Do I really want to know “Who Is America?

I watched two episodes of Sacha Baron Cohen’s show, Who is America? the other day. It made me feel icky and uncomfortable, and I don’t know if I’ll watch it anymore.

The problem for me is that he’s really good at making people expose who they really are, and when the wrong kinds of people drop their masks, you discover how ugly human beings can actually be. It’s distressing. It’s like being Roddy Piper in They Live, discovering the glasses that allow you to see the horrible reality behind the illusion. It’s also interesting because you discover that some people are actually who they present themselves to be, or at least, are much better at keeping the mask on (Congressman Matt Gaetz, for instance, is a gun nut, but he managed to sidestep saying anything that made him look stupid. We should worry about him — he might be a bit smarter than your average Republican).

The Baron Cohen ploy didn’t work on two relatively intelligent, liberal people he tried to trick: Bernie Sanders and Ted Koppel. Sanders just looked exasperated and impatient (but that’s how he always looks), and Koppel tried to pay respectful attention before giving up and ending the interview. You can’t con someone into being someone he’s not, I guess, and a man playing a lunatic right-winger isn’t going to tempt them. One wonders if there is a role outside of Baron Cohen’s range that could trip them up.

But the real horrors are the people who cheerfully and willingly go along with his schtick, especially since blithe brutal strongman Erran Morad seems to be most effective. Trent Lott, Larry Pratt, Dana Rohrabacher, Joe Wilson, Joe Walsh, and Dick Cheney were obliging, and seemed to have no hesitation about endorsing torture or arming toddlers. That’s who they are. It took little prompting to trigger them to sign on to an evil agenda.

Worst was Georgia state representative Jason Spencer, who was eager to bare his buttocks and run around screaming racist and homophobic epithets with only a little direction. He has now resigned. His excuse was revealing.

“Sacha Baron Cohen and his associates took advantage of my paralyzing fear that my family would be attacked,” Spencer said, adding that the techniques he demonstrated were meant to deter “what I believed was an inevitable attack.”

A Republican motivated by baseless, foolish fears. Who would have thought it? It’s not just fear, it’s ignorance, because he was willing to believe that an Islamic terrorist with a gun would be so terrified of being turned “homo” if he was touched by Spencer’s butt that he’d throw his gun away and flee. That excuse is a non-excuse. It’s an admission that bigotry is built into his core assumptions about the world. It’s further reason that he shouldn’t have run for office in the first place.

Of course, he got elected, which tells you much about the electorate that I didn’t want to know. That’s also exposed in the segment where Baron Cohen visits Kingman, Arizona. He plays a rather clueless, wimpy, liberal developer who wants to build a $385 million mosque in the town, at a kind of town hall meeting (I do wonder how he recruited attendees, though — they don’t seem entirely representative. Or if they are, I’m even more horrified.) This leads to all kinds of angry words and bigoted rhetoric — not only do they hate Muslims, who are all terrorists, but they’re afraid it will attract black people, who aren’t welcome there. The townsfolk are quite willing to shout all kinds of racist things when angry.

Which is why I’m not exactly a fan of the show. Maybe it’s an education we need, to learn how many of our fellow Americans are both dumb as a stick and full of hate, but I don’t have to like it. Aren’t I cynical enough yet? This show keeps telling me no, that I have to dive deeper into the bleak darkness.


  1. lakitha tolbert says

    I’m sorry this is such a horrifying revelation for you, but some of us already knew, so does that mean we don’t need to watch the show? Not only have we always known, we didn’t have any choice but to know, and can’t take off our glasses so we can stop seeing how vile, nasty, malicious, racist, homophobic, and misogymist people can be. Not ALL Americans of course, but certainly more than enough.

  2. anchor says

    He ostensibly plays it up for humor, but its impossible to laugh at anything that stinks that bad. What’s so funny? I worry about anybody who thinks its laughable. Plenty enough insanity going around as it is.

  3. Sean Boyd says

    Watching a couple of these segments reminded me of the Milgram experiments…but where every test subject immediately jumped to the highest setting without need for prompting or coercion. Milgram might’ve given up psychology if he’d conducted his initial trials with the modern GOP.

  4. says

    News Update:
    Spencer has resigned. Apparently there are limits even for a republican.

    Showing your butt is off-limits. That other stuff is fine.

  5. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    @Marcus Ranum,

    The gop shows off their assholes daily, and that doesn’t seem to bother their supporters.

  6. says

    Sean Boyd@#3:
    Milgram might’ve given up psychology if he’d conducted his initial trials with the modern GOP.

    Milgram’s original plan for the experiment was to try to determine if there was something specifically wrong with Germans, post-war. There are many, many, problematic aspects to all of Milgram’s work that I am familiar with – including new revelations that he tampered with his subjects; they were told to act that way by the experimenters.

  7. alixmo says

    PZ is definitely not cynical enough. Amazing, since he got in contact with so many weirdos through his pro-atheism work. Just the other day I glanced at his “profile” in the so called “Conservapedia”. Anyone who heard of Andrew Schlafly or his mother Phyllis should not be surprised by bigotry or stupidity anymore. But it speaks for PZ` good character and optimism. So please do not change!

  8. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Thank you for the quick synopses, It sounds disgusting and even disgusting things get people to watch, as a way to “safely” experience horror and broaden their viewpoint (expand their minds?).
    It is “nice” to see Sacha get his voice broadly heard and not only in parody movies. What he is revealing does need to be shown as really existing and not only as “exaggerations to make a point”.
    “45” keeps telling us to disbelieve everything. wrong. there is a difference between skepticism and rejection. [coining spontaneously] ie — rejecting, immediately, facts presented.
    “45” says every fact presented about him is “fake”, while all the lies he spouts are absolutely true.
    —— oops, wandering off topic.
    Who Is America is a good question and is presented as the original meaning of Geek Show, ie watching weirdos perform horrific disgusting acts.
    sux that these aren’t actorsof the Thespian school , instead actors of the powerful kind.
    Important to spread the information that these actors really exist and aren’t merely exaggeration

  9. Sean Boyd says

    Marcus Ranum @6,

    Knew about the motivation for his experiments. Didn’t know that they were potentially that staged…for instance, I knew that using prodding phrases to impel subjects to continue was part of the design, but it seems like you’re referring to something more than that. Yet something new to learn about.

  10. Peter Bollwerk says

    I agree that the show is hard to watch, but I also feel it’s important to expose these people, as often as possible, in as many ways as possible. But I am a big fan of his work, so I’m biased.

  11. Gregory Greenwood says

    Looking at the all too often ugly truth of the kind of people who can wind up with power in society is rarely pleasant, but I still feel that it needs to be done – better to deal with the reality of the situation, however disturbing, then to insulate oneself in a comforting fantasy that the people who hold high office surely can’t be that stupid, that bigoted, that reactionary.

    It is long past time that all of society looked with clear eyes at the horrifying mess we are in, not just in the US but world wide, and resolved to, if not fix it outright, then at least mitigate the risk of it getting even worse.

  12. damien75 says

    @6 Marcus Ranum

    Please, do you have any link on the subject ? This is very interesting.

    Regarding “Who is America ?”, this is amazing. I have a few things to say :

    1) Watching “Who is America ?” is not unlike reading Pharyngula. Very frequently on Pharyngula can one read news that are unbelievable, over the top, testimonies of superhuman stupidity, declarations that public figures did willfully that betray how mean they really are. As a result :
    2) I am surprised that Pr. Myers considers he is not cynical enough for this show. After what he’s published on his own blog ? How is “Who is America ?” worse than that ?
    3) I know I have asked this question elsewhere, but could such a show be done in any western country ? And if not, why are the US different ? Sacha Baron-Cohen comes from the UK. I’m not aware that he did anything similar to “Who is America ?” in the UK. Is it because it would not work, and if so, how come ?

  13. says

    Ted Koppel is liberal? The Ted Koppel who in 1989 described Henry Kissinger as “one of the two or three great secretaries of state of our century”? I think your definition of “liberal” is a tad idiosyncratic.

  14. anbheal says

    I agree with both arguments above — that the show is heavy handed and unnecessary for people who pay any attention to what the Republican party has morphed into since Reagan in 1980 and particularly since Gingrich’s “Contract With America” in ’94; and that Millennials who are perhaps not attuned to the current shenanigans but who think Borat was hysterical will actually learn how ugly our leaders are.

    But what bugs me the most is when “mainstream” media outlets such as the rotting Gray Lady (NYT, for you non-gringos and people under 40) continue to refer to him as “the Left’s version of James O’Keefe”, it is as despicable as false equivalency can get.

  15. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    I do wonder how he recruited attendees, though – they don’t seem entirely representative.

    Good news: level heads were present but edited out.
    Bad news: that was how hot heads behaved despite pleading from peers.
    Article: Reality show taping fuels mosque rumor

    “I think they were trying to piss us off, just for reactions,” said an attendee who asked not to be named. “Because the stuff they were stating was just absurd.”
    [Venessa] Mudge, who attended with her husband, said she and some of the other attendees speculated the purported focus group was going to be used to create a show or documentary about hate toward Muslims using the responses from the meeting.
    “They claimed it (the filming) was for the architectural firm that was going to build the mosque,” she said. “We even tried pointing out to those around us to stop playing into the speaker’s hands by responding because it was all a set up. So many members responded with hate, some with blatant racism and a whole lot of ignorance.”

    Clear Meadow Films recruited people interested in participating in a focus group through local Facebook pages; attendees signed a consent form that allowed filming and use of the film on air.
    Recruitment advertising on local Facebook pages under the name Cory Nicks offered $100 for anyone willing to participate in a community development focus group led by “a community relations representative for a real estate developer,” Mudge said. Residents from Kingman were paid $150 for the inconvenience of being bused to Bullhead City.

  16. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @damien75 #17:

    Don’t they need the permission of the person filmed to use the footage?

    See #16: “attendees signed a consent form that allowed filming and use of the film on air.”

  17. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 76: … Milgram’s … subjects… were told to act that way by the experimenters.

    Milgram set his experiment up to test the limits of obedience to authority figures – how else to do that?

    I suspect you have Milgram confused with Zimbardo, the biases of whose “Stanford Experiment” have recently gotten a lot of exposure.

  18. Pierce R. Butler says

    Oops in my # 20 – that was Marcus Ranum @ # 6 – I dunno what he might say 55 comments from now.