Thursday, November 16, 2006

Hitchens really is a damned fool

I don't think I was really aware of Christopher Hitchens before his spectacular feats of assclownery after 9/11. So I am now aware of reputation as a brilliant man of letters, but I have to admit having seen no evidence of it beyond his undeniable ability to cower with erudition and panache. But there remained the possibility that he was a generally insightful thinker with a blind spot.

I am now ready to retire that possibility. Behold this discussion of Borat in the ever-sillier Slate Magazine:

I knew this would happen. I pick up my copy of the New Statesman, London's leftist weekly, to find a review of Borat, bannered on the table of contents as "Sacha Baron Cohen's exposure of crass Americana" and on the review page itself with, "The Kazakh ace reporter uncovers uncomfortable truths about the US." The author, Ryan Gilbey, proceeds to say the following:

A redneck rodeo crowd shows no compunction about cheering Borat's gung-ho speech about Iraq, clearly not realizing that what he actually said was: "We support your war of terror!" And it's shocking to witness the tacit acceptance with which Borat's ghoulish requests are greeted. Trying to find the ideal car for mowing down gypsies, or seeking the best gun for killing Jews, he encounters only compliance among America's salespeople.

Oh, come on. Among the "cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan" is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse. At a formal dinner in Birmingham, Ala., the guests discuss Borat while he's out of the room—filling a bag with ordure in order to bring it back to the table, as it happens—and agree what a nice young American he might make. And this is after he has called one guest a retard and grossly insulted the wife of another (and remember, it's "Americana" that is "crass"). The tony hostess even takes him and his bag of shit upstairs and demonstrates the uses not just of the water closet but also of the toilet paper. The arrival of a mountainous black hooker does admittedly put an end to the evening, but if a swarthy stranger had pulled any of the foregoing at a liberal dinner party in England, I wouldn't give much for his chances. "The violence that Borat encounters on the New York subway after trying to greet male strangers with kisses is frighteningly real," writes Gilbey, who either doesn't use the London Underground very much or else has a very low standard for mayhem.

Hitch's myopia reminds me of the reaction of the punditocracy to Stephen Colbert's epic smackdown at the White House Correspondent's dinner. Hitch reveals uncomfortable things about himself in his inability to grok the mirroring aspect of Borat's schtick.

Newsflash: the people in Borat (the movie) aren't polite in front of the furriner, Hitch. They are polite in front of the camera that is filming the way they react to the furriner. (Please see Exhibit A to see what happens when the camera is not doing its Heisenberg thing.) The real joke with all of Cohen's characters is the way in which people reveal themselves as enthusiastic camera whores. Borat and Bruno tend to expose amateur prostitution, whereas Ali G's targets were celebrities. Hitch, being a member of the permanent talking head class, and thus a seasoned professional camera whore himself, is oblivious to effect of the camera in the room. (The phrase "water to a fish" keeps asserting itself, though I may have one or another element of that comparison wrong.) The fact that people will humiliate themselves for a taste of video crack is so unremarkable to Hitchens that he misses the whole point of Cohen's act.

Par for the course, I now see.


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