Wojciech Malecki. Post Script. Volume 28, Issue 3. Summer 2009.
Perhaps the only uncontroversial thing about Sacha Baron Cohen’s movie Borat is that it is, indeed, very controversial. The film begets layers of questions: Is it brainy or lowbrow? An important sociopolitical satire, or just pointless, scatological slapstick? If intended as satire, then which pole of the ideological field does it represent, and whose vices does it expose? Does it reveal America’s hidden bigotry, or reinforce it, as it mocks the rhetoric of political correctness? And when more deeply considered, do we actually know who Cohen is laughing at—conservative citizens of the “red” states, Americans in general, Euro-American civilization as such, or the cultural reactionism of the Third World?
And do we know who we, ourselves, are laughing at?
In what follows, I shall try to explore some of these issues by treating Borat as an illustration of the theoretical views I happen to favor (the same way—toutes proportions gardées, of course—that Žižek uses Wild at Heart to illuminate his theories, and that the Enlightenment authors used their own literary works to illustrate the ideas they cherished), though I am sure, however, that my analysis will not resolve the already existing controversies that surround the film, and if anything, will only add to them.
I have mentioned the Enlightenment authors intentionally, since while I was watching Borat for the first time, it immediately struck me that the movie, and its basic premise, can be included in a long tradition of satirical narratives dating at least from the 18th century. These narratives were originally intended to criticize a particular culture, through the use of an outsider—a fictional character functioning as a cultural other (such as Usbek and Rica in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters), or an insider who is considered abnormal (like the pathologically naïve protagonist of Voltaire’s Candide), or in the most extreme example, a being not of this Earth (as in Voltaire’s Micromégas). The writers of the Enlightenment believed that this strategy of looking at one’s own society and culture through the eyes of the other allowed them to highlight and exorcise those elements of collective life that are arbitrary and irrational, and thus distill the essence of pure, universal reason hidden under the layers of prejudice. This strategy has been appropriated by Western popular culture, which extracted it from its original philosophical context, to privilege commentary-as-entertainment rather than commentary-as-reason, but nonetheless, created a continuum from Candide to Borat. That being the case, the discussion that follows will refer, explicitly or implicitly, to the ties between Cohen’s narrative and those of Voltaire and Montesquieu.
There are, to be sure, crucial differences between them, which can be provisionally defined by saying that if the latter were foundational parables of the modern optimistic belief in the power of reason, the former can be interpreted as expressing post-Enlightenment doubts about our abilities to organize our world rationally. I am going to develop this thesis in the remainder of the paper by analyzing a few detailed problems, the first of which relates to the construction of Borat’s character.
Borat is both a character in, and (in some moments) the narrator of, the movie, but most importantly, he is at the same time a cultural other (an Oriental Other to boot, just as in Persian Letters), and an idiot like Candide. But is he really a “boob” or even a “demented lunatic” as some commentators have said (Sailer 29)? How can we say that he is? How can we distinguish—in this specific case—where cultural difference ends and mental disability starts? Is it because he does not understand our jokes, our way of marrying people, our way of using the toilet? Has not the multiculturalist discourse taught us the dogma that there are people who may act in ways which seem crazy to us, but if these ways form a particular culture we should call them different, rather than mad? Haven’t we been taught that there is a difference between idiocy and a cultural otherness which may seem idiotic but in fact is not, at least no more (or less) than our cultural identity is in the eyes of outsiders?
In the beginning of the movie, we are shown that Borat’s way is the way of most of his fictional compatriots, and, most importantly, that his social stature among them must be quite high, as he was sent “to US and A” by the Kazakh ministry of information itself. In fact, one of the elements of Cohen’s joke, at the expense of the multiculturalist discourse, is that while the latter often presents images of cultural otherness as something noble (an inheritance of the noble savage topos still permeating both popular and unpopular imagination), Borat’s otherness is constructed as something that cannot be framed as noble, even in our wildest dreams. This is partly due to the character’s apparent grotesque idiocy, but mainly due to the features which become evident when we analyze Borat’s worldview, as it is portrayed in the movie and in episodes of Da Ali G Show.
Borat is a sexist who believes, for instance, that due to their brain’s size, women should not be educated; that you make a woman your wife by kidnapping her, and that she should be kept in a cage afterwards. Given that he is a cultural other who has landed abruptly in the context of our liberal civilization, there necessarily emerges a conflict of values: should we respect the right of the other to express himself, even if this expression violates women’s rights cherished by our culture? Of course, we do not need Borat to illustrate the possibility of such a dilemma (and Borat does more than that, as I will try to show), since we have had many cases of this kind in the real world. As but one example, in 2006 a Pole was arrested in the UK on the charges of sexually assaulting several women in the streets of Weymouth, Dorset (to be exact, he “fondled their breasts or pinched their bottoms while making grunting noises”—see Levy). When caught, he claimed that he was unaware of having done anything wrong, since in the country where he was born and spent most of his life, i.e. Poland, such practices are deemed quite normal. Despite the fact that this line of defense was affirmed by the interpreter (a Russian-born woman) employed by the police for his interrogation, it was (and is) obviously false. I mention this case not only because it illustrates a certain conflict of values which may emerge within liberal multiculturalist discourse, but also because the man is, in a way, a ‘Polish Borat,’ disseminating untrue images of Polish barbarity, an example which gives me, as a Polish citizen, a hint of the uneasiness felt by the Kazakhs, now that Mr. Sagdiyev is their most internationally known ambassador.
Besides being sexist, Cohen’s character is obviously an out-and-out racist (harboring ill will against Jews and “Gypsies,” and calling African Americans “chocolate faces”), a homophobe (albeit a very specific one), and is biased against those with limited intellectual capacities, as well. Given all this, I would like to propose that the character, Borat, unmasks in a perfect way the fundamental paradoxes of multiculturalist ideology, and thereby may serve as an illustration of Stanley Fish’s argument that multiculturalism does not and cannot exist, or, to put it differently, that “no one could possibly be a multiculturalist in any interesting and coherent sense” (Fish, The Trouble with Principle 63).
Now, what could that mean, one may ask? Is Stanley Fish so blind (or crazy) as to deny the obvious facts? What about all those books, journals, policies, and debates relating to multiculturalism, and the clever, educated people engaged in the multiculturalist business? Are they simply wasting time and money debating something that is a non-entity? To resolve such questions in part, it must be stressed that Fish’s formulation is not as bold and drastic as it sounds, and if it sounds so, it is merely because of his love of paradox, and what Terry Eagleton has referred to as Fish’s “rather stagey relish for the melodramatic theoretical gesture” (Eagleton 182). Fish is obviously not trying to deny the existence of multiculturalism understood as “demographic fact”; he is, rather, saying that there is no such thing as multiculturalism, conceived as some kind of “abstract concept” or theoretical position, because no such concept or position can be coherent—a thesis Fish defends by analyzing examples taken from the work of contemporary theorists, such as Guttmann and Taylor. First of all, he proposes a distinction between what he calls “boutique multiculturalism” and “strong multiculturalism,” where the followers of the former are described as those who
[…] admire or appreciate or enjoy or sympathize with or (at the very least) “recognize the legitimacy of” the traditions of cultures other than their own; but…[nevertheless] will always stop short of approving other cultures at a point where some value at their center generates an act that offends against the canons of civilized decency as they have been either declared or assumed. (56)
This is because what they respect in the Other is its universal human dignity as a rational agent, thus rendering differences of, say, dress and dining codes, sexual practices, or religion, as merely superficial. The problem, however, as Fish points out, is that it is the multiculturalist who decides which features of a given culture are superficial, and he/she does this on the basis of the criteria provided by his/her own culture. Moreover, as a natural consequence that Fish draws from this stance, the Other should give up these superficial differences when they violate another’s right to expression of difference. For the cultural other, though, these very features often are not superficial, but essential. Inevitably, then, such a multiculturalism is not multiculturalism at all, but rather a “uniculturalism” of sorts.
A nice illustration of the “boutique” attitude can be a scene when Borat attends the dinner at Ms. Streit’s house in Alabama. The guests obviously respect the cultural other from Kazakhstan (they invite him to the table, after all), nevertheless they raise their eyes to the heavens at Borat’s barbarity. Borat, however, is not thrown out of the party after he makes a rude remark about the appearance of the wife of one the guests, and calls another ‘retarded,’ having misheard, or misconceived, the word ‘retired’. The real trouble starts when he turns from words to deeds and violates etiquette by bringing his excrement to the table. Even more crucial, the party ends (quite violently) when Borat breaks one of the unwritten sacred laws of white petit-bourgeois morality by inviting his friend to the party—a woman who not only appears to be a prostitute, but is also black. As “boutique” multiculturalists, Borat’s hosts respect him as a human being, tolerate his various cultural faux pas, but they simply could not abide this final step in his increasingly transgressive behavior.
The other kind of multiculturalism Fish outlines is “strong multiculturalism” which owes this predicate to the fact that “it values difference in and for itself rather as a manifestation of something more basically constitutive.” “Strong” multiculturalism differs from Fish’s concept of “boutique” multiculturalism in that its “first principle is not rationality, or some other supracultural universal, but tolerance.”(60) Given the many problems inhabiting the latter notion and stressed by authors, who range from Locke to Fish himself, it is easy to understand that Borat, whose identity was constructed almost solely of various instances of intolerance, must be every “strong” multiculturalist’s worst nightmare. He seems to be a subversive element unmasking the fundamental paradox of multiculturalist theoretical machinery, which breaks down when confronted with a cultural other whose distinctiveness it has to tolerate in principle, but whose most firm beliefs (those that form his/her distinctive identity), and the actions that follow them, are essentially intolerant of any other “other.”
Why should this sort of multiculturalism break down, and what does this mean? According to Fish, having faced a figure like Borat, the “strong” multiculturalist has but two paths to choose: he can either tolerate the other’s intolerance (“in which case tolerance is no longer his guiding principle”—61) or he can adopt an intolerant stance toward the intolerance in question (a move which could also be hardly seen as being guided by tolerance). Interestingly, in the second case, as Fish observes, the “strong” multiculturalist usually feels obliged to base his intolerance on some general “supracultural” principle which makes his stance equal to “boutique” multiculturalism, albeit draped in a slightly different clothes. And, in turn, if the “strong” multiculturalist, not being able to satisfy the demands of all cultures (tolerate them all at once) decided to tolerate only one culture (despite what that culture may do to others), he would turn into an exceptionally “strong” mulitculturalist, i.e. a multiculturalist so weak that he could be called a “uniculturalist”. In any event, multiculturalism fails as badly (through its incoherence) as a theoretical stance can fail, and Borat is dancing on its grave.
But here, I should address one objection that may be raised against this line of reasoning, as well as against Borat’s overall satirical potential. That is, it may be asked why we should bother about the internal consistency of multiculturalism, or the fact that there are some people in our tolerant, liberal societies who do not react properly when faced with racist or sexist declarations and even utter them themselves (like e.g. the fraternity boys Sagdiyev meets on his way to California), when there are places where women really have no rights and are subject to customs and controls that, through the lens of our culture, are difficult, and sometimes even painful, to imagine, and, as Charles Krauthammer’s article “Throw the Jew Joke Down the Well: Borat Gets Anti-Semitism Wrong” points out, there are countries officially engaged in anti-Semitic propaganda.
What should we make of such a powerful argument? One might respond that the fact that we see a beam in our neighbor’s eye should not blind us to the fact that there is a mote in ours, or perhaps emphasize that even if there are some people (cultures, countries) who are less egalitarian or inclusive than us, it does not in any way mean that our sins are completely washed away. Of course, the tendency here may still be to trivialize “local,” and seemingly “minor” instances. Krauthammer’s article provides an important example of this. The author, interestingly, evokes the infamous “Throw the Jew Down the Well” episode which appeared not in the movie itself but as a segment of Da Ali G Show (briefly: Borat sings an aggressively anti-Semitic song on the stage of a Tuscon country-music bar without meeting any negative reaction, and some guests even join him), and then quotes Cohen’s own commentary to the effect that this episode exposes an “indifference to anti-Semitism,” the same which led to the Holocaust during the last century. Krauthammer reacts to this in the following:
Whoaaaa. Does he really believe such rubbish? Can a man that smart…really believe that indifference to anti-Semitism and the road to the Holocaust are to be found in a country and western bar in Tucson?
Again, how do we respond? Perhaps we can point to the insidious nature of attitudes embedded in popular culture—making a case that, in order for the Holocaust to occur, anti-Semitic sentiment had to permeate popular culture, including such artifacts as songs and jokes (even though, as Matthew Norman points out, “Adolf Hitler…in Mein Kampf discouraged the telling of Jewish jokes on the grounds that people find it hard to hate that which makes them laugh”—Norman)—making it unwise to take such actions and expressions for granted. Critics, such as Krauthammer, have addressed this argument, as well:
Look. Harry Truman used to tell derisive Jewish jokes. Richard Nixon said nasty things about Jews in government and elsewhere. Who cares? Truman and Nixon were the two greatest friends of the Jews in the entire postwar period: Truman secured them a refuge in the state of Israel, and Nixon saved it from extinction during the Yom Kippur War.
In other words, actions speak louder than words—a point made often by commentators who try to blunt the edge of Cohen’s satire. For instance, Christopher Hitchens reminds readers that “the man in the gun shop [whom Borat asks which gun would be best to defend himself from a Jew] won’t sell the Kazakh a weapon” (Hitchens). Yet Hitchens’ commentary overlooks that the civic-minded American merely laughs when Sagdiyev aims at an imagined enemy, saying, “I, movie star, Dirty Harold. Come on and make my day, Jew.” Likewise, how should we interpret the man who advises Borat on how to kill “Gypsies” by driving into them with a Hummer (“With this vehicle right here probably doing 35-40 mph will do it”)? According to Hitchens, it is merely a sign that “Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse.”
While Hitchens denounces the absurdity of Ryan Gilbey’s reasoning that Borat exposes some “frightening” truths about “crass Americana” (Gilbey), his counterargument is similarly absurd, stretching the notion of hospitality to the point at which it becomes unrecognizable. Rather than engage in the debate on what Borat proves or does not, but nevertheless staying with Hitchens, I would like to continue with the issue of words. One of the scenes Hitchens underscores to prove to the readers the considerable politeness and patience of Americans is when the guests of a dinner party “agree what a nice young American he [i.e. Borat] might make. And this is after he has called one guest a retard and grossly insulted the wife of another.” Of course, but, as Hitchens himself realizes, Americans sometimes lose their patience, and as we see, it happens not only when Borat does something wrong, but also when he merely says something wrong. For instance, there is the infamous rodeo scene which poses, apparently, a real hermeneutical problem. Here is the description presented by New Statesman’s film critic Ryan Gilbey:
A redneck rodeo crowd shows no compunction about cheering Borat’s gung-ho speech about Iraq, clearly not realizing that what he actually said was: ‘We support your war of terror!’
And now Hitchen’s corrective:
Oh, come on […] Is it too literal-minded to point out what any viewer of the movie can see for himself—that the crowd at the rodeo stops cheering quite fast when it realizes that something is amiss…
And, finally, the description of the event itself (not its representation in the movie) by Laurence Hammack:
Speaking in broken English, the mysterious man first told the decidedly pro-American crowd—it was a rodeo, of all things, in Salem, of all places—that he supported the war on terrorism. “I hope you kill every man, woman and child in Iraq, down to the lizards,” he said, according to Brett Sharp of Star Country WSLC, who was also on stage that night as a media sponsor of the rodeo. An uneasy murmur ran through the crowd. “And may George W. Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq,” he continued, according to Robynn Jaymes, who co-hosts a morning radio show with Sharp and was also among the stunned observers. The crowd’s reaction was loud enough for John Saunders, the civic center’s assistant director, to hear from the front office. “It was a restless kind of booing,” Saunders said. Then the man took off his hat and sang what he said was his native national anthem. He then told the crowd to be seated, put his hat back on, and launched into a butchered version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that ended with the words “your home in the grave,” Sharp said. By then, a restless crowd had turned downright nasty.
I hope it is not too literal-minded to point out what any reader of these excerpts can see for himself/herself—there are indeed different opinions as to what happened during that evening. As far as can be seen in the movie, though, the public cheers quite freely not only hearing the praise of the war of terror, but also the words about drinking the blood of the little children, and they stop only when Borat mentions “May you destroy that country so that for the next thousand years not even a single lizard will survive in their desert.” But the audience merely stops cheering, since to more actively demonstrate their disapproval they apparently need something more than the praise of collective infanticide and a scorched earth policy. As to what that is (and it is also not that clear) I will yet return, but first let me say a word on the “We support your war of terror” gag.
The New Statesman’s film critic, as we have seen above, thought the crowd “obviously” did not realize what Borat actually said, but this is not so obvious. For instance, the people at the rodeo might actually have heard Borat’s exact words, but having also been aware that his command of English was lacking, they “obviously” assumed in this context (the guy is here to sing our anthem, he is wearing a cowboy hat and a star spangled shirt, etc.) that he meant something other than what he said. To be precise, ‘assumed’ is the wrong word here since it may suggest some conscious process of interpreting the utterance, while the process which I am talking about belongs rather to what a pragmatist philosopher Richard Shusterman calls “understanding,” i.e. something “which is done automatically and unconsciously (yet still intelligently and not mechanically) on the basis of intelligent habits, without any reflection or deliberation at all.” (Shusterman 124) And to couple Shusterman’s account with another pragmatism-related theory of interpretation (espoused by theorists such as Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels), every such understanding is necessarily based on a tacit presumption concerning the intention of the speaker, because a given stream of sounds or set of marks can only be conceived by us as a piece of language if we presume that there is some subject behind it, with this subject being always more or less determined, even when we do not consciously think about it. Thus, they may have heard “war of terror,” but immediately understood it as “war on terror,” based on their presumption of Borat’s good will, while if they had heard it uttered by, say, someone whom they had known to be an evil leftist intellectual, they would have reacted differently. Cohen’s joke, then, would be simply to manipulate the situation in such a way as to make Americans appear to be confessing to a crime of which many people have accused them.
Put this way, my reading sounds trivial, but it is nevertheless necessary for an argument which will become clear below. For now, let me point out that there is another possible interpretation, based on Slavoj Žižek’s psychoanalytic theory. In the Plague of Fantasies the Slovenian philosopher puts forward an intriguing thesis that the unconscious, as well as hidden tensions of a given ideology, very often re-appear on the very surface of our behavior—in our gestures, art forms, architecture, or even the design of the toilets – in other words, ‘the truth is out there’. If Žižek is right, then the crowd, while not being aware of it, understood the phrase quite literally and their cheering was but an expression of their repressed consciousness that the war on terror really is a war of terror. And, I do not have to add, they would deny the equation if it was presented to them in an explicit form.
Now, let us return to investigate the moment at which the Rodeo crowd actually turns into a “lynch mob.” As Barbara Ehrenreich, columnist for The Progressive, points out, it happens only when Borat sings his national anthem, and the words “the Kazakhstan is number one! Its potassium is the best in the world!” make the audience “realize that claims to being <<number one>> are not confined to the USA.” This is the truth, but only half of it. We could imagine a different and much calmer reaction to the very same words, not only on the part of different Americans, but also on the part of the same group that we see bewildered in the movie. The determining factor is something that Ehrenreich does not mention, i.e. the specific context in which the words were said. Namely, Borat sings them at that particular moment of the event when the American anthem is usually sung and, moreover, to its melody. The substitution of the text of the American anthem with the fake Kazakh one would not be necessarily controversial in itself (after all, the strategy of substituting one text for another without changing the melody has been known from medieval times as contrafactum, and has been used also for noble reasons), but the insult and absurdity contained in the words (“all the other countries [besides Kazakhstan] are run by little girls”) turns Borat’s instance of contrafactum into a profanation which necessarily and understandably is received badly by the audience. This example is also interesting because it shows the fuzziness of the words/deeds distinction, as the singing of an anthem is always a performative act, and in this case it is a double performative act, since it also constitutes a formal element necessary for the show to be opened. Given this, one may say that at that moment Borat found himself in the position of exercising power over the audience: they simply had to listen to him, not only because he held their national pride in his hands, but also because, without him, the event could not go on. The word “power” is especially crucial here (as well as the word “context” I have used in discussing the rodeo event), for it makes us realize not only that the line between speech and deed is very thin, but also, that speech can have different degrees of power and that its power is determined by the context in which it functions (in particular, by the relations of power between speakers), as much as by any inherent qualities of its content.
This brings us to another argument that could be put forward regarding Borat: ‘look, the white Anglo-Saxon Americans portrayed in the movie may have actually said all those bad things, but on the other hand they were polite in most cases when Mr. Sagdiyev offended them, so it follows that we should not pay so much attention to their words.’ But the relation between their insults of minorities (or accepting Borat’s insults of minorities) and Borat’s insults of them is an asymmetrical one, since (a) Borat’s impoliteness is almost never explicitly aimed at them as a particular group (in fact he came to America to be taught by them), and even if it were, (b) in the context of America, white Anglo-Saxon Americans are, of course, those who are the majority, if not in demographical terms then in terms of socio-economical power, and thus any offense on the part of the cultural other is less harmful than in the reverse situation.
Actually, this argument relates not only to Borat, but touches also the hate-speech problem in general, a problem which is still hotly debated, as the recent “Michael Richards controversy” shows. The point, again and again, is that if a given term (e.g. ‘nigger’ or ‘kike’) is deplorable, then it is equally deplorable when a white person uses it and when a black person does the same, and, going further, if no-one should be allowed to use the word ‘nigger’ because it is offensive, then neither should anyone be allowed to use epithets like ‘white trash'(see Fish There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech 75-77). However, as Fish points out, following Stanford professor of law Thomas Grey, since in American society whiteness is a culturally hegemonic category, “any epithet denigrating [whites] would be <<commonly>> regarded as a mistake something not to be taken seriously,” while epithets aimed at “traditionally disadvantaged groups” are reinforced by the whole history of persecution that stands behind them (Fish There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech 76). Therefore the situation at the rodeo, which someone might want to treat as an unimportant exception, is a meaningful one, for it shows that the cultural other can really affect Americans with his words only when he somehow manages to sneak into the position of power usually reserved for them.
In this context, it is worth turning to an interesting example Christopher Hitchens uses to attack the New Statesman’s review of Borat: as we are told, the “only people who are flat-out rude and patronizing to our curious foreigner are the stone-faced liberal Amazons of the Veteran Feminists of America—surely natural readers of the New Statesman” (Hitchens). Surely—both as women and feminists—natural subjects of different forms of oppression in the still-masculinist western societies. No wonder, then, they react with discomfort: Borat’s words are consonant with the sexist discourse which feminists know all too well, and which reinforces and sustains the reality they want to change. And the discourse in question embraces not only serious declarations of women’s inferiority, but also utterances less serious, so insouciant, in fact, that they can be called jokes. Hence independently of whether the feminists regard Borat as a real Kazakh journalist actually holding the beliefs he expresses, or just a joker poking fun at them, their reaction is equally justified, which brings me to the final question I would like to discuss, i.e. laughter.
Let me stress, here, that there are people who say that the movie simply is not funny since gender, sexual preference, ethnicity etc. should not be a laughing matter. Now, it is very easy to dismiss these critics as some naïve literalist viewers who simply do not get the joke. Don’t they realize that Borat is actually anti-racist (anti-anti-Semitic, for example) or anti-sexist and what we are really laughing at are the stupid followers of ignorant and morally condemnable views? This interpretation could be supported by the fact that Borat’s character is a very cunning caricature of racists, anti-Semites or sexists—cunning and cruel since his views have been constructed as an amalgam of the content of racist and sexist jokes taken literally. As Noël Carroll stresses in his essay on this theme: “racist, ethnic, and sexist jokes seem to presuppose the wrongness of certain stereotypes in order to be gotten,” (Carroll 346) but this wrongness relates only to the fact that a stereotype shared by sexists or racists is hyperbolized by the joke in an absurd way. So Cohen’s perverse joke is simply that he uses the very mechanism of sexist and racist jokes against the ideology that underlies this type of humor. But what if it is more than that? What if by suggesting this interpretation he simply gives us a relaxing feeling of being justified in our laughter, only to show how many terrible things we can laugh at, and how narrow our solidarity with the other is? Obviously, the Freudian theory of tendentious jokes might be used here, but I would like to refer to a simple personal example instead. As most readers probably realize, some of the key “Kazakh” phrases Borat utters, e.g. ‘jagshemash’ or ‘chenquieh’, are in fact common Polish phrases. Before seeing the movie for the first time I thought I was going to find it especially funny (note that I had not seen any of the Borat TV episodes before), but when I finally experienced it myself, my actual feelings were quite the opposite. Each time they occurred, Borat’s use of Polish words seemed like an improper intrusion, a spot of bad humor against the background of the good mood. Couldn’t Cohen use phrases from some other language or invent something, instead of putting my language in the mouth of this creature? Are the already existing Polish jokes not enough? Of course, there was a feeling of uneasiness, and doubly so, as I consequently became most uneasy about my own uneasiness or, to be exact, the easiness with which I reacted to other gags. After all, Cohen’s “Polish jokes” were nothing compared to the gags affecting Jews, blacks, and women that were included in the movie. Why was I touched, then? The answer is as trivial as it is pessimistic: because (to allude to the late Richard Rorty’s formulation) they were related to me or to some ‘we’ to which I belong, not to some ‘they’ with which I do not have much in common.
One may object that this argument excludes the obvious possibility of laughing at oneself (and aren’t there Jewish or Polish jokes told by Jews and Poles themselves?). But I would posit that a great deal of cultural meaning depends on the context in which a joke occurs. As Michael Billig remarks, referring to Freud’s analyses of “Jewish schnorrer (beggar) jokes. …If the joke is told by a beggar to an audience of beggars, the meaning of the laughter is likely to differ than if told by a wealthy patron to a wealthy audience” (Billig 32). The same applies to jokes based on ethnic categories: when a Polish joke is told by a Pole in the company of Poles it is something different from when it is told by a German in the company of Germans or people of some other non-Polish identity: in the latter context it is unacceptable, because it amplifies prejudices which are harmful to the Polish community, while in the former it is quite the opposite, because it serves goals that are advantageous to that community—the release of social tensions, the strengthening of communal bonds, and the exercise of insider knowledge, to name just a few.
The question of self-criticism allows me to return to the parallels between Borat and the Enlightenment narratives, which also embrace the topos of the educational value of traveling and its natural consequence, knowing otherness. What, then, are the “cultural learnings” Borat brings back home? The one he himself mentions is, ironically, something that he could have learned equally well without leaving Kazakhstan (“I have learned that if you chase a dream, especially one with plastic chests, you can miss the real beauty in front of your eyes.”) Also, there is nothing new in Cohen’s sarcasm about the civilizing capacity of the West, which surfaces in the final scenes of the movie, and takes the form of his perverse joke at Christianity. When the camera visits Borat’s village eight months after his return from the States, he proudly announces, “We no longer have running of the Jew, it’s cruel,” and adds “We Christians now” while showing us an instance of a new, enlightened custom: Kazakhs crucifying the Jew. There is no need to explain that thereby he alludes not only to the words uttered earlier by one of the Pentecostals (“We’re a Christian nation”), but also to centuries during which Jews were persecuted by Christians, who very often justified their actions by the fact that Jews crucified Christ (just as if He was not himself Jewish). Here the Christians crucify the Jew, who in our culture has already been but “the suffering allegory.” (Derrida 75).
And what are our “cultural learnings,” then? As I said, the Enlightenment narratives emerged originally on the horizon of rationalistic optimism, and their readers were supposed to be released from the bondage of prejudices by the power of laughter, in order to fashion their reality according to the principles of ratio. And even though the immanent counter-Enlightenment, to use Charles Taylor’s phrase, which dominated the cultural life of recent decades is no longer as vital as it used to be, the backdrop against which Borat appears is still that of a pessimistic disbelief in our ability to organize social life rationally. No wonder, then, that Cohen leaves us with the awareness that there are irresolvable tensions inside our dominant ideologies, and that laughing at ourselves may not necessarily liberate us from our vices.