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We’ve always been made to understand that Sacha Baron Cohen, a.k.a. Borat, is a satirist, not a simple comedian. Otherwise, his anti-Semitic jokes and poo-poo gags would be, well, just that. But this week, Cohen found out the cost of making a serious point.

Residents of the Romanian town of Glod, a stand-in for Borat’s Khazakstani village, and two American college students have filed lawsuits against Cohen and his production company, aimed at having themselves removed from the film. They say the producers misrepresented the nature of the film and induced them on false pretenses to say and do things they wish they hadn’t. (The college students also say the producers made sure they were liquored up for the shoot.) Fox, which distributes the film here, has called the lawsuits “fatuous.”

The natural defense of a joker like Cohen is he was only kidding–“Geez, can’t they take a joke?” But in a Rolling Stone interview that appeared last week, Cohen presses on with his social-conscience defense. His treatment of Khazakstan, which at one time threatened its own lawsuit, reflects badly not the Central Asian nation, says Borat, but those dim enough to believe any country could be so backward. As for his racist and anti-Semitic American dupes (who apparently are that backward), they deserve what they got. The essence of racism, he says, is apathy. “I think it’s an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite,” he says to Rolling Stone. “They just had to be apathetic.”

But is it apathy that’s on view here? What gets Borat’s victims in trouble is that they are nice enough to engage with Borat. By the time he gets ugly, they’ve gone too far with the idiot to put on the brakes without causing more trouble than he’s worth. In a recent Slate column, Christopher Hitchens suggests that it’s not racism that makes Americans go along with Borat’s nonsense, but our tolerance. “It’s that attitude of painfully maintained open-mindedness and multiculturalism that is really being unmasked and satirized by our man from the ‘stan,” writes Hitchens.

Apathy, at any rate, is only half the point. Racism is part of the human condition. We educate our children and ourselves about it precisely because it’s alive in us all, ready to chime along with a voice strong enough to make it vibrate. To stoke these human feelings in a couple of drunk frat boys in a trailer isn’t much of a feat, or much of a surprise, or much of a satire. The Germans didn’t just have to be apathetic, in other words, they needed someone to articulate their racist suspicions. In “Borat,” Cohen plays that role. If his unsuspecting victims have a race problem, Borat’s it.

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