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.

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