Steven Salaita – Electronic Intifada May 25, 2012
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.)
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).
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.