Sacha Baron Cohen: a buffoonish ideologue, at Israel’s service

25 May 2012

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Sacha Baron Cohen’s commitment to Zionism comes out in his characters.

(Imago/Newscom)

Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest film The Dictator has led to the praise typical of movie reviewers for corporate publications. Baron Cohen, according to most of these reviewers, is something of a maverick: an iconoclastic outsider, an unorthodox entertainer, an erstwhile rebel, a genius provocateur. None of these superlatives is accurate.

What is Baron Cohen, then? Lots of descriptors work: a gifted role-player, an excellent self-promoter, a potty-mouthed prankster, a religious zealot, a white male who uses his privileges of race and gender to exploit people who cannot access those privileges.

There is one descriptor that is too infrequently applied to him: Zionist shill. Plenty of writers have noted Baron Cohen’s ardent Zionism, but few have suggested that his Zionism should cast him in a negative light (“Before ‘The Dictator’ and ‘Borat’, friends recall, Sacha Baron Cohen was a very nerdy, very funny, Israel-oriented guy,” The Times of Israel, 11 May 2012). Even fewer have examined how that Zionism visibly influences his thematic choices and public role-playing.

His commitment to Zionism is troublesome for numerous reasons: it supports the historical and current dispossession of Palestinians, situates him as an advocate of militaristic state power, calls into question his ethical commitments, and places him in Hollywood’s safest political space, that of fealty to Israel, a space in which the title of maverick loses all significant meaning.

It isn’t difficult to find evidence of Baron Cohen’s politics in his invented characters. While there are obvious iterations of Zionism in the dictator, Shabazz Aladeen, tomfoolery on behalf of Israel is also evident in earlier characters Brüno and Borat. Through both characters, Baron Cohen engaged in questionable behavior, what can accurately be called outright exploitation.

With Borat, for example, Baron Cohen named an actual country, Kazakhstan, when the concept behind that movie could have accomplished the same comic purpose with a made-up nation. Even with a made-up nation, however, Borat’s appearance as a stupid, swarthy, sexist Muslim conflated the Third World with pre-modern sensibilities, a feat that could be accomplished only through an unspoken juxtaposition of whiteness and modernity.

Even worse, in showing Borat’s origin at the start of the movie, Baron Cohen ditched the sound stage in favor of a real village in Romania, Glod, whose residents were appalled to learn that the documentary they thought Baron Cohen was filming turned out to be a degrading parody, leaving the villagers divided and infuriated (“We all hate Borat: the poor Romanian villagers humiliated by Sacha Baron Cohen’s spoof documentary,” The Daily Mail, 17 October 2008) . Those who participated were paid a tiny sum for their trouble; Borat grossed more than $260 million.

(Romania, Kazakhstan, what’s the difference, right? If the assumption from which Baron Cohen worked — that to most Americans, Eastern Europe and Central Asia are little more than a swath of backward foreign people — then it only reinforces the malice of naming actual countries and shooting on location, for the point had already been made before Baron Cohen decided to humiliate an entire village.)

Mean-spirited

With Brüno, Baron Cohen was even more mean-spirited. He searched out a “terrorist” for the flamboyant Brüno to offend. Baron Cohen’s search took him, of course, to the West Bank, where he again used a phony pretext to lure an unsuspecting Palestinian, Ayman Abu Aita, into an interview whose purpose was quite different than what Abu Aita was led to believe.

Since the film’s release, Abu Aita has dealt with the vitriol of his neighbors and colleagues who feel he humiliated them through his participation in Brüno’s spectacle (“The non-profit worker from Bethlehem who was branded a terrorist by Brüno,” The Guardian, 31 July 2009). Abu Aita wasn’t paid for his time; Brüno grossed $139 million. (In my book Israel’s Dead Soul I discuss this episode at length.)

Given the material exploitation of people in Romania and Palestine, these characters aren’t just harmless fun, after all.

Shabazz Aladeen — a name that manages to parody Arab and African American cultures — isn’t meant to be harmless. As with other characters, Baron Cohen has made numerous public appearances in character. His favorite tactic with Aladeen is to complain about the Zionists in Hollywood who refuse to grant him awards (“Sacha Baron Cohen to attend Oscars, claims victory over ‘Zionist snakes in Hollywood’,” Haaretz, 25 February 2012). Out of character, Baron Cohen explained to Howard Stern, another ardent Zionist, that “all these dictators blame everything on the Zionists. It’s a great scapegoat” (“Sacha Baron Cohen to Howard Stern: you inspired me,” Jewish Journal, 8 May 2012).

Disturbing connection

There is a disturbing connection to be made between Baron Cohen’s Zionist politics and his willingness to exploit real communities and to bastardize ethnic imagery. Zionism, an ideology that can accommodate liberal and humanistic discourses, cannot be practiced without a concomitant abrogation of the rights of those who are not Jewish, a reality that becomes even more severe when we consider that the vast majority of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants are Muslim and Christian.

If his ethnic typologies are unoriginal, then his dictator’s complaints about Hollywood Zionists are completely banal. It is a grand tradition among pro-Israel commentators to attribute Arab dislike of Israel to everything but the inequitable practices of Zionism.

As Aladeen indicates, complaining about Zionism is an irrational Arab pastime, one they are brainwashed into by hideous dictators (whose power, of course, has nothing to do with Israeli, European and American meddling); Arab stupidity is so pervasive it totally ignores Israel’s greatness and the many benefits Israel could provide to Arabs if only they were smart enough to listen. Arabs passively accept their destiny. They are programmed culturally to submit to authority. They are not equipped with the intellectual gifts necessary for democratic modernity. There is nothing to do but colonize them.

The conflation of Zionism with proper multicultural modernity has a long history in American film, particularly in movies that endeavor to oppose racism. In Hollywood’s anti-racism, criticism of Israel falls into the same category as white supremacy, a point illustrated in American History X when one character holding a camcorder implores another to share some of the things he has learned about race in America.

After the usual complaints about lazy minorities and declining Western values, the speaker rants, “And I hate Tabatha Soren and all her Zionist MTV fucking pigs telling us we should all get along.” American History X uses the scene to make a point about anti-Zionist activists, suggesting that they are not very different than neo-Nazis. The speaker even mispronounces “Zionist” in case viewers are unclear that cultured, educated people do not find Zionism distasteful. The proper democratic citizen does not contest Zionism; doing so puts him or her in the company of obese, unkempt skinheads.

Baron Cohen reinvigorates this dubious history when his dictator travels the country ranting about Zionists. Who but a jackass would keep company with the cartoonish Shabazz Aladeen?

The first rule of good satire is to ridicule sites of entrenched power, not to reinforce them. Racial satire is even trickier, for many a would-be satirist has used the cover of humor to buttress racist paradigms, something Baron Cohen does when he satirizes groups of people that are elsewhere victims of his troublesome politics. That’s the difference between Dave Chapelle, a brilliant satirist and stand-up comedian, and Baron Cohen, a buffoonish ideologue.

Sacha Baron Cohen is not a maverick. He is an apparatchik of Hollywood’s most profitable brand.

Steven Salaita’s latest book is Israel’s Dead Soul. Follow him on twitter @stevesalaita.

Comments

I agree. Sasha is so ugly in these roles. Obnoxious. Truly he should represent an Israeli and spoof his own group instead of insulting other people. His characters are so incredibly ugly. And Sasha's portrayal makes him ugly because it is purely racist vitriol to demean others. Telling ethnic jokes to malign a race or group is despicable and he has made this his main art.

I totally agree with the previous commenter and the author of this article. I am glad someone took the time to articulate all the things I instantly felt about this film but was unable to express.

the fact that in both Borat and The Dictator, Cohen uses a sort of pidgin Israeli Sephardic Hebrew (the same basic vocabulary that I picked up in "Ulpan" classes back in my Zionist youth group Israel program days) as a stand-in for his character's native tongues (Kazhak and Arabic, ostensibly), thus having what I'm sure he believes is "subversive" fun at the expense of his targets.

Linked to this looking for a review of the film. It reads like something from the Dictator's imaginary Wadiya national news service. Always, always, portray Jews and Israel as controlling, manipulative and basically evil and Muslims as innocent victims. But use the term Zionists.

Gadhafi is the model as anyone over 12 can figure out.

The childish simpification and paranoia is alternately funny and sad.

Interesting how the author uses the word "third world" so liberally and associates it with a former soviet republic. He is making assumptions and stereotypes that are in parallel with Baron Cohen's. Hypocritical much?

What a load of old nonsense. This sounds like a conspiracy theory disguised as serious article on a comedian. SBC broke thru in Britain as Ali G. Ali G was a very low budget comedy originally screened on Channel 4. The character was an excellent example of white, middle class British kids influenced by American Gangster rap without any knowledge of the culture it represented. It was timed perfectly into the emerging CHAV culture that the likes of the Daily Mail began to target. Ali G was a well timed piece of cultural comedy for a British market all put together on a very low budget. Are you suggesting that SBC knew that this show would lead to international comedic superstardom so that he could pitch his Zionist agenda? Come on mate, seriously. Why did I waste 20 minutes reading such stupidity.

In Bruno he crashes a real fashion show and the designer is distraught - so not funny - how would he react if pranksters interupted a carefully set up scene in one of his own films?

I have to assume this article is an attempt at satire itself, although not very funny.

If the author of this column is serious than I feel very, very sorry for Mr. Salaita, as his obsession with Zionism has robbed him of a sense of humor.

Firstly i must say that if you came here to read a film review of the dictator you must be drunk.

I was and still am a big fan of the Ali G show and of the Ali G film even though as a film its dreadful. However if anyone watched Bruno you had a rough idea of where he was going as a comedian. Where I think Borat had succeed in having an edge it was on the whole pretty funny. Bruno and im afraid The Dictator has shown the further departure of though provoking jokes.
Now i did laugh a few times i counted about 7 and in the cinema i was in there were about 20 people and they laughed a little more than i did. This is no Team America and to say the Kim Jong Il jokes are second rate in comparison would be an overstatement. Likewise the repetitive delivery seems to be a lack of material rather than a Ted Chippington intent. I'm not saying the film isn't funny in parts but for me it wasn't nearly funny enough.

The film seems to be made for the trailer which shows the funniest parts of the film and then makes you feel like the remaining 80 minutes is just padding as well as. Now I feel if this was funnier i may have given a little slack to the self-serving political agenda that is not simmering below the surface in this film but the outright point as is made clear in the satirical speech at the end of the film.
SBC is hardly an Israeli dissendent and not a Palestinian activist but can you see the gap between those and a Zionist or a militant zealot?

So the films main crime is not being funny but its mood and tone is the real problem yet If you had written this article in the same light that you criticise the film you may have garnered more positive results.