On the Tenth Anniversary of Borat's Release, the Film's Crucial Question Remains Unanswered

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On the Tenth Anniversary of <i>Borat</i>'s Release, the Film's Crucial Question Remains Unanswered

How convenient it is that two of the Trumpocalypse’s most terrifyingly clairvoyant cinematic horses both celebrate their tenth anniversary this year.

One of those horses is Mike Judge’s brilliant Idiocracy, whose dystopian, profane, profoundly stupid future was only off by 490 years. Donald Trump’s defense of his penis size on CNN could be placed directly into the mouth of Terry Crews’ President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, and we wouldn’t know the difference. But plenty of other great writers have already covered Idiocracy’s decennial, which happened in September. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan has its own anniversary on Nov. 3, and it also happens to be one of my favorite films of all time.

Aside from The Graduate, which I first saw two months into my unemployed, post-college life, Borat is the only movie that has ever totally encapsulated my zeitgeist. I think I must’ve snuck into the theater to see it, because I was 13 in November 2006: a cocky, smart-ass eighth grader, the captain of the (state champion!) junior high school quiz bowl team, possessed of an annoying combination of self-aware intellect, an adolescent boy’s penchant for toilet humor, and a sieve-like verbal filter. Borat checked off every single one of my boxes. It was political enough that I could feel that snobbish sense of high-brow understanding, talk to my equally smart-ass friends about the ignorance of Americanus southernalus and gloat that we were far, far smarter than them. But if I’m being honest, I was really the most taken with moments like Borat handing a sock full of his own shit to a genteel Alabaman lady.

Some tendencies never die. When I rewatched the film a couple weeks ago, I found myself giggling uncontrollably at the poop-laden sock, and the ice cream truck with the bear inside, and Borat letting loose a live chicken on a New York subway. It’s never too late to be a kid again, right?

Perhaps I felt like the self I was during George W. Bush’s presidency because Borat itself, as foreboding as it has proven to be, is still very much rooted in its time. America in the mid-2000s was in a very strange position globally. Most of the world hated us for our unilateral intervention in and subsequent occupation of Iraq. We Americans were even starting to hate ourselves for it. By November 2006, only 38 percent of us approved of our president; an unbelievably low 7% of Democrats liked what Bush was doing. But Dubya remained the commander in chief, and Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. It was a very, very secure time to be a rural white American man. The deep-seated fear of the alien, whatever race or creed, was still there—it was just buried under fuzzy blankets of faith that the America they knew, the country that favored their exact demographic, would endure.

Borat’s greatest accomplishment was to put these people in positions of simultaneous comfort and discomfort. On one hand, there’s the apprehension he elicited from a number of folks he encountered along his cross-country, quixotic quest for Pamela Anderson’s hand. It’s actually in New York that he received the least friendly welcome, but that was more a result of him being generally obnoxious. For a better glimpse of the ways Sacha Baron Cohen made Americans squirm, see his now-notorious singing of the “Kazakh national anthem” at a Virginia rodeo, or his assertion to a group of feminists that women and squirrels have brains the same size, or the aforementioned literal shitshow of a dinner party. It ended with him inviting over a “prostitute” (played by Luenell, one of a handful of actual actors in the film) and running from the cops.

On the other hand, Borat encouraged people’s latent fear and hatred of Jews, Muslims, LGBT people, blacks, and women by presenting himself as an equally prejudiced person—and, crucially, a person who, as a non-entity in their daily circles of interaction, could serve as a harmless outlet for these beliefs. For those suckers who thought Borat would keep a secret, there is only one proper reaction.

Come, bear witness to the medal stand of wonders put on display over the course of the movie.

Honorable mention: Borat asks a gun store owner what firearm would be best for killing Jews. The man calmly suggests a 9mm or a .45, then chuckles as Borat impersonates a Jew-murdering Dirty Harry.

Swiping the bronze: A Hummer salesman who tells Borat he could kill a Gypsy if he hits 35-40 miles per hour. Interestingly, this guy omits the word “pussy” from “pussy magnet.”

Snagging the silver: Rodeo manager Bobby Rowe tells Borat to shave his mustache because “every picture we get back from the terrorists, from anything else, the Muslims, they look like you.” He goes on to admit that anytime he sees a Muslim, he wonders if he’s “got a bomb strapped to him.”

But your undisputed, blue ribbon, first prize winners: The gaggle of South Carolina frat bros who openly disrespect women, lust for a return to slavery, and—completely unprompted by Borat himself—call out the Jews as a minority and claim that minorities have the “upper hand” in this country.

Trump didn’t just conjure American anti-Semitism out of thin air. He didn’t invent the Islamophobia and white supremacist sentiment that drive the die-hardest cadre of his support base. He did, however, say “grab them by the pussy” on a hot mic, and THAT, of all things, will go down as the decisive swing of Lucille to the bloody head of his campaign.

But in 2006, these nasty, rotten characteristics of the United States’ neglected Dixie underbelly were supposed to be funny. It was cringe-worthy humor, yes, but the frat bros and the rodeo manager and the Hummer salesman were all the butts of Baron Cohen’s massive joke. And boy, did the intelligentsia have its laughs. Borat was a convenient way for American liberals and Bush-hating independents to point the real source of our country’s problem out to the rest of the world, then join them on the self-righteous sidelines of the comedy playing field.

Unfortunately, in the intervening decade, these people committed a fatal error: they did not even try to adequately address the underlying cause of the disease that Borat diagnosed. As I’ve written before on this site—and as Cracked’s David Wong beautifully elucidated in a piece I never thought I’d find on Cracked—just because the racist, xenophobic, gay-bashing portion of the rural American populace isn’t suffering righteously doesn’t mean they’re not suffering. Their way of life, as unrealistically preservative of a homogeneous past as it might have been, is disappearing. Despite Trump’s supporters actually having a higher average annual income than Clinton’s, according to an extensive Gallup study, they’re living in areas where there’s practically no opportunity for economic growth. Combine the stagnation of their own little communities with the increasing impositions of the world outside, and it’s no wonder that their fear has manifested itself in support for a fascist and outright hatred of the other. (Small, self-serving plug: back in March, I wrote about how Zootopia masterfully addressed this process.)

But instead of putting forth solutions that might actually help them—which many of my Paste colleagues convincingly argue would ironically stem from the Elizabeth Warren-led, economically progressive wing of the Democratic Party—we laughed. And we continued to laugh, even after Bush left office. Maybe a little less so during the Tea Party’s meteoric rise, but we certainly didn’t hold back on what most every member of the media perceived as Trump’s joke of a campaign in the summer of 2015. And now the election is less than a week away, and there’s a non-zero chance that Trump will win. Even if he doesn’t, he’ll still carry the support of four out of every ten voters, some of whom are probably the same people Borat interviewed a decade ago. The only difference is that now they’re empowered enough to spout their bigotry in the public arena.

When Baron Cohen made a rare media appearance as himself back in February, on Marc Maron’s wonderful WTF podcast, the two comedians spoke at length about the messages Borat and the rest of Baron Cohen’s characters try to convey with regards to racism and bigotry. This is his intellectual wheelhouse—he wrote his undergraduate thesis at Cambridge about the involvement of Jews in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement—and he put forth a theory for which he’s found proof over the course of his cinematic adventures: “It’s not that people actively hate black people, or gypsies, or Jews, it’s that they’re indifferent.”

Now, the obvious reference of the above statement is to the people who passively participate in bigotry: the folks who clap along to “Throw The Jew Down The Well” (from Da Ali G Show rather than the Borat movie itself, but infamous nonetheless); the “good Germans” who didn’t oppose the rise of Hitler; any Republicans who try to dismiss Trump’s horrible track record of demeaning women and minorities, especially if it makes them uncomfortable to do so.

But I would argue that the sphere of the indifferent expands to a far greater portion of the populace, and it has to do with the power of comedy to spread ideas. Borat was meant to illuminate a problem with contemporary American society by being devilishly funny, and it succeeded. It brought in more than $120 million at the domestic box office, and it was doubtless viewed by far more people than would have read an op-ed or scholarly article on the topic. Humor reaches a more emotional part of the brain than does sheer rational argument, whether spoken or written, and therefore can impact a much greater common denominator of a nation. But the question with which comedy is far too seldom followed up is this: now what?

Sometimes, that question is answered in force. When Hannibal Buress’ stand-up routine reminded a Philadelphia crowd that Bill Cosby is a serial sexual predator, they laughed…then they Googled it, at his behest…then Bill Cosby came crashing down. When John Oliver delivers his Last Week Tonight rants, they’re often followed by a call to action. His brutal takedown of Trump in February ended with a farcical campaign to “Make Donald Drumpf Again,” an idea that seems silly but was rooted in an actual, albeit moonshot, strategy—destroy the brand, destroy the man. To this day, my Chrome browser is affixed with the free extension distributed by Last Week Tonight; when I read this (and I do read my own published work), I’ll see every mention of “Trump” replaced by “Drumpf.”

When Borat transfixed audiences ten years ago, they giggled their asses off, but that’s as far as they went. The “what comes next” has hung in the air, growing moldy and stale, for ten years, and we’ve turned our backs on it. The utter languidity of that response puts us all under the scope of Baron Cohen’s condemnation of indifference.

It’s obviously too late in the election cycle to do anything about Trump except to flock to the polls on November 8th and ensure that he does not win. But once the dust settles and Hillary Clinton is (hopefully?!) atop the pile of candidates, it is our civic responsibility to go about making sure that history does not repeat itself in 2020—or, for that matter, in the 2018 midterm elections. We need to recognize that Borat, once a groundbreaking comedy, is now an unanswered mandate for us to do everything we must do to end American bigotry. And that will only be possible if we stop alternately laughing and seething at the so-called “basket of deplorables” and start figuring out ways to empathize, create bridges of common self-interest, and forge a new American identity.

The chuckles and cringes of this campaign from Hell will be over in five days. Then it’s go time. I don’t want to be writing the same thing about Borat ten years from now.

Zach Blumenfeld enjoyed procrastinating on his law school reading to write this. Follow him on Twitter.