved anti-Israel bias are almost as common as those for anti-Islam. Notably, cancelations of John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer, or a recent NYC nix on a play about Rachel Corrie.

  • Craig Kennedy

    “Coward” seems like a pretty strong word to describe an entertainer. Considering what happens to people who portray Islam in an unflattering light, can you even blame him? I don’t play Russian Roulette for kicks on a Saturday night…does that make me a coward?

  • NYCBusybody

    Fair enough. It is a pretty strong word to use in specific reference to one artist, and I shouldn’t have, although I do think the point stands. If Cohen’s intent indeed is to satirize those gosh-darned stupid yokels in America, it’s fine. Europeans eat that up (as do many Americans), and he’s just giving the public what they want.
    But it’s been done to death, and its part of a larger complicity in ignoring an even greater problem. And all I’m saying is that its easy, facile, and not very original or brave. But it sure is funny as hell.

  • travis b

    NYC…i think your criticism is slighty misplaced. yeah, he’s picking on american culture and he goes after conservatives, but he also did the same thing to the british (and european culture) when the character first appeared on the british version of the Ali G show. so, i don’t necessarily think it’s a religious attack as much as it is a cultural attack. thus, i don’t see how his leaving islam alone even equates into what he’s doing.

  • L.B.

    It’s PRECISELY because OF COWARDICE, that he’s not “aiming for Islamic culture in the first place”.
    Maybe it wasn’t COWARDICE that motivated so much as not setting out to satirize Islamic culture in the first place with this character. He uses this character to get a particular reaction the same way he used Ali G to go for something else. It’s really presumptious of you to make any kind of accusation about his motives unless you know them. Unless you know for a fact that he said, “I’d love to tear into some of those Islamic cultures, but. . .oh, I’m too scared! I better stick with Americans. They have enough disposable income to spend on the finished product anyway, so I win twice” then you need to stow that.
    The way you portray creative people really points up the notion that you don’t have much of an accurate idea about how an individual’s creative process works. That’s too bad.

  • NYCBusybody

    Travisb, good point, and something I hadn’t considered, that he did the same thing to make fun of British culture. But I never claimed it was a “religious” attack at all.
    I think it’s worth mentioning that the reason Cohen CAN do such shows and characters in Europe and America, making fun of the people in their own countries, is for precisely the opposite reason he CAN’T in Islamic countries. Attacking Western culture for its prejudices is fine, but is it really what a brave, far-seeing comedian should be attacking right now?
    I eagerly await the first major comedian who won’t go “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” like Albert Brooks did, but will be a Lenny Bruce and go after militant Islam.
    And with that, I conclude my say in this thread. Cue D.Z., I’m sure.

  • NYCBusybody

    LB, if Cohen, a Jew, isn’t attacking a culture such as militant Islam, a culture in which the President of Iran calls for “erasing Israel from the map”, a culture NO ONE can deny is virulently, largely anti-Semitic…why not? He decided to make a comedy character about anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish prejudice in the modern world and he went after…Texas? Why did he choose to do that?
    Come on.

  • L.B.

    “But it’s been done to death, and its part of a larger complicity in ignoring an even greater problem. And all I’m saying is that its easy, facile, and not very original or brave. But it sure is funny as hell.”
    And that’s the end of your argument. Many things have been done to death, but when someone can put a particularly original or brilliant spin on it it is fresh and worth the while. (Not to mention unique enough to draw particular attention, which he has done with this.) It’s not as if every single person who makes fun of America makes the same sized splash. Accuracy and talent will out. Cohen is mining a rich vein here and doing better and in more original ways than others. That deserves to be rewarded.
    And Travis is correct. Cohen wielded his weapons on Europeans long before we ever heard of him. And as I recall, his earliest exposure as Borat on this side of the Atlantic was because of something he had done over there. We’re just his next target. And God bless him for that. I enjoy his work and don’t mind being the butt of a joke as long as it’s as funny as his are.

  • NYCBusybody

    I think that’s the most important point to make here. I thought it was very funny and brave when he took his gay-fashion character to a college football game in America…THAT is satire that America needs to see, and hits home.
    Ali G also, because it was about race and b-boy culture in both Europe and the U.S..whether you agree with his point or not, at least it’s satire on Western culture, and relevant.
    It’s the fact that it’s about anti-Semitism in specific that bothers me. Yes, there are anti-Semites in America. There are anti-Semities in Europe. But I don’t think anyone, anywhere in the political spectrum, would suggest that it’s even 10% of the potency it has in the Islamic world.
    Why focus on us? There’s a bigger target.

  • L.B.

    It might be worth noting here that not all of his Borat material hinges on anti-Semitism. Okay? So, why didn’t he? I don’t know. You seem to be the expert on what motivates so many people, I’m surprised you don’t.
    I don’t know enough about the history of the character to know how it was created. Perhaps the anti-Semitism angle was added as he went. I don’t know. I also doubt he started out with a blueprint of the whole character and how it could be used for various groups.
    Why go after Texas? Well, I was born there, so there’s one reason. Another reason would be that it has a lot to make fun of. Not all of it courtesy of my relatives either.

  • Craig Kennedy

    NYC’s broader point, that it’s ‘ok’ to trash the less sophisticated veins of American culture but not Islamic culture, I think is correct but the question should not be “why is it ok to bash hayseeds?” but instead “why is it NOT ok to bash Islam?” The extremist branches of Islam have to be the most humorless collection of grouches since man first slipped on a banana peel. Jerry Falwell isn’t exactly Shecky Green, but he’s not assasinating people either.

  • travis b

    i think the anti-semitism angle comes from the fact that the country borat is supposedly from is notorious for its anti-semitism, flawed elections, and treatment of women. it may not be as extreme as the character portrays it, but it’s there (not to mention that the previous kazaky (sp?) election was pretty flawed. also, the character was created sometime before islamic extremism was in the forefront of the news…thus it would be almost out of character for him to bash islam suddenly.
    and with that, i’m out. good weekend to all

  • Edward

    CJ, Falwell assasinates with words, but he is easy and safe to criticize and satirize. I agree that artists and politicians should be freely allowed to satirize/criticize Islam, Israel or any other culture/group/country. Being open to criticism can be very liberating. We have become so inundated by political correctness that we have to pussy-foot around issues which prevents an open dialogue of ideas and issues.

  • NYCBusybody

    Cjkennedy nailed it exactly on the head. Well done.
    I want to make it very clear that the point of what I have been saying is NOT…I repeat NOT…”why is it ok to bash hayseeds?”. I have no problem with those who attack intolerance and hatred of any kind.
    My question has been, all along, “why is the intolerance of militant Islam tolerated” by so many, especially by artists, mostly leftist, and thus so concerned with human rights? I suggest that it is, in fact, fear of Islamic retaliation (in Islamic countries), and political correctness (fear of moderate Muslim groups in Western countries).
    Travisb makes the good point that it’s just not likely Cohen intended this solely as a criticism of America – Kazakhstan has a long history of these violations.

  • D.Z.

    What the hell, people?! Borat’s just another lowbrow comedy looking for cheap laughs, not a social satire like South Park. In fact, they ought to just re-title it to Eastern Euro Trip. People are reading way too much into an obvious publicity stunt. Anyway, it’s probably going to turn out to be a borefest which only appeals to critics, much like The Aristocrats.

  • NYCBusybody

    Wow, for once I almost semi-agree with D.Z. My first post said sort of the same thing, although I consider it mid-to-highbrow comedy, not lowbrow. But I don’t think it’s important, potent satire, if it’s just another “gosh, those hayseed Americans sure are stupid” piece. It’ll play to the convinced, of course, but not change any minds. The real satire would be aimed elsewhere, as my 6,424 posts have already suggested.
    Must…try..to…stop…posting…

  • nemo

    NYCBusybody keeps claiming that anti-Semitism is rampant on the left, and I keep wondering where he encounters it. I see a little evidence of his claim among the European left, but among the American left (what little there is of it)? Where is it?
    I don’t hear it among my leftish acquaintances. I don’t hear it from liberal politicians. I don’t read it in the occasional leftwing blogs I peruse, except for an occasional childish crank in the comments. I don’t ever see it when I pick up any leftish publications such The Nation (The New Republic hasn’t been leftish since the Ford administration).
    One thought I have is that NYCBB runs into a lot more lefties in NYC than I do out here in the hinterlands of the Midwest, which means he’s more like to run into some out and out fools, which may include some anti-Semites. He wants to distinguish himself from his lefty friends, so he tars them all with the anti-Semite brush if he hears a remotely anti-Semitic comment from any of them.
    Another thought I have, which seems more likely to me, is that NYCBB is indulging in the common rhetorical trick of identifying the government of Israel with the Jewish people. You criticize the government of Israel, then you must be anti-Semitic.
    Of course the trick is pretty obvious when you spell it out like that, but like any trick it works better when you keep that leap hidden.
    I do encounter some real non-imaginary anti-Semites here in the Midwest and when I visit my sister in Texas. But none of them are remotely left-wing. They always turn out to be chest-beating Christians and right-wing Republicans, just like my dear late racist and anti-Semitic grandfather.
    By the way, it’s too bad Cohen didn’t get to talk with Bush face to face. They have a lot in common, what with both of them making a big public show of pretending to read Camus’s The Stranger.

  • NYCBusybody

    Alright, nemo, I’ll give you some credit on that one. I’m actually from the Midwest originally, and yes, my anti-leftism was indisputably heightened when I moved to NYC (I voted for Kerry in 2004, when living in the Midwest).
    Walking through Union Square on a non-busy day and being able to count more than three people wearing Soviet Union Sickle-and-hammer shirts (not to mention the Che Guevara shirt/uniform so prevalent in the Village) did impact my subject-to-contrarianism mindset just a tad. It made me almost miss people wearing American flag shirts when I used to spend a lot of time in Oklahoma.
    And yes, you’re right that being anti-Israel is not the same at all as being anti-Semitic; I think what I’ve only ever said is that I suspect a lot of anti-Israelites of ALSO being anti-Semitic, although yes, I could be wrong.
    And no, you won’t see actual columns in leftie magazines or sites that are anti-Semitic, but the comments sections are rife with them. Look at the aforementioned “hook-nosed friends” comment – that was by an ACTUAL staffer for an ACTUAL Democrat running for Congress in Maryland. Perhaps it’s not as “rampant” as I’ve suggested, but it’s there.

  • MrThompson

    If you think NYC is bad, try San Francisco. Moving from the latter to the former has made me think Im in the moderate capital of the world.

  • Craptastic

    I can’t believe all of you are taking this so seriously.

  • Nate West

    “NYCBushbody: Very few are willing to criticize Islamic cultures…”
    Oh, I would say that occupying Iran and bombing Lebanon are both less than subtle forms of literary criticism. Not as brutal as the satire of Dane Cook, perhaps, but punishing nonetheless.

  • cjKennedy

    “Coward” seems like a pretty strong word to describe an entertainer. Considering what happens to people who portray Islam in an unflattering light, can you even blame him? I don’t play Russian Roulette for kicks on a Saturday night…does that make me a coward?

  • cjKennedy

    NYC’s broader point, that it’s ‘ok’ to trash the less sophisticated veins of American culture but not Islamic culture, I think is correct but the question should not be “why is it ok to bash hayseeds?” but instead “why is it NOT ok to bash Islam?” The extremist branches of Islam have to be the most humorless collection of grouches since man first slipped on a banana peel. Jerry Falwell isn’t exactly Shecky Green, but he’s not assasinating people either.

  • Pinko Punko

    On the internet, they have an acronym for NYCBb’s feeling about American culture being attacked- it’s WATB.
    Chickety check!

  • http://www.chud.com Devin Faraci

    I was at heavy metal/punk rock karoake at Arlene’s Grocery here in NYC in 2002, as the war with Iraq was being lied into existence. I sang War Pigs, and used Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld’s names in the song. After I sang a guy dressed like Dee Snider (!) came up to me and said that the fact that I live in a country where I can criticize the president is exactly the reason I shouldn’t. This thread reminded me of that ding dong.

  • Dixon Steele

    NYCBB, we unfortunately live in a world where “taking on” Islam can be seriously hazardous to your health.
    The Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh found this out when he did so and was murdered for his efforts.
    By your definition, he was “brave”. But he’s also now dead, and that’s a fact.