Matthew Norman: Borat, Bush and the dark arts of satire

He offends anyone who takes pleasure in being offended, or regards it as a moral obligation
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The Independent Online

In another tranquil week for the White House, George Bush's silence on Borat Sagdiyev and his newly premiered movie has been deafening. Despite having little more on what passes for his mind than unfurling the white flag over Iraq and the anticipated collapse of the Republican vote in the week after next's mid-term elections, the President has had nothing to say about Borat: Cultural Learnings For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, despite the recent lobbying of that Central Asian republic's leader.

Although he reportedly placated Nursultan Nazarbayev about Borat when the two met in the Oval Office a month ago, Mr Bush has apparently learned the danger of attacking satirists head on from his father's assertion that American families should be less like the Simpsons and more like the Waltons. And this even though, given the content of a film in which Borat tells a Virginia rodeo crowd, "May George W Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq!", it's a toss up which of these two warriors for freedom is most entitled to take offence.

Herein lies Baron Cohen's particular brilliance. With a commitment to democracy that puts Messrs Bush and Nazarbayev to shame, he offends almost everyone in equal measure. As Bruno, the mincing Austrian fashion reporter, he offended gays and models. As Ali G, he offended both blacks and white or Asian youths affecting to be black. Now, as Borat, he offends Middle America, Kazakhstan, Jews, women, gays and good-natured liberals who feel they should be offended on behalf of others even if they aren't sure why. In other words, he offends anyone who takes pleasure in being offended, or regards it as a moral obligation.

In an age when people are as terrified of causing offence as they are instinctively eager to take it, it is no accident that most of the best comedy revolves around the excruciation provoked by that ceaselessly bemusing grey area between genuine and parodic offensiveness.

All three of the world's - or rather, lest any Swiss or Afrikaans humorists take offence, the English-speaking world's - leading comic geniuses concentrate remorselessly on the confusion the well-meaning feel about bigotry, toying with their audiences's guilt at finding it so funny (what does it say if I laugh? Am I a racist too?).

In The Office and Extras, Ricky Gervais does it ceaselessly. Whether it's David Brent telling his joke about the Royal Family's Christmas Day guessing game (the answer being "black man's cock"), or having Kate Winslet refer to a woman with cerebral palsy as "a mentalist", he plays that ancient game of making viewers nervily uncertain whether they are laughing at or with the characters, just as Johnny Speight did 40 years ago when he unleashed Alf Garnett.

One of Gervais's heroes is the great Larry David, who has been mining this comedic seam, of characters blundering into areas of maximum offence and trying to blunder back out again, for 15 years. In Seinfeld, his alter ego George Constanza tries to pass off a black rodent controller as a personal friend to allay the charge of racism. In Curb Your Enthusiasm, David himself, constantly suspected of the same by his wife's friend, ends up in the home of her fiancée, gangsta rapper Krazee-Eyes Killa, to be told "Yo my niggah" and to answer "Yeah, I'm your niggah". Various forms of disability (dwarfism, blindness, etc), child sex abuse, homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism and every conceivable area of sensitivity are paraded and parodied to force you to tiptoe through the perplexing minefield of what constitutes your own prejudice and what counts as laughing at the prejudice of others.

In a peculiarly cute piece of timing, the day Baron Cohen's film was premiered, an obscure Liberal Democrat MP attacked the Government for racism - not for yielding to scaremongering by restricting the numbers from Bulgaria and Romania who may work here, but for using the phrase "black economy".

At the moment, the Home Secretary is implicitly caricaturing the peoples of two former Soviet satellites as scavenging nomads scheming to deny British citizens the "black economy" jobs they have no desire to fill, along comes this heavily moustachioed deus ex machina to caricature the once nomadic people of another former Soviet republic as bestial imbeciles.

Perhaps in this synchronicity lies support for the "pressure cooker theory of comedy", which argues that humour is a fantastically positive force for defusing tension, as propounded by my friend and colleague Howard Jacobson and the late Adolf Hitler, who in Mein Kampf discouraged the telling of Jewish jokes on the grounds that people find it hard to hate that which makes them laugh.

One wouldn't want to overstretch this, and ascribe the lack of any major race riots in the early 1970s to the moronic racial skirmishing of Love Thy Neighbour. But at a time of burgeoning distrust towards Eastern Europeans, maybe its not such a bad thing that those who would not dare openly express their terror of marauding Polish plumbers can laugh instead at the pastiche ad absurdam of another people who say "jagshemash" and "chengui".

Perhaps in their unwitting way, this is what Baron Cohen, Gervais and David are doing by playing with the innate fears and suspicions so many people feel towards minorities of all kinds ... ridiculing both the prejudices and the phobia of confronting them; and gently, or not so gently, allowing some of the steam to escape before the cooker explodes.

Not much for fun, of course, for the proud people of Kazakhstan to be dismissed as a bunch of fermented-horse-urine drinkers with prostitution for their national sport, and "Throw the Jew Down the Well" their national song. But their president might reflect on Denis Healey's old dictum, and accept that when you're in a hole deep enough to bury your entire Jewish population, there's no point in continuing to dig.

Mr Nazarbayev's attempts to silence Borat, with threats of legal action and the confiscation of a web-site domain name, have only highlighted his role as lifetime dictator of a nation with massive oil and gas reserves who recently moved his capital to a city largely owned by his sister-in-law (one in the eye for Borat's portrayal of Kazakh women as chattels), who has little time for freedom of speech, and who featured in a recent Amnesty report for his lusty use of executions as a political tool.

This is the man George Bush consoled about Borat's cruelty, and the man described by the White House as an important "ally in the war against terror". Sacha Baron Cohen may be a genius, but when it comes to satirising both Kazakhstan and the America of George W Bush, nothing in his art comes close to matching life.