Friday, November 03, 2006

Borat just isn't funny

Chalk it up to my growing anti-semitism (Webster defines "Semite" as referring to Jews and Arabs [do the Jews know this?]), but when I learned a few weeks ago that the actor playing Borat was Jewish, I immediately thought Oh wow, a Jew making fun of Blacks, Muslims and fags. How atypical.

I've never been much interested in Ali G and would channel-surf past the show at about the same pace as the shows on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. (Will someone please explain Jan Crouch's wigs and mascara to me?) (I wonder what happens to her old wigs. Does she donate them to charity? Does she sell them on Ebay for spending money? Does she display them in her own museum?) And I never really thought much about who was behind Ali G's goggles and bling. I'd seen Borat once or twice in passing and read about Bruno somewhere. The characters didn't really register, other than Hmm a white guy satirizing rappers. The actor's name could just as well have been McDonald or Spinelli.

Now that Borat has invaded my Web-surfing as well as my channel-surfing, I thought I should read about him. As soon as I saw the name Sacha Baron Cohen and read that he was engaged to be married, the whole nature of Cohen's schtick took on a darker tone. An article on says Cohen "explains his character's racist nature by stating that the segments are a 'dramatic demonstration of how racism feeds on dumb conformity, as much as rabid bigotry,' rather than a display of racism by Baron Cohen himself." Really? He has no personal prejudice against Blacks, Muslims and gays? Some of his best friends are Black, Muslim and/or gay? His popularity allows him to act as a Jewish ambassador to Blacks, Muslims and gays? Uh huh. The reason for his popularity is how vindictive the satire is and how much that vindictiveness resonates with the audience. Is Cohen's (I'm bored by British double-surnames. Just choose one of the names and get over yourself.) motivation for his satire to enlighten the public to xenophobia so that we all get along better and like each other more? Uh huh. Right. I picture that happening every time a crowd howls at "Throw the Jew Down the Well" or at Borat's own overconfidence of his grasp of Western culture. Yeah, the audience is really being enlightened regarding their xenophobia. The audience is belly-laughing at the xenos, and the context affirms for the audience that it's okay.

Cohen's reason for the vindictiveness of his satire is simply the controversy it stirs up, and his reason for stirring up controversy is self-promotion. Free advertising. Simple. Nothing more altruistic than that. Cohen is all about Cohen.

So why should I care? If some guy named O'Bannon created an especially cruel caricature of a Muslim, or a Jew, would I be as offended by that? Maybe, if it reached the levels of Borat's popularity and meanness. It's possible. But whenever I've encountered something controversial involving Jews or Israel over the past year or two, I've noticed that my reaction is always in the rolling-the-eyes category. God, it never changes, does it. So am I becoming anti-semitic? I remember seeing a news story on TV about an older German fellow who was thought to be involved in the management of a concentration camp during WWII. A reporter caught up with him on the street, and one of the things the German said during the interview was "They never change! The Jews! They never change!" Am I becoming like that? My obsessive German nature, which likes things logical and linear, fixating on a culture renowned for its faulty logic?

I recently felt compelled to respond to a posting on Craigslist for a "Yom Kippur buddy." A gay Jewish atheist was looking for another gay Jew to hang out with while he took the time off from work. The guy no longer had a religious basis for his Jewish identity, but he said he continued to observe the holidays because he couldn't imagine not doing that. It seemed to me incredibly stupid to continue to cling to the trappings of a religion after letting go of the reason for the religion, and I felt the need to express that. However, because I didn't personally hold anything against this person whom I didn't know, I responded in my own posting on Craigslist rather than in an email sent directly to him. I wrote that the real reason for his not wanting to set aside Jewish holidays was that if he did he would become common like everyone else. The reason Jews follow the 613 illogical mitzvot is because if they didn't they would be common like everyone else. Judaism is a religion and a culture based on an assumed superiority that has no basis in fact. Stuff like that. To his credit, the fellow, when he learned of my posting, responded to me politely and not at all vindictively in an email, and I commended him for that in my email response. But his defense was that Judaism for him was just a culture and, even though it may seem like a silly, bizarre culture to outsiders, it was comforting for him. He also mentioned that he only attends secular synogogues, and that was an eye-opener for me. I thought that he, as an atheist, was an exception, but a whole population of secular Jews continues to cling to the structure of the religion even though they no longer believe in G-d?? Wow. The grip that culture has on these people is really deep.

My theory is that the only thing that could account for that grip is the feeling of superiority the culture gives them. Why else would they cling so tightly to an aspect of themselves that has historically brought persecution and death? If they let go of their victim status, they would become common like everyone else.

If you've read this far, it's probably evidence of your own anti-semitism. (Except for Jonathan Versen, the uberintellectual at Hugo Zoom, who seems to read through each of my posts whenever I get around to posting.) Semitophiles would have clicked the Back button by now. However, I should note that I probably have a Jewish background myself, which may lend a different shade to my wondering if I'm becoming anti-semitic. My four grandparents' family names were Bintz, Greenfield (originally Gruenfeld), Snyder and Gillespie. The two great-grandparents' names that I know of were Kessler and Sanville. You can figure out if there's any Jewish background tangled in there. But with a name like Bintz, what—you think maybe I'm Irish? (Exaggerated shrug.) The family oral history lists ancestry as German, French, Scotch, English, Welsh and Irish. No mention of Jewish. But I think it's likely that at least one branch represents a conversion from Judaism to Christianity generations ago.

So, assuming that I'm a bit Jewish, I feel no shame about whom my ancestors were, but I also have no problem dropping Jewish religion and culture along with Protestant Christian religion and culture. I asked the gay Jewish atheist "Wouldn't it seem odd to you if I continued clinging to Jerry Falwell culture after I stopped believing in God?" He didn't respond to that, and I do feel that, since no logical response would defend his point of view, he just shrugged and thought But I like feeling superior and what business is it of yours?

Since the war in Iraq directly affects the U.S. economically, it is my business because I am directly affected by the U.S. economy. That wasn't a non-sequitur. The motivation for war in the Middle East has been for half a century the ownership of the Temple Mount and the lands around it. It's all about that damn rock. The current war against the U.S. in Iraq is fueled emotionally by the perception that the U.S. is merely the giant battle-droid of Israel. If they can disable the droid, they can scrape the Israelis into the Mediterranean.

Israel's claim to the land is extremely tenuous because the basis for the claim is purely religious. G-d, Abraham, Moses, Promised Land, Solomon's Temple and all that. A pure theocracy. There has never been a separation between temple and state. The G-d Who inhabited the Temple once a year governed the king who governed the nation. A religion-state. So if the basis for the religion were to be eliminated, the claim to the land would be eliminated, since the only motivation for retaking the land in 1948 was "G-d gave us this land." That deduction seems simple to me, but with secular Jews we have a population of people continuing to claim the land because "That's what we do. [Big shrug.] That's what we've always done."

If it turned out that less than 1% of Jews worldwide were secular, it wouldn't matter much to me because it would mean that more than 99% of Jews worldwide really did fervently believe that G-d gave them the land. However...if I found out that a majority of Jews in the world didn't much care about the idea of G-d, whether He exists or not, I wouldn't know how to deal with that. The lack of logic exhibited by such a large group of people would start burning a hole in my head. It would affect me like that because that lack of logic doesn't exist in a vacuum. It shakes up the entire Middle East, and the ripple effect reaches, in one form or another, the rest of the planet. But the secular Jewish population would innocently wonder why I was getting worked up and what business was it of mine?

I actually have a hunch that's the case, that most Jews don't believe in G-d. If I found out that my hunch is wrong, I'd be relieved. Not that a majority of Jews worldwide fervently believing that G-d really did choose them to be superior to the rest of the nations is a good thing. But having such a large group of people completely oblivious to the fact that, if there is no G-d, then there is no claim to the land indicates that something major is wrong. If there is no G-d, then what was the land-grab in 1948 all about? The land was lost by Israel to the Romans in 70 C.E. But it was still Jewish land all the way up to 1948 and Jews just came back to reclaim it like a lost hat? It doesn't work that way. Babylonians could make the same claim to their land which was subsequently absorbed by Iraq, but there aren't many people who would take that claim seriously. How many Jewish people are sympathetic to Native Americans' claims that American land is really theirs? Jews are probably as unsympathetic toward Native Americans as they are toward Black Americans and would probably say "Oh get over it and move on." Wouldn't there be irony in Jews telling a group of people to forget about their historic claim to land and just accept the way things are?

To be fair, the same thing could be said to the Muslim world. One could say "Yes, Jews had some groundless, flimsy reasons for taking the land in 1948. But they won the war and it's nearly sixty years later. Deal with it." How would Muslims react to that? Not placidly. How would Jews react to the Muslim reaction? Irony again.

At this point, my naivte reveals itself. Wouldn't it be something, wouldn't it be really something if Israel just gave up its claim to the land and let it revert back to its pre-1948 ownership? Wouldn't that be something? Ha. What a thought. What would happen to the insurgency in Iraq? What would happen to Iran's nuclear rumblings? What would happen to gas prices? Seriously, if Jews want to think of themselves as superior to all other nations, committing the most altruistic act in human history—giving the land back to the Palestinians—would go a long way toward making it true.

I wonder how Sacha Cohen would react to that proposal.


Raf Mertens said...

Borat is just playing an idiot, he isn’t a racist.
If you see this video, you could say he IS a racist...
But Borat is a jew himself, so what’s the point?

John said...

Wow, did *you* miss the point of the whole post. I think it was probably too long for you to read all the way through.

Borat is a Muslim, while Cohen is a Jew. None of Cohen's humor skewers Jews. He only skewers people who are *different* from him. That's known as racism or bigotry.

If you need me to simplify those concepts further, let me know.

Anonymous said...

I think it is just a light hearted joke. No harm is meant by it, he is just poking fun at the real racists. If you have seen the film you will notice that what he says often envokes a response of hatred towards jews and muslims by the person he is talking to. It is very funny when that happens, because idiots are exposed to the world, and they are humiliated. It teaches racists not to shout about that they hate other races/religions.

I personally do not think he is the best comedian ever, but he is till pretty funny. He's not out to cause trouble.


Jonathan Versen said...

Actually, I've fallen behind in my Bintz reading. And yes, I thought you were Irish. Ok, ok, more seriously: I really like this post-- it has a lot to chew on.

As far as divviying up Israel/Palestine goes, I really think US support of Israel is the main obstacle to peace. Sometimes people ask me,

"how come there's been this hatred between Arabs and Jews for thousands of years?"


"do you think there will ever be peace in the middle east?"

People have a very hard time wrapping their head around the idea that their government might be the problem; we're supposed to be the good guys, so all those horrible things some people say that our government has done can't possibly be correct-- right?

I try to explain to people that while resentment, and yes, hatred, of Israel is a very real and unfortunate feature of middle eastern culture today, it is by no means an immutable part of "the Arab psyche". Rather, I think it's related very specifically to Israel being seen as a usurper, and it dates back mainly to this past century.

Then I start explaining about the Ottoman Empire and my audience's eyes start to glaze over. So I usually give up, and just say that I think they'll be peace in the middle east when they run out of oil and the great powers no longer fell compelled to meddle in the region's politics.

But maybe that's flippant.

Odd Neighbor said...

"...incredibly stupid to continue to cling to the trappings of a religion after letting go of the reason for the religion..."

For me there is the traditional aspect of holidays and the religious. I love Christmas, but I am not Christian. I love the greens, reds, and golds of it, and the twinkling lights, and snowy white of it. I love the melody of most christmas carols (and popular tunes - chestnuts roasting on an open fire, jackfrost nipping at your nose...

...and I don't think your response is flippant, at all. I think it's exactly right. I like to remind my gas-guzzling friends that they support "the terrorists" every time they fill the tank.


Support Our Troops; Indict Bush for War Crimes

Anonymous said...

I don't find Borat particularly offensive, I just don't think Borat as a comedy piece is as outstandingly funny or witty as so many people are trying to make out. Same goes for all of Cohen's creations, for that matter.

If I want toilet humour, I'll watch Jackass. Borat's comedy consists of him ridiculing people who are already ridiculous. It's the comedy equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.