I was waiting to see the new James Bond, like everyone else this week, when I realized I probably already had: His name is Borat, in the film about a fake Kazakh reporter who travels through America. Bond was English and so is Borat, or at least Sacha Baron Cohen is, who plays him. They are a kind of indissoluble dual presence. Borat uses disguise, in fact, he is a disguise, in the way that 007 employed Q’s technological gimmicks.
And Borat, too, is licensed to kill, or assassinate, in the sense of character assassinate. But Bond was the secret agent of empire during the Cold War, when communism and revolution were the foe. Borat is the new agent of empire, post 9/11, the era of Muslim terror and the clash of civilizations.
His secret mission, I’d say, is to assure Western audiences who go to his film, that the enemy “we” face really is as daft and detestable as earnest propagandists like George Bush (or Mark Steyn, in his new book) say they are. His main weapon in making this point is not the way he lampoons and deceives the dupes he meets along his way: feminists, suburbanites, college kids or the pitiful Romanian peasants he uses to depict his Kazakh hometown.
His main proof is himself: He is misogynist, bestial, endlessly anti-Semitic and stupid. If there’s genius in the film, it’s in the way Borat/Cohen manages to conceal the real target of his character assassination: himself. It’s strange how some viewers seem troubled by the portrayal of Jews, when it’s clearly Borat’s own anti-Semitism that is being ridiculed.
Take a comparable artist from an earlier time: the writer V.S. Naipaul. During the Bond years of the 1960s and ’70s, he travelled the world producing fiction and non-fiction that had the effect of reassuring Western readers that those violent, usually black or dark-skinned agitators and revolutionaries out in the Third World were dangerous but not meritorious. You had to fear them, but not respect or accommodate them.
In the age of Borat, blacks are no longer the main source of fear, along with some loathing. On his U.S. voyage, black youth and a black prostitute are among the few people who aren’t mocked. It is people from Muslim places like Kazakhstan or the other stans — Pakistan, Afghanistan — who are scary and offensive.
Mr. Baron Cohen says he chose Kazakhstan because it’s little known, but he could have used nations in south Asia, South America, or the Pacific. He says his film shows the absurdity of holding any form of racial prejudice, whether of African-Americans or of Jews. He doesn’t mention Muslims, the obvious case in the West today. In an odd moment, Borat implies he isn’t a Muslim since he’s from Kazakhstan — which has a Muslim majority.
Is Borat great satire? Rolling Stone calls him Swiftian, a “balls-out comic revolutionary” in a class with Lenny Bruce, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. But Mr. Colbert attacked George Bush in front of the Washington press corps. A good satirist risks mocking and antagonizing his own group. That’s the strength of Muslim and other minority comics.
At least V.S. Naipaul was from the Third World. Sacha Baron Cohen only acts the role of Borat. He is an Orthodox Jew from England. Mordecai Richler and Philip Roth took shots at the goyim but they also fearlessly satirized their own Jewish world. There’s not a peep of that from Borat/Cohen. Nor does he challenge any real sources of power. He is also prone to sappy sentimentality, like the hooker with a heart of gold, not a sign of spiky satire, in my view.
As for Daniel Craig, the other new Bond, what’s new I’d say is not that he’s blond, but that he’s working class. The previous Bonds were all pretty Oxbridge. But they were the Bonds of an empire in decline, and fought mostly against cartoonish supercriminals.
We now live in an age of resurgent empire, hailed by academics like Niall Ferguson and Michael (empire lite) Ignatieff. It’s typical for empires to seek to renew their energy by recruiting among their own underclasses at home, or with ambitious colonials from places like India, Scotland and Canada. Borat, too, lives in this new imperial era and does his bit.
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