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February 07, 2007

Christie Davies could not stop laughing at Borat, a thoroughly tasteless and offensive film, starring the appalling but hilarious Sacha Baron Cohen, formerly Aliji: Borat - Larry Charles

Posted by Christie Davies

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Directed by Larry Charles
certificate 15, 2006

Borat is hilariously funny. I was helpless with laughter, as were all the people in the cinema. The laughter came in roars and in floods; it was forced out of people by the sheer outrageousness of what was on the screen.

The man who would have understood why such a revolting and tasteless film as Borat is so successful was Thomas Hobbes the philosopher. He knew that laughter is aggressive, that it stems from a "sudden glory", an elevation of one's self or one's group at the ludicrous degradation of another or the "other". Borat the film is funny because it is racist and xenophobic, because it makes a real people from Central Asia seem not only hopelessly poor and primitive backward, but utterly bigoted and lacking in all self-control and decency. The supposed "Kazakhs" are comic savages but we who are watching the film are not; therein lies the glory.

When Borat tells us with pride that his sister, with whom he commits incest, is the Number 4 prostitute in the whole of Kazakhstan, we know exactly what kind of a place it is. Worst of all they do not understand the sacred thunderbox; we see pictures of Kazakh women squatting ineptly on them and a flushed Borat drinks from the bowl. What makes those scenes so very, very funny is that the Kazakhs are a real people and Kazakhstan a real country. The film-goers can enjoy the breaking of all the usual conventions about not insulting and abusing others.

That is what humour is about. It is about the violation of everyday taboos concerning the use of words and images. Sexual and scatological humour is funny because it refers, often through innuendo (an Italian suppository), to matters not usually mentioned directly in polite company. Humour about homosexuality is funny both because it is unmentionable, "peccatum illud horribile, inter christianos non nominandum" (that horrible crime not to be named among Christians ) AND because these days we are constrained from speaking in demeaning ways about them as poofdahs, fairies, faggots, nancy-boys, benders and pogues, arse-bandits and brown hatters, chicken hawks and dinge queens.

Political jokes were far more enjoyable for those who lived under Soviet socialism than they are for those in democracies, because under socialism open political dissent or even discussion was forbidden. Jokes are time off from prohibitions and ways of sneaking round them. Jokes about disasters such as 9/11 or an exploding space shuttle or the sudden death of celebrities such as Princess Diana flourish because they defy the rule that we should appear consistently solemn and grief-stricken when told about them by the broadcasters.

The other humorous advantage of the Kazakhs being a real people, rather than a fictitious one, like Joey Adams' "Ethnicians" and "Slobovians" is schadenfreude, a prominent feature of much humour. Schadenfreude is the extra pleasure those who laughed at the film gained from knowing full well the embarrassment, discomfiture and anger that Sacha Baron Cohen's coarse slanders would induce in this friendly, virtuous and harmless Central Asian people.

As Henri Bergson has told us, humour involves an "anaesthesia of the heart" and, as a Frenchman, he should know. It is not that many Kazakhs will see the film or get to read its bits in the Cyrillic alphabet, but rather that they will know of its existence and know that they have been ridiculed and humiliated in the eyes of the world. Humour is an essentially nasty enterprise. Not just the bald-headed Hobbes, that famous theorist of power and Bergson who stresses ridicule, but all the other leading humour theorists such as Freud with his emphasis on tendenz and Koestler who insists that the adrenalin of aggression is ever-present in humour acknowledge humour's harshness. The idea that humour is good-natured, therapeutic, a road to peace and harmony, is simply a contemporary delusion. We don't laugh with people, we laugh at them. Ideally we would prefer to laugh at people we dislike and resent, such as the French (as in Les Chinois á Paris or 'Allo, 'Allo! ) but in practice this is often not possible and, as in Borat, we are left to laugh either at a very distant group, the Kazakhs, or at our friends and allies the Americans, whom we normally love and cherish.

Borat the Kazakh spends relatively little of his time among his fellows in Kazakhstan and most of it travelling across the United States, where his creator and actor Sacha Baron Cohen uses him to deceive ordinary Americans and make them look foolish, which admittedly is not difficult. Sometimes the target deserves mockery as when Borat, posing as a visiting Kazakh journalist, interviews and shocks with his gross and sexist views about women, a group of po-faced, middle-aged, middle-class seriously committed American feminists. They looked like a female version of that great character actor in British films, the late Richard Wattis when baited by the likes of a Jimmy Edwards, a Ronald Shiner or a Sid James.

How enjoyable it was to see expressions of aversion and outrage creep across the feminists' sucked-out mango faces, particularly because you knew they were real people not actresses. Imagine how a feminist in the cinema watching this scene at the same time as you must be cringing - and your amusement will be amplified twenty-fold:

How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?

That's not funny!

Other targets are not so fair, as when Borat interrupts a Pentecostal service, just as the sacred gift of tongues is descending on them. Truly this film is the sin against the Holy Ghost. It also reveals just how cowardly the film makers are. They would not have dared to film and ridicule Kazakh Muslims in prayer with their foreheads on the ground and their arses in the air, because it would have led to violence and even murder, not by the Kazakhs themselves, who are far from being fanatics, but by Arabs, Somalis, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, all willing to kill to avenge a slight to the honour of the Prophet. They would probably also have used Baron Cohen's Jewishness as an excuse for some anti-Semitic outrage. They are like that.

There is much mockery in the film of the Kazakh's supposedly vicious anti-Semitism (which is true of many Muslims but not of the Kazakhs) but at no point is it linked to the Muslim identity of the local population, which is only very obliquely hinted at when Borat says that he is a follower of the hawk, that is to say of al Haqq (truth, righteousness), one of the names of Allah. Possibly there may be trouble over this in the future; spontaneous indignation takes time to organize, as we saw in the Danish case.

The Pentecostals by contrast are peaceable folk, many of them are even pacifists, a doctrine unique to Protestants and Hindus. Have you ever heard of a Muslim pacifist? Or come to that of a Roman Catholic or Greek or Russian Orthodox one? No, the cowardly film makers stick to soft targets. They would not have dared to interrupt a Roman Catholic service at the moment of the elevation of what people like them call the magic biscuit. The Roman Catholic church is a powerful corporation that can exercise great censorship (look what happened in Britain to the TV series Popetown. Twentieth Century Fox would never have been willing to stand up to all the boycotts and picketing that would have ensued. Hollywood has never escaped from the stranglehold of the heirs of the Catholic Legion of Decency. So the cowardly bastards stick to the Pentecostals; they are a humble and powerless people whom it is safe to kick.

Easily the funniest scene, though, is the savage mockery of a patriotic crowd at an American rodeo, with a cowgirl sitting proud on her horse holding high an enormous American flag, Old Glory itself. Borat addresses the crowd in patriotic terms. They applaud. He calls for the total destruction of every man, woman and child in Iraq. They are uneasy. He parodies the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. They boo. The cowgirl falls off her horse, dropping the flag in the dust. Borat flees as they give chase. The Americans have been made to look, or more accurately revealed to be, "complete assholes". "Complete assholes" - what a wonderfully expressive language American is. I doubt if Baron Cohen's baiting of an irate crowd of American patriots is as brave as he would like us to think. Were there not body guards and security men in attendance who were edited out? Would he have tried to pull such a stunt in a seriously xenophobic country such as Greece or Argentina?

Borat's mockery of black Americans is mild by comparison and indeed if the film has a heroine it is a black ho (American for whore as in Westward Ho), whom at the end Borat takes back to Kazakhstan. Another piece of political correct cowardice.

Try and imagine the row there would be if Evelyn Waugh's hilarious and reactionary novel Black Mischief, set in the primitive African state of Azania (a thinly disguised Ethiopia), were to be made into a no-holds barred film, complete with cannibalism, that faithfully preserved the spirit and the details of the original. The Guardian swine would denounce it as racist colonialism.

Yet in their blogs The Guardian readers have been happy to praise Borat and to tell the Kazakh ambassador and politicians who objected strongly to the film that they have no sense of humour. Indeed some of them have added to their scorn expressions of political hostility towards the Kazakh government, which whatever its faults, is considerably better than most African ones.

Yet the colonial history of Kazakhstan under the Soviets was far worse than anything experienced by Britain's African colonies. During the Soviet collectivisation of agriculture a million Kazakhs starved to death or were murdered and many others fled. The population fell from 3.63 million in 1926 to 2.31 million in 1939, even on the official Soviet figures, and the cattle and sheep of the Kazakh herdsmen were decimated. During World War II millions of deportees, notably Tartars, Chechens and Volga Germans, were taken in cattle trucks to Kazakhstan and dumped there.

Under Khrushchev large numbers of Russian settlers were brought in to carry out the calamitous Virgin Lands programme and to try to make the Kazakhs a minority in their own country. The Soviet agricultural programmes ruined the soil with their incompetent irrigation and reckless use of chemicals. Kazakhstan is the place where the Soviets put into practice Bertholt Brecht's socialist prelude to the Caucasian Chalk Circle, where land is taken from its owners and handed over to those who are more productive at filling in forms. Brecht would have known full well of the millions of deaths in Kazakhstan and in the Caucasus but he wrote the play as a lying justification of the triumph of socialism. It is still popular in progressive circles.

To finish matters off the Soviets tested atomic weapons in Kazakhstan, with their customary disregard for people and environment. Because so many Russians were murdered under socialism, it is often forgotten how very racist the Soviet Union was, with victim peoples in Kazakhstan, the Ukraine, the Baltic States and the North Caucasus suffering most of all. All this is of course denied by self-hating Western progressives, whose notions of historical accuracy and moral responsibility rank somewhere alongside those of David Irving. No wonder such people approve of Borat.

Can we then with a clear conscience go and see Borat, given this horrendous political backdrop and the knowledge that the fascist left is also enjoying the film? Yes, we can, for as I have explained in my Social Affairs Unit book, The Right to Joke, humour operates in a special world of its own to be judged by non-serious standards; it is a parallel argument to that employed by Kant when speaking of the autonomy of aesthetic judgements. Once you leave the cinema, it is back to the real world in which we sympathise with the Kazakhs and support the Americans, but for the duration of the film you can enter and revel in the world of laughter.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of Jokes and their Relation to Society and The Mirth of Nations. He has visited Kazakhstan and received the hospitality of its splendid people. He has also been to the United States.

To read more by the Social Affairs Unit's authors about Borat, see Borat.


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Once you leave the cinema, it is back to the real world . . . but for the duration of the film you can enter and revel in the world of laughter.

This ability to separate the world of cinema so discretely from the real world suggests to me that the Learned Professor is a native of the Planet Zog. Now I do recognize the Zog^g and the Earthlings as being equally human (under the Provision of the Galactic Inter-Species Recognition Act, Stardate 93506), but such a total separation is effectively impossible for Earthlings. The followers of their Anti-Prophet Karlmarx know this only too well, and use the cinema as a means of proselytization and indoctrination.

I suggest that the Professor obtain (if interlibrary loan operates between our systems) a copy of The Screwtape Letters and read chapter 11, which gives a searching analysis of humour, and its use as a cloak for cowardice and cruelty. This is particularly pernicious among the inhabitants of Britannia, and had they not given up the use of Latin as a language of education, their motto would be HUMOR OMNIA EXCUSAT.

My own terrestrial correspondent tells me that That's not funny!, here quoted of one of their feminists, is taken over from their more conservative educators. Traditionally, if one of their children were to laugh at a blind or crippled member of their race, the educator would say with ferocity “That’s not funny!”. This is typical of Earth illogic, since to the child it was funny, and the child was being thoughtless or indulging in cruelty. This would only serve to increase the moral and logical confusion natural to members of their species. Some would become hardened in their cruelty, others would become morally burdened to the point where they could not, because of conscience, do any real good.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at February 8, 2007 07:01 PM
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Like a number of Mr Davies' articles this contains some nasty allusions towards the Catholic Church, one of the few forces for goodness and truth left in this country.
As for Pentecostal Christians, I have some in my family (through marriage) and I can assure Mr Davies that, with their impenetrable conviction that they are God's exclusively saved and chosen few, humillity is not one of their most visible characteristics.

Posted by: Greencoat at February 8, 2007 10:03 PM
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Like Greencoat, I noted the Anti-Catholic bias in this article but unlike him I would have preferred more.

Like Our Reviewer I am amazed at the comfy ride this pervert-ridden instrument of oppression gets from the cowardly western media.

A member of the one true church church which declares "extra ecclesiam nulla salus" should not be too exercised by the identical assertion of a rival group.

Posted by: Semper at February 12, 2007 07:14 PM
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