The funniest moment in Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, came about halfway into the uproarious mockumentary, when the intrepid Kazakh journalist sat down for an interview with an unsuspecting Columbia University professor.
“Can I to be changing my genders?” Borat asks, cupping imaginary breasts and pretending to jiggle them. The professor, smiling smugly, launches into a long disquisition about how gender is a fluid construct, a spectrum along which everyone is free to place themselves at will.
“Very nice!” Borat replies. “I like! So, I can to be Black woman with big musk-melons?”
Well, the professor replies, no: Visibly uncomfortable, he explains to Borat that race is a fixed essence, and that one can’t simply decide to identify as belonging to a different group than the one assigned to him by his DNA.
“Why not?” Borat asks, pulling out a DNA analysis he’d had done earlier in the film. “I do this reports that say I 36% gypsy and 24% from Africa. Wawaweewa!” The professor cringes, and, right then and there, the whole lunacy that has inflamed so many of our bien-pensants—embodied in the idiotic idea that gender, which is literally encoded into our very cells, is a fiction, but race, the demonstrably and empirically porous product of 19th-century pseudoscience, is fixed—is exposed, revealing to us just how far gone in loony pick-and-choose essentialism are our self-proclaimed intellectual and moral betters.
Baron Cohen, of course, conducted no such interview. Instead, he unleashed his Borat on America’s real villains, a gaggle of poor, working-class dudes whose livelihoods were lost to the pandemic. A Hollywood millionaire razzing on guys earning $36,000 a year and struggling to survive: This is what passes for subversive comedy these days. To hear Baron Cohen tell it, these rubes had it coming, because these rubes, you see, are racist.
“In 2005,” the comedian told an interviewer recently, “you needed a character like Borat who was misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic to get people to reveal their inner prejudices. Now those inner prejudices are overt. Racists are proud of being racists ... The aim is to make people laugh, but we reveal the dangerous slide to authoritarianism.”
That last statement is so flat-footed, stupid, and ingratiatingly venal that, coming from a guy as smart as Baron Cohen, it requires some pondering.
Let us, then, begin by asking a simple question: What story would an astute satirist, wishing nothing more than telling truth to power, tell about the ways America has changed in the last 15 years? He might, for example, observe that from 2007 to 2016, say, the median net worth of the richest one-fifth of Americans increased by a whopping 13%, while the net worth of families in the lower income brackets plummeted by 20%, with the middle class taking the hardest hit and losing as much as 40% of its wealth. He might’ve commented on the unfettered growth of an oligopoly made up by five companies that now govern everything from the way we buy shoes to the news we receive to the government’s ability to collect intimate information, whether we consent to the collection or not. He could’ve commented on safe spaces and trigger warnings and all the rest of the inanities that have turned our higher education into a simpering morass of weak minds and bad faith.
Instead, he repeated the dogma of his class, which is the class that pays him: orange man bad, poor man racist.
To understand why, put aside Borat 2, a sequel that improves on the original in precisely the same way Jaws II improved on Jaws. Instead, watch another very recent Baron Cohen jam, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. The comic plays the indefatigable Abbie Hoffman, capturing the late yippie’s wily charm and alarming emotional depth. It’s an easy movie to enjoy—all that Sorkinesque walking and talking—but it’s also uncanny in a slightly nauseating way. Cheer for these passionate young men, the film asks of you, cheer because fiery liberal activists are still out there today, fighting an establishment that is every bit as conservative and repressive and evil as Nixon’s. Baron Cohen’s Hoffman isn’t presented as a monument to times and ideas past; he’s a herald of future promises, a Pied Piper calling all the woke kids out there to the new revolution. It’s the same fight!
Why do today’s actors and writers and comedians keep pretending like the last 50 years of American history simply didn’t happen?
Except, of course, that it’s not 1968 anymore. It’s 2020, and while Donald Trump is president, we also live in a moment in history when major corporations send out tweets to remind us of the correct usage of gender pronouns; when drag queens host hit TV shows; the bestseller list is topped by our African American former first lady; all professional sporting events acknowledge systemic racism and all universities commit to eradicating it. The yippies of yesteryear, meanwhile, have likely become the TV executives who produce shows featuring diverse casts, or software moguls launching platforms that redefine capitalism or tenured professors shaping the way so many of us think about and understand the world. They’ve become, in short, the Man. Why, then, do today’s actors and writers and comedians keep pretending like the last 50 years of American history simply didn’t happen?
It’s a question that’s likely to occupy future historians for decades to come, but if you’re looking for a crass answer, it’s this: To a very large extent, the previous five decades found the American left embarking on a massive cosplay project, dressing up in period costume and playacting problems and conflicts that have, in real life, long ago been resolved, in order to preserve their cred, while becoming the Man—and making oodles of money in an increasingly unequal society, of course.
Was there a finer moment for the American left than the ’60s? The war they protested was hard to like, the leaders who inspired them were easy to admire, and the art they made was impossible to forget. These furious and glorious years—in reality, just six or seven—were an apotheosis no other group in American public life had experienced before or since. From the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the festival in Yasgur’s farm in 1969, the ’60s were as close any band of Americans has come to believing in the possibility of implementing real, epochal change since 1776.
So what do you for an encore? Some of the decade’s brightest, like Tom Hayden, turned to politics. Others, like Hoffman, turned to 150 phenobarbital tablets and a swig of liquor, ending it all before it got too dark. All discovered that maturity, unlike unfettered youth, carried with it the pestering burden of responsibilities and compromises, with small dramas played out in living rooms and bedrooms rather than large ones acted out in the streets for all to see. And that, as the kids say, is a bummer, man. Being, like Hayden, the author of Chapter 1238 of the California Statutes of 1987—providing state funds to students who wish to state their positions before local government—is nice, but it must’ve been a bit of a letdown for an aging gentleman once hailed as being “father to the largest mass protests in American history.”
But the babes of the age of Aquarius didn’t need to suffer for long. They were sufficiently well-versed in symbolic gestures and how they played out—Sorkin’s film begins with footage of throngs of youths outside the courthouse in Chicago, howling “the whole world is watching!”—to understand that whereas the motto of American showbiz was “fake it until you make it,” the motto of American politics was “fake it and cash out.”
Rather than grow up, the left threw down, establishing their musty brand of engagement as the yardstick by which all things righteous and cool and desirable must forever be measured. That Southern governor with the questionable ethics and the priggish policies? That’s far out, he’s one of us, he plays the sax and he’s hip when it comes to sex. That Silicon Valley mogul whose devices now listen in on our every conversation, disrupt our circadian rhythms, and intrude on our most intimate encounters? Whoa, check out his black turtleneck and his cool ads about sticking it to the establishment.
Where there are heroes there must, of course, be villains, too—autocratic brutes, who are forever nudging Amerikkka closer to fascism. Abbie Hoffman’s accusation against the judge presiding over his famous trial—“you would have served Hitler better”—has since been leveled, in one form or another, against just about anyone who opposed the Enlightened Ones’ march to power. When Barry Goldwater, for example, accepted his party’s presidential nomination in 1964, California’s Democratic governor, Pat Brown, thundered that “the stench of fascism is in the air.” Ronald Reagan, according to one prominent Democratic critic at the time, was “trying to replace the Bill of Rights with fascist precepts lifted verbatim from Mein Kampf,” while billionaire George Soros told anyone who’d listen that George W. Bush was simply improving on Hitler’s methods and ideas. And, for the past four years, you could break news simply by not comparing Trump to the Fuehrer.
If you’ve studied the political evolution of third-world countries, or spent any time in one, you know that politicians who give up on the hardships of governing settle for performance art. But what makes the current iteration—the pinnacle, perhaps—of leftist cosplay so utterly insufferable is knowing that the values they actually promote are the polar opposites of the ones they playact so capably in the movies they produce. In newsrooms and classrooms and editing suites, conformity reigns supreme. Authority is respected. Power is revered. If you don’t believe me, try walking around west Hollywood or the Upper West Side wearing a MAGA hat, or stating that there are only two genders, or suggesting that if in-person religious services are prohibited because of COVID-19, the same rules should apply to Black Trans Lives Matter gatherings.
Once upon a time in America, we had men and women who took such censures as an invitation to stand up and speak truth to power. We had Lenny Bruce and Joan Rivers and George Carlin and even, in his flawed and hurting way, Abbie Hoffman. Now we have Sacha Baron Cohen, mocking the meek and telling the same approved jokes as everyone else. Enough already.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.