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.