- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

How does he get away with it?

Sacha Baron Cohen, the secretive British comedian who stars as a guilelessly backward Kazakh TV reporter in “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” would have us believe his character’s mostly Muslim countrymen are a bunch of misogynistic, homophobic, incestuous anti-Semites.

The whole thing is a joke, of course — a screamingly funny, bring-a-paper-bag-‘cause-you-may-hyperventilate joke. In addition to being the most sophisticated vulgar movie I’ve ever seen — it’s the thinking man’s “Jackass” — it’s easily the most groundbreaking comic performance of the new century.

But Muslim extremists aren’t famous for their sense of humor or, indeed, for receptivity to satire or criticism of any kind.

People have died for less than “Borat.”

Radical Islamist leaders from London to Mogadishu called for Pope Benedict XVI’s scalp after he hinted, obscurely, of a link between Islam and violent conversion.

A series of Danish editorial cartoons that caricatured Mohammed inspired myriad nasty public fusses last year, including Iran’s state-sponsored Holocaust cartoon contest.

Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh had his chest filleted in 2004 because of a short movie (“Submission”) that spotlighted mistreatment of women under Islam. And the woman who wrote the film, Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, depends on a security team to avoid the same fate.

So how has Mr. Cohen managed thus far to have provoked the ire only of Kazakhstan’s ruling elite, most notably the image-conscious President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who reportedly brought up “Borat” in a meeting with President Bush?

Demographically, Kazakhstan is Muslim-majority by just a slight margin; Russian Orthodox Christians make up a good 44 percent of the country’s 15 million people, with Muslims at 47 percent, according to the Middle East Institute. So maybe the world’s radical Islamists don’t feel like Kazakhstan’s honor is “theirs” to defend.

Then again, like most poisonous ideologies, radical Islam is a global franchise; it has no fatherland.

To the extent he has reached audiences outside of America and the United Kingdom, maybe the Borat character — introduced to British audiences on Mr. Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show,” which HBO imported to the U.S. — is greeted by Islamists with a great big shrug. Maybe his subversive anti-anti-Semitic humor sails right over their heads. Abe Foxman’s Anti-Defamation League worried in a formal statement that even Americans “may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke.”

Just picture a suicide bomber-type catching a glimpse of the movie’s “running of the Jew” sequence, in which Borat’s village enacts an annual folk ritual that features horn-topped caricatures straight of out high 19th-century anti-Semitism’s playbook.

“Where’s the humor in that?” he may react, puzzled. “That’s reality.”

I don’t favor any of these explanations. Once you see the movie, or if you’re already familiar with Borat from “Da Ali G Show,” you notice a few things. First, Borat spends most of his time in America (filming a documentary for Kazakh TV). He spends most of that time, in turn, in the Deep South.

There is method in his madness.

I think the movie might just as accurately have been called “Borat: Cultural Learnings of Red State for Make Benefit Blue State Glorious Sense Moral Superiority.”

Before you call me a hyperpoliticized killjoy, hear me out.

Foremost on Mr. Cohen’s agenda is to score laughs. He is fearless, relentless in his pursuit of them, often risking personal injury to see a prank through to its full comic fruition. He is no crude polemicist. As the gangsta rapper Ali G and Viennese fashionista Bruno, he has skewered the pretensions of anti-nuke hippies and pointed up the vacuity of New York and Los Angeles designer culture. Yada, yada, yada.

Now, agree on this, too: Mr. Cohen is a very smart Cambridge University alum who carefully and purposefully chooses his marks. His comedy, while clownish at times, is surgical; he needles his subjects in search of hidden prejudices. In the most revealing interview he’s ever given (to National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel, in 2004), Mr. Cohen said he employs Borat’s outrageous demeanor in order to disarm people, to make them feel comfortable enough to show their true colors.

It’s no accident that on “Da Ali G Show” and in the movie, Mr. Cohen/Borat undergoes lessons in Southern etiquette. Once this layer of civilized decorum is peeled back, the setting suggests, you find that while Americans are richer and classier than Kazakhs, they often harbor the same prejudices.

One of the most uproarious bits in “Borat” takes place in a Pentecostal revival service in Mississippi (where Republican Rep. Charles “Chip” Pickering is seen on the rostrum). Mr. Cohen plays the low-church charisma for all it’s worth, submitting to a laying-on-of-hands healing and pretending to speak in tongues.

Again, there’s a suggestive parallel at work here: “If you, self-satisfied American, think Muslim extremists are crazy, well, have a look at this.”

In this, and only this, narrow sense, “Borat” doesn’t succeed like some of the “Ali G” segments have in the past. Mr. Cohen’s dupes here are — with a few disturbing exceptions — not exposed as the scary crypto-fascists his satire seems to demand. Though Mr. Cohen tries his darndest to bait Americans into speaking aloud the unspeakable, you won’t find, as you did on HBO, any gun-toting Southerners blithely speaking of Hitler’s “final solution.”

So: How does Sacha Baron Cohen get away with it?

He gets away with it, because it’s not about Kazakhstan or Islam. “Borat,” ultimately, is about us.

And unlike some of our adversaries, Americans don’t kill people over art. Especially when it’s this funny.

• Scott Galupo blogs the Riffologist.

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