Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Why Borat may be bad

O.K., so I haven't seen the movie, but I've seen the schtick and read about the film, and feel more than ready to speak truth to power. Or take a stab at it. I was spurred to speak out by a cyberpal who wrote

Borat was hilarious. I had never caught much of the Ali G Show, but I understood the concept and knew K-rock and others are big fans. There is talk of how it is mean or offensive, or what have you, but all I have to say for it for now is that it makes a pretty funny statement about, if nothing else, people's true feelings. For example, at the rodeo, when Borat tells the man that in his country they string gays up, and the man replies that "we're trying to get that done here too" it's funny because there are a million people like that man, which is not funny.

I took that up in comments, but I think the issue I raised is post-worthy and idiosyncratic enough that I want to own and offer it to Murky Thoughts visitors--you naive, crazy and/or random misdirected few. I'm copying and pasting those comments below. Note that by "BC" I mean Sacha Baron Cohen, the artist/reporter/mockumentarian who plays and sometimes misrepresents himself as Borat.

Murky Thoughts said...'s funny because there are a million people like that man,

And what is that like? Willing to go along to get along (to a fault)? The scenario you describe is entrapment, but worse, because the "perpetrator" is actually convicted of thinking whatever the audience chooses to infer from the button-pushing clips BC specially picks to win customers. What harm does it do to reply "I hate niggers too" to a klansman filming a show for his lodge? Very probably none, even if sincere. The rodeo guy was very probably being wry, or at the very least he was being figurative, because to literally hang gays nation-wide in this country, even extra-legally, is a patently unrealistic goal that only a crazed zealot could believe was really in the works. Maybe it looks like documentary, but it could as well be libel. And since the incentive to commit libel is to make a popular comedy, we're complicit in the crime just by being amused and telling our friends.

10:57 PM

Stroll said...

Wait, how is it libel if the man said it himself? No one is saying "he thinks X", *he's* saying "I think X". He wasn't "entrapped" in the sense that he accepted a temptation placed before him, he was the one who in fact brought homosexuality up in the first place (when Borat went to kiss him on the cheeks). Plus, whether or not he believed it could really come to be the law of the land, or whether the logistics could be figured out as to going about doing it, he was sincere in his belief that that's the way things should be.

10:01 AM

Murky Thoughts said...

It's seeing that's believing, and I didn't see this guy saying what he did. Maybe BC picked a real "winner" with this guy, and maybe if you talked to him for an hour yourself you'd feel obliged to reformulate your opinion. Don't you believe that a quote out of context can mislead? A video depiction out of context is richer, but it can mislead too, and the "being there" illusion that TV and film deliver makes us feel especially confident about what we infer. But eye witnesses often are wrong about what they saw, and they get wronger over time, even while remaining confident as ever that they know what they saw. To the extent BC exercised good judgment, his subjects are getting "what they deserve" in the court of public opinion, but it's vigilantism, and maybe BC's judgment isn't so good. Hard to know, since he refuses to give interviews. Maybe the rodeo guy was only "partly entrapped," but I think of it as an all-or-nothing taint, because we only convict the people we catch fair-and-square, no matter what the crime. "His belief that that's the way things should be" is just a sentiment. We're freer to sentiment than to speech, and we enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy to them. Maybe you moan and make funny faces during sex and you weren't "entrapped" in that you did the seducing, but still you might not want to have it posted to YouTube with your real name attached. In this country, you're not supposed to publish so much as a passport photo without the subjects' permission. Depending what kind of release BC got that rodeo guy to sign and under what misrepresentations and whether BC could convince a court that this is journalism or art, BC might be liable for buttloads in damages.

4:46 PM

Stroll said...

Murky! Is there a difference between setting someone up to pay for a prostitute's services and setting someone up to admit their *sincere* belief that they hate X? The latter is not a crime by the way (the admitting, not the setting up) but I'm beginning to see I think what you're saying about libel.

However, I know its true that one does not always recall correctly, and that things can be taken out of context to show something that wasn't really there. Here though, I have been in and lived in that man's part of the country and I'm pretty convinced that he's not too fond of fags. Though I could be wrong.

Also, I think SBC got all the releases needed to cover his tail...and more importantly no one is too-too clear on which parts are "real" people and which parts are kind of scripted/staged. The frat boy scene (if you see the movie you'll know what I mean) for example strikes me as not at all "authentic".

I've seen SBC give YouTube for examples...though he's not necessarily addressing anything we're talking about in any of them. :)

At any rate, I'm all for people's right to the privacy of their sentiments and I surely have some that I wouldn't put on You Tube (not to mention some faces that I've made) but I don't think anyone's rights were violates (with or without releases) in this movie.

But maybe I'd feel different if it were me. :)

7:07 PM

Murky Thoughts said...

Don't mind me going on and on about this. I don't think I'm arguing at odds to you, but maybe my point is just so subtle that you can't tell how true, fascinating and worth every word it is yet. So consider this: If I go to Kazakhstan and show a clip of Gloria Steinem talking about how upsetting late- term abortions are to her and how she wishes not one more late term abortion would be committed ever again in this country, might I be misleading them? Doing a disservice to Gloria Steinem? (e.g. in that she might wish abortion rights in Kazakhstan expanded rather than kept the same or reduced). What if I had interviewed her under the pretense that I am a museum curator seeking her advice on exhibit art that depicts aborted fetuses in my conservative community. Like entrapment? It's not so tendentious or libelous to capture somebody raging against the Yankees and slandering its pitcher, because there's no looming policy to ban the yankees and no history of player lynchings, slavery or systematic extermination, and because the context--to a typical American--is very clear implicitly. Sincere bigotry deserves scorn, but on a hot-button issue I think you're liable to get more than is really deserved (shout "nigger" in the wrong place and you might get beaten by a mob). Some places you're liable to get yourself or family members assassinated just for advocating an economic policy. So I think it's wrong to broadcast fighting words a person believed him or herself to be narrow-casting; or to broadcast just a provocative excerpt without a humanizing context.

10:37 PM

Stroll said...

I don't mind you going on and on about anything, and I do in fact see how subtle yet true, fascinating, and full of worth your comments are as I do everything else that you've ever posted or will ever post in the future.

I understand the hypothetical examples you've made, and I know this is not a logical argument, but: This movie is just *different* than that. He is just not being set up the *way* that your hypothetical Gloria is being set up and sadly I can't explain why I think that. For one thing I don't think the guy is getting too-much scorn, if he's getting any at all.

And in the setting of a rodeo, for example, I think there is definatly a humanizing context. At any rate I'm not so much defending SBC or the movie...just saying I thought it was funny. Which maybe tells something about me, as the rodeo guy seems to tell something about himself.

Now I'm just rambling. Here is a link to some comments on the release controversy and scripting questions...

9:35 AM

Murky Thoughts said...

I don't mind you going on and on about anything, and I do in fact see how subtle yet true, fascinating, and full of worth your comments are as I do everything else that you've ever posted or will ever post in the future.

Well that's a point that deserves as wide an audience as possible, so I think I'll port our exchange over to my undernourished blog. Thanks for spurring me to make up and express my mind.

2:35 PM

In the future maybe I'll blog about why I think movies like "Best in Show," in which it's just actors in character who we scorn and laugh at, are "mean." Basically, I think they pander to and encourage a base tendency we ought to learn to resist (seeing people as irredeemable ).

P.S. Everybody know Sacha Baron is brother to superstar neuroscientist Simon Baron Cohen? I wish I'd just guessed it, and long ago, but I just read it in the New Yorker.


Stroll said...

Are we sure Simon isn't just one of Sacha's characters? Kidding. ;)

Do you think that things like Best In Show really buy into "people are irredeemable"? I don't recall really scorning any of the characters...and you definately see them change over time in Best In Show...maybe I just think stereotypes/archetypes are funny? That's the problem perhaps.

Murky Thoughts said...

I don't remember "Best in Show" so well or which scenes raised my hackles ("Waiting for Guffman" I remember as more objectionable, but I named "Best" because I think more people know it and was trying to keep my after-thought succinct). It's not that characters don't develop into somewhat different people but that we feel infinitely superior to them even then. We see them as like children, or mental defectives. By "irredeemable" I didn't mean inferior morally, necessarily. I mean we feel like saying these characters "need help," but we just know helping them is a non-starter, they're so hopelessly the way they are. If I feel sure that something somebody does is stupid or offensive to onlookers and I think that person is just naive, I feel obliged to notify them what I'm thinking. It's like they have spinach in their teeth. You can't let them discover it hours late. They're liable to be mortified. Especially if you think nothing of the spinach you need to tell them, because upon discovery they're liable to assume the spinach made you think poorly of them in some way. (Probably less of a big deal if it's just the two of you at dinner and you sleep with them afterwards.)

db said...


My name is Danielle and I am a producer for Open Source (, a national radio show hosted by Christopher Lydon out of Boston. Open Source is an ongoing and ever changing daily radio and web conversation about a myriad of topics, and we draw much of our information, inspiration and audience from the blogging and internet communities. We recently did a show about the movie Borat and the history of that sort of comedy. You can listen to the show and read the ongoing conversation here: . In doing research for that show, I came across a number of blogs, including your own, that wrote about Borat without having actually seen the movie. Just about every blog contained the phrase, "I haven't seen Borat yet, but..." and we found it interesting that such an inordinate amount of people would choose to weigh in on something that had not yet seen. So I am writing you today to see if you can lend some insight into this matter. What exactly prompted you to write about a piece of pop culture that you had not yet experienced? Is this normal, or was there something about Borat that made you want to talk about it, even if you didn't want to see it? Also, have you seen Borat by now? If so, would you change any statements or conclusions you published to your blog before you saw it?

I would love to know what you have to say about these questions or anything else you think is important. I look forward to hearing from you! Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Danielle Bennett

Producer, Open Source

danielle radioopensource org

www radioopensource org