I wasn't a huge fan of the movie "Borat" the first time I saw it. I'm a big fan of "Ali G" and the different characters that Sasha Baron Cohen brings into the show, so I thought I would love Borat. It definitely had its laugh-out-loud moments, but after a while I just got tired of the way it repeated itself and forced the same big idea/big joke on the audience -- Americans, especially those of us who live in non-coastal states, are a bunch of boorish intolerant rednecks.
My friend Nick (who, incidentally, reads and sometimes posts on this blog) heard me say that I found it only "so-so" and, when I offered him my reasoning, gave me a totally different way to interpret the movie.
"Yeah, I *get it*, too" he said, "it's supposed to cast Americans in a bad light, it's obviously edited that way, and the points just get made over and over again....but look at this way -- here's this heavily-accented guy saying he's from Kazakhstan acting rudely and thrusting himself into all kinds of strange social situations, but he's mostly being welcomed everywhere he goes. If you want to watch the movie to better understand America, just take notice of how welcoming and open everyone is to him."
I watched "Borat" again this weekend from that perspective and was amazed by it. Time and again in the movie, Cohen's character loudly throws himself into bizarre situations with people who, by and large, *go with it.* Nearly everyone from the shop owner whose goods Borat breaks, to the people he introduces himself to in the street, to the southern socialites whose house he enters, to the people he meets at public gatherings, etc. welcomes him with open arms even after he acts in a way that most would find offensive. When he's really offensive -- running naked through a hotel reception area or trying to kidnap Pamela Anderson -- the reception is far from warm, but that ought to be expected anyway.
I'm not going to defend the xenophobes and bigots that Borat "exposes" -- even though I do sympathize somewhat, because many were apparently duped into appearing on the film, and (most notably in the case of the southern frat boys) will be in some way pockmarked by it forever.
However, even a fourth-grader should realize that careful video editing allows someone to portray any group of people just about any way they want to. And at the end of the day, I trust Sasha Baron Cohen's revelations about American values about as much as I trust Michael Moore's comparison of American and Canadian news broadcasts in "Fahrenheit 9/11," which is to say, not a whole heck of a lot.
American society, like any other, is full of its faults and contradictions. But by and large, it's an open-minded one with a long and storied history of welcoming outsiders.
You may scoff at that.
You may come back with things like Sacco and Vanzetti, the Chinese Exclusion Act, or the turning back of the St. Louis by FDR in 1939. You'd be fair to make any of those points.
But show me another country where there are multiple first- and second-generation immigrant groups whose median income is more than double the national average. Show me another country where millions from every inhabited continent queue up to enter each year. Show me another country where the Governor of its largest state (by population) with the largest economy is foreign-born and arrived in his teens without a word of the language or a dollar of the currency.
If you're still scoffing, I can't stop you. But if you can take the leap of faith, trust me when I say it can't be done.