Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What We Learn From Borat

I've been following the Borat discussions that have ensued the release of Sacha Baron Cohen's blockbuster movie, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." Everyone recognizes that this satire, as well the character Borat in Da Ali G Show, exposes something unattractive about American life. But what exactly? There are two chief theories. First, being a foreigner with odd and perverse beliefs, the presence of Borat somehow naturally makes Americans feel more comfortable sharing their own odd and perverse beliefs, beliefs that they normally suppress except in extraordinary circumstances. This is the view that S. B. Cohen himself once expressed.

The second theory has been well formulated by Christopher Hitchens writing in Slate: "But it's that attitude of painfully maintained open-mindedness and multiculturalism that is really being unmasked and satirized by our man from the 'stan." According to Hitchens, Borat shows Americans most vividly what their multiculturalism amounts to with respect to the racist and sexist beliefs and actions of a man like Borat. Most Americans probably disagree with Borat, but they nonetheless act toward him and his beliefs with respect.

Both theories I think constitute the core of the story. When we combine them, however, we get a new, third theory: Borat reveals to us when it is political correct to be politically incorrect. Borat shows that Americans will express politically incorrect views in order to act politely in regards to a foreigner. If we look at how the Americans relate to this strange foreigner, they appear polite to a fault. Yet at the same time, if we focus on the politically incorrect, prejudiced opinions they assent to or espouse in the process, they appear to be a perverse, even dangerous group of people. But once we see that many of Borat's victims say politically incorrect things in order to act in a polite, politically correct way, we are able to laugh at Borat's encounter with rather ordinary American customs. Without the mixture of politically correct actions and politically incorrect beliefs on the part of Borat's victims, Borat's hijinks would not be funny. Borat thrives, then, not just on political incorrectness, but on a multiculturalism of political correctness as well.

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