Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Value of "Borat"

[Originally published Wed Mar 21, 2007]

A few days ago, I finally rented "Borat".

Never before to my recollection have I turned off a film in anger. But I did this time. Just after the "Dining Society" scene. I tried watching some more this evening, but stopped again after the guy's antique shop got busted up.

Some here may recall that a while back, I posted in support of the idea of this film, which among other things, tweaks the noses of a number of cultures that have been, and in some cases still are, openly and unrepentantly anti-Semitic, and does it right in their front yards.

This, in my view, is a Good Thing. And the "Running of the Jew"? An absolutely brilliant scene. It deserves to be propagated as a viral video.

What I object to, and finally could no longer bear to watch, was all the collateral damage to people who seemed entirely decent, and undeserving of such abuse. I felt particularly awful knowing that the station manager who let him on the air got fired for it, and I felt dreadful for the etiquette teacher and the dining party.

I still do. And I am still furious and sad on their behalf.

But after thinking about this for a few more days, I think I see a unique value in this film, though it comes at a cost of "collateral damage" that may have been too high for some of the victims.

Most of us are aware at an intellectual level, at least, of what it must have been like for Holocaust victims, and Jews (and those similarly oppressed) down the centuries, living as second- or tenth-class citizens in societies where they could be abused at will.

Do you want to REALLY know the feeling of OUTRAGE, on a gut emotional level, of having one of your cherished holy places violated by an unspeakably insulting, boorish invader (as when the Nazis forced Jews to recite anti-Semitic propaganda in their own synagogues) ? Watch the rodeo scene of this film, particularly the ending where he does the national anthem.

Do you really want to know the feeling of outrage, of having a boorish invader come into your home and visit the most outrageous, humiliating scatological insults upon the kindly host? Watch the Dining Society scene.

Do you want to understand what it's like having such an invader randomly bust up your shop, and receive only insulting "apologies" in return, and compensation that (if it comes at all) is insufficient (as has happened to Jews and similarly oppressed minorities for centuries, in most parts of the world) ? Watch where the guy's shop gets busted up.

But here's the difference.

In the historical examples above, the victims felt compelled to be "nice" to the boorish, insulting invaders of their homes, shops and religious places, because if they did not, even worse acts were likely to follow.

In the film, the victims felt (initially) compelled to be nice because we are taught (rightly) to be at least initially tolerant of those whose ways may be different from our own.

In other words, the people in the film CHOSE to be nice. They weren't being nice in fear of their lives, as some people are, and have been in some times and places, obliged to be.

In our society the people being outraged could, and did, run the offenders off their property, in one case already having called the police. And they had an enforceable, legally recognized right to do it. And thank God for that.

The victims of Kristallnacht didn't have that option. Nor did the million or so Jews in various Middle Eastern countries who were run out of their shops and homes in those countries during the 20s, 30s and 40s (or in past centuries).

Now, imagine living in a society where you would have to put up with such outrages, QUIETLY AND WITHOUT PROTEST, FOR YOUR ENTIRE LIFE. No calling the sherriff. In fact, a lot of the time, he'd probably be the one doing the insulting, stealing and destroying.

Imagine having to quietly put up with things being stolen from you in front of your eyes. Your religious places desecrated and made filthy. Your goods damaged or destroyed without recourse. The sanctity of your home invaded. AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO, WITHOUT RISKING FURTHER OUTRAGE, DAMAGE OR DEATH. You just have to stand there and take it, your whole life. The same for your kids.

We all know that "low self esteem", and the stress of being bullied, are harmful to people, particularly children, both psychologically and physically. What kind of personal damage must such a situation do to those who must suffer it (not to mention the social impoverishment that seems to affect entire societies where such practices are tolerated) ?

Wouldn't YOU want to move away from such a life, if you could?

What I feel I have come away with from this film is just a sliver, a hint of the anger and outrage that some people must feel every day of their lives. Something that goes beyond an intellectual understanding of that experience, but a real gut, emotional blow. Leading, I feel, to more of a REAL understanding of what this sort of thing does to people.

Not just Jews, but French Protestants at time of the Huguenot massacres. Quakers in England 200+ years ago. The Chinese in many Asia-Pacific countries. Hindus in Africa. Armenians in Turkey. Turks in Bulgaria. Persians in Zanzibar.

All of these outrages are the product of societies where it is, for some reason, acceptable to "automatically" hate and oppress certain groups, and where there is no equal protection under the law. Societies where each group has its own (so-called) "protected" status. Societies which are, in effect, governed by Dhimmi law, whether that word is used or not.

I never did finish watching Borat. I feel that I have gotten the point. I didn't see the scene where he gets an enthusiastic ranch owner to agree that it should be possible to hunt Jews, but I know it's there, and I'm glad that person was exposed. I just can't bear to watch any more decent, innocent people getting caught up in the collateral damage.

But I'm glad I watched as much as I did.

And I'm glad I felt as outraged, angry and sad as I did. So much so that it took me days to understand why I was feeling what I felt.

Because now, I feel I have just the tiniest sliver of real EMOTIONAL understanding of something I have understood intellectually for a very long time.

And I'm grateful for the realization that, unlike people who must live with such things every day of their lives, I can turn off the movie. The victims in the film were, unlike those people, able to quite rightly run him off their property and out of their lives. In my view, it's so important to realize that not everyone has choices like that. And that's an awful thing.

Sacha Baron Cohen is not going to get any hugs from me. And I struggle with the question of whether "the ends justify the means" of having presented the message of his film given the collateral damage involved.

But I'm glad I saw the film. And I'm glad for the pain it caused me and the increased understanding I feel it brought.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Solving the Problem of "Chav Culture"

I have been seeing a lot of vitriol against "chav culture" in the UK (and similar such phenomena elsewhere), on and off and for some time.

What is a chav, you ask? Click here.

Not only do some people disapprove (as do I) of the rude, lazy, even violent nature of this latest and greatest version of yob culture, they let phrases like "shoot them all" or "put them in a ditch and burn them" slip past their lips.

Irrespective of how many people are actually serious about such views (few, I hope), I don't believe that the solution is, or can be, just hatin' on the chavs.

Rather than trying to "destroy" Chav culture, why not try to raise awareness among the Chavs and encourage them to improve their lot, as Malcolm X and the -- yes -- Nation of Islam did (and still do) for thousands in the US, who at one time or another might have been considered Chav-like?

Make no mistake -- I am no fan of Louis Farrakhan, nor of the hate he and some others in NOI have been known to espouse.

However, what NOI has done, and still does, is encourage people to stand up and regain their dignity, in both behavior and dress, to get educated, to be faithful within relationships, and hold their families together.

I think few people who've read Malcolm X's autobiography and the story of how NOI began, and the stark changes it made in many lives, can fail to be moved.

Don't want "radical" Islam in your town, you say? Well, I have nothing against Islam or Islamists (only violent sociopaths, who exist irrespective of religion), but it doesn't have to be Islam. It could just as well be Unitarianism or Buddhism, so long as the unifying principles of pride, dignity, education, family and self-improvement are preserved.

These are certainly values around which the Islamic community conspicuously gathers, and who can fault them for that?

And think of this. Do you think that immigrants from Islamic countries, of all ages, proud of their history, culture and religion, aren't sickened at the spectacle of Chavs, and even more sickened at the thought of becoming like them (or their children becoming like them) ?

Don't you think that a "radical" Islamic leader in the neighborhood, offering the local youth something of pride and dignity (and power), above the level of the goatlike Chav existence, might have a powerful effect among that set of youth, and possibly their elders as well?

Where is a more attractive alternative for them?

For some time now, I have thought what the Chavs and those like them need is someone like Malcolm X (Islamic or otherwise) to go in there and wake them up to their own pride and full potential.

After all, the Chavs didn't just spring out of the ground, and they're not made of fungus or anything else different from you and me.

They are the descendants of people who grew up in and inhabited one of the world's most powerful, most democratic, most literate and most ACCOMPLISHED countries.

Who will wake them up to their potential? We know it can be done.

We also have to consider who might not want them woken up, from neighborhood poobahs who prefer everyone ignorant and violent, or fearful and weak, to national poobahs who might want much the same.

Either way, IMO the solution is not destruction, deportation or extermination.

It is, rather, about awakening and standing up.

I'm not quite sure, either, why the use of a Bible should, in the eyes of some, be suspect in such an enterprise.

Whether you believe in God or not, it can't be denied that the book in question contains a lot of useful advice (not, perhaps, always to be taken literally), compiled over a period of 4,000 years in a place where life was generally not easy.

Handy life tips for people living in a harsh world, at any time or place.

Plus, you have the useful advice from a harsh world (Old Testament) combined with a reminder to love, forgive and "be excellent to each other" (New Testament).

Sounds like a winning combo to me.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Why Marriage?

Ideally (in my view) a marriage is a union between two people who want to spend the rest of their lives together, accompanied by legal support of various kinds that encourages them to do so, partly but not entirely to provide a stable environment to raise children, and to reduce (if not eliminate) the instance of fatherless children, the spread of sexual diseases, and societal unrest and violence due to sexual jealousy.

Unfortunately, in the past in most places and in the present in many, marriage has often been a legal excuse for a man to abuse a woman and get away with it.

Unfortunately, in many Western countries today, the pendulum has swung the other way, and marriage often means, for the man, "find someone you don't like and buy them a house, leave, and then pay them half your earnings for the rest of your life", which is also a distinctly abusive situation.

Somewhere, I think there is room for a legal structure that provides the (in my opinion) good bits from the first paragraph, while treating BOTH members of the arrangement as adults, and expecting adult, not-abusive behavior from both. This may involve mutually agreed "term limits" of 5, 10, 20 or so years.

Until such things are settled, the idea of marriage presents significantly scary prospects to one or both participants, and the notion of simply "living together" where the relationship is sustained by mutual benefit and respect (and just possibly love) may seem, and be, more attractive.

I do think marriage has good aspects and advantages, not least some of the ones from the first paragraph. It won't work, though, unless both people are willing to work at it, through thick and thin.

When that works, it's a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

On Fence-Sitting

People at both ends of our political spectrum are nuts -- Somebody

Surely it's more useful to engage with the substance of someone's opinions (of any portion of the spectrum) than to simply dismiss them with an insult?

Such statements have the whiff of fence-sitting, where the insulter adopts the convenient position of being able to dump derision on people who actually express an opinion, while not committing to any position him/herself.

Very gratifying for some folks, I'm sure, but not terribly useful for participating in the mechanisms of civic discussion and consensus.

There's also the commonly held notion that someone who feels the need to resort to insults is implicitly admitting they haven't a leg to stand on, when it comes to the merits of a discussion.

Of course, if one is sitting on a fence all the time, one's legs aren't being used much.