The Dictator and The Zionist - The Trouble with Sacha Baron Cohen.
This morning, Sacha Baron Cohen is on my mind. Not a pleasant image to have to confront, but he’s been all over the place with the press for his new movie, The Dictator, which premiered in London earlier this week. He plays a composite character based on Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi - but I also see a lot of Iran’s Ahmedinijad in there. I don’t even really know what the plot of the movie is, but SBC’s movies have never really been big on plot.
I read this blog on CNN by Dean Obeidallah which calls out Cohen on the racism he displays in “browning up” to play an Arab man. Obeidallah’s argument is that Arabs and Indians themselves should be in movies that make fun of them. Fair enough. He doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion, to address all the stereotypes of Arabs that come out to play in the movie, but that’s because he hadn’t seen the movie when he wrote the piece. I wonder if he will.
What bothers me is that nobody’s addressing something more complex and, in my mind, more dangerous. So I’m going to attempt to do it. I know what I’m going to say is controversial, but I believe in speaking my mind when I see something that bothers me.
You see, SBC is a Zionist, a very publicly declared one. Which is not a problem for me personally, really. He’s got the right to hold his political views even if they are very bigoted ones that have been the root of most of the strife in the Middle East since 1948. But he’s got a very deliberate agenda which he expresses not-so-subtly in all his movies, and it’s not being said by commentators because of the fear that they will be called anti-Semitic.
Zionism is the belief in a Jewish nation, and the accompanying fierce loyalty to that nation, no matter what it does in the name of protecting itself and perpetuating its survival. It’s Zionism, not Judaism, that has seen the worst atrocities committed against the people of Palestine. Now, SBC doesn’t go around spouting things about the greatness of Israel in his movies. But if you look carefully, each one of his productions - from Ali G to Borat to Bruno to now, The Dictator, advances a certain element of Zionist propaganda against Muslims. Which is that Muslims are laughable, unintelligent, idiotic people with no intellect at best, and terrorists at worst. And Cohen uses buffoonery to do this.
How? By taking the stereotypes, derived both from Orientalism and from anti-Islamic Zionism, and playing them out to such ridiculous extremes, that his audiences laugh. And in laughing, they feel entertained. And in being entertained, they swallow the stereotypes and the racism whole, without pausing to critically analyze what they’ve been presented with. You could call this SBC’s particular genius. Yes, it’s pretty clever. But it’s also dangerous.
With Ali G, Cohen presented a fairly innocuous character: a rudeboy of uncertain ethnicity* (but everyone assumed he was Asian, or at least an Asian persona taken on by a white man for even more irony and laughs) who was stupid, racist, anti-Semitic, and sexist. A genius comedic character who made people laugh and believe that Asians, especially Muslim ones, of a certain age, class, and educational level, are all like this.
With Borat, I almost don’t have to say anything. We all know the buffoon he played who was from Kazakhstan who went to the United States and displayed all sorts of inappropriate behavior. He spouted off truisms about life in Kazakhstan, which included some pretty nasty jibes at village life - “My sister is best prostitute in village” - implying that again, Kazakhs - who happen to be Muslim - are backwards, idiotic yokels who engage in incest and bestiality. Of course it’s ridiculous, you say, we know it’s not true. Yes, but when you pick a country that most people know virtually nothing about and you assign values and mores to it, you know that because of the vacuum of knowledge, people will subconsciously adopt those values, or at least associate them with the country in the absence of better knowledge. Again, very, very clever.
In Bruno, the story of a gay Austrian fashionista, there’s no overt racism against Arabs or Muslims for a while. But then Cohen pulls the stunt of interviewing a Palestinian man who he claims is a dangerous Muslim terrorist. The man, in real life, is a Palestinian Christian who has nothing to do with terrorism. Cohen made him sign a release form before appearing in the movie, and didn’t tell him that he was going to brand him as a terrorist. On screen, this is a big joke, but in real-life Palestine, this can result in your death at the hands of Israeli security forces.
Most people think of Sacha Baron Cohen as a comedic genius, as I said before, as a trickster, someone who stands conventions on their heads to get laughs. I see him as someone else: a very intelligent man with a political stance and a stage on which to make that stance known. That he’s being subversively funny about it and using comedy rather than straight political discourse to do so is a sign of his brilliance, but also of his duplicity. He is advancing the worst of Zionist propaganda against Muslims with his movies, and the worst part is, you’re paying $15 each time to see him do it.
*I’ve had several people tell me Ali G was a parody of whites who want to be gangsta, Jamaican, or black. This wasn’t revealed until later in the series, though - and to be honest, when I saw him, the first thing that popped into my mind was that he was a parody of an Asian. Perhaps it was the name “Ali” (which was later revealed to be short for Alistair), a Muslim name that is very common amongst British Pakistanis, not so common amongst Afro-Carribbeans. Anyway, even if it was a white wannabe, critics rounded on him for making it “safe” to laugh at that culture from an imagined politically correct stance because it was buffoonery. I stick to my original claim that he was lampooning Asians (in addition to blacks, a more definite identity that I think evolved and became clearer as the series went on), and that his Zionist, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab stance has become more bold over time and become more and more overt in his films. And one thing people don’t know is that when he talks in the supposed language of each character, he’s actually making in-jokes in Hebrew.