The poor Anti-Defamation League. The champions of tolerance–sworn especially to fight anti-Semitism–have been reduced by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen to fretting in a press release that the cute, totally ironic anti-Semitic digs in Cohen’s new movie, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” might be “too sophisticated for the average moviegoer.”
In the movie, Cohen plays Borat, a Kazakhstani ignoramus on a documentary tour of the United States. The setup lets Borat to take satirical pokes at American life, while also lampooning the benightedness of what might be termed either New Europe or Old Middle Asia. In Borat’s Kazakhstan, women are property, horses have the vote, and every bit of hard luck is blamed on a Jewish conspiracy. In one publicity gag for the movie, Borat suggested the Kazakhstan government “sue the Jew” who erected a website in the .kz domain advertising the movie. The Jew in question is Cohen himself.
Funny, right? If you have misgivings, leave them at the door. The twisty power of irony is that it turns its critics into humorless, irrelevant drudges the moment they take the ironist to task. The Kazakhstani government, who took down the website, looked ridiculous stating, for the record, that rape is not condoned within its borders. Trying to avoid that trap, the ADL is choosing to, in the words of the blogger Wonkette, “teach comedy to Americans.” Those who see the film, says the ADL, need to understand that it aims to “unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism and other phobias born of ignorance and fear.”
Or maybe the ADL is indulging in a little irony of its own. The average American moviegoer, of course, is a teenager, who already gets that bigotry is born of ignorance and fear–tolerance has been drummed into our teens since they were preschoolers–but teens will also get immediately the brute power of brandishing the word “Jew,” and how Cohen plays it for laughs. The average moviegoer, in other words, is plenty sophisticated enough to mimic Cohen’s multilayered humor. Fans of the Borat movie will likely be unmasking the irrational side of anti-Semitism for the rest of their lives.