Bigotry dressed up as satire gets the biggest laughs

There are still countries, white-skinned but undeveloped, which can provide comics with fun
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The Independent Online

This week's Polyanna Prize, awarded for a public figure who manages to look on the bright side of life, should go to Mr Erlan Idrissov, ambassador to Britain for Kazakhstan. Asked about certain media image problems suffered by his country, Mr Idrissov announced he had decided not to react as, in their way, the incidents in question had had the positive effect of shedding light on the name of his country.

This week's Polyanna Prize, awarded for a public figure who manages to look on the bright side of life, should go to Mr Erlan Idrissov, ambassador to Britain for Kazakhstan. Asked about certain media image problems suffered by his country, Mr Idrissov announced he had decided not to react as, in their way, the incidents in question had had the positive effect of shedding light on the name of his country.

These image problems did not, strangely enough, concern any of the interesting things going in Kazakhstan right now: the election in which President Nazarbayev's Otan party has just triumphed ahead of that of his daughter, who happens to run the state radio; some serious human rights concerns (journalists opposing the government run a high risk of being involved in fatal traffic accidents); not to mention "Kazakhgate", a case of alleged bribery to the tune of $43min the oil industry.

Instead, it was the deployment of Kazakhstan as a comic prop that caused the ambassador to make his comments. After his success as Ali G, the writer and performer Sacha Baron Cohen has been developing, to great effect, a new persona called Borat. A TV journalist who has visited Britain and is now visiting America on behalf of a Kazakh TV station, Borat is a gawky, childish character whose apparently good-hearted eagerness to understand aspects of the countries he is visiting lures his hosts into revealing more of themselves than is altogether wise.

Bigotry, snobbery, racism, misogyny in our own countries are exposed and teased out by a simple, brilliant device. Borat, the TV interviewer, is, for all his innocent goofiness, more warped in his attitudes than any of them.

In his country, Borat likes to say, dog-shooting and rape are national pastimes. "In Kazakhstan, we say 'God, man, horse, dog, then woman, then rat." A cheerful hatred of Jews emerges in most interviews. In one programme, encouraged by Borat, a group of Americans sing along to one of his country's favourite folk songs. Its chorus goes: "Throw the Jew down the well/ So my country can be free/ You must grab him by the horns/ Then we have a big party."

The hilarity continues when Borat interviews Americans about the world of work. In his country, he explains, there are favoured careers - "for a man: construction work, taxi driver or accountant. For a woman: prostitute."

Funny as much of this is (so long as you happen not to be from Kazakhstan), one might assume it would cause problems in these sensitive times. If there is one area of humour which we, as evolved, liberal-minded folk, are meant to have outgrown it is the laugh based on an insulting view of a race, culture or nation. The Irish joke is an embarrassment of the past. A feeble jape about the Welsh made by Anne Robinson caused national outrage. When, in a mild and warm-hearted column, I discussed why the amiable loser Keith Barrett created by comedian Rob Brydon could only work if he were a Welshman, my email in-tray glowed red from readers' responses.

It turns out that this concern that no national group is insulted by unkind comic stereotyping and racial insult is entirely selective. The official line from Channel Four is that Cohen's satire is aimed at Borat's interviewees, that the man himself is only there to lure his prey into self-exposure. This is self-serving nonsense. While the behaviour of his guests may dismay or embarrass, the real laughs are directed at Borat's character and his home country.

The perspective of Kazakhstan offered by Cohen could never be satirical because it is not based on observation. Any Eastern European state might have been chosen as a comic backdrop, a place populated by thugs, rapists and anti-Semites, but, for their own reasons, the team behind Borat chose Kazakhstan. "Just about everything about it is wrong," the Kazakh press attaché in the US has said. "The ideas of freedom of speech are fine... yet in these times of peril and tension, Cohen and his show should know where to draw the line."

Of course, he is right. Imagine the justified rage of viewers if a show appeared on TV in which one of the central gags was the benighted bigotry and unthinking cruelty of some nationality in west Europe, Africa or Asia. It would be seen not only as an affront to the victims of the joke but an insult to our intelligence and taste. Yet, according to Channel Four, there have been six complaints about Borat's show - and they were all about his anti-Semitism.

So here is some excellent news for those who worry about the diluting effect of liberal political correctness on comedy. There are still a few countries, white-skinned but economically undeveloped, which can provide comics with the chance to have terrific fun by portraying its people as stupid, corrupt and with social attitudes that date from the Stone Age. If you then pretend that the satire is not exploiting bigotry for laughs but is high-mindedly exposing it, no one will give a damn.

Terblacker@aol.com

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