Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?” Shows You The Underbelly of America

Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t a modern troll. He’s a classical Shakespearean Fool, who uses intelligence to play a fool that reveals a reality.

You may have heard that notorious prank-satirist Sacha Baron Cohen, star of Da Ali G Show, Borat, Bruno, and The Dictator, has a new show. You may have also heard that this new show, titled Who Is America? has put many of the politicians who agreed to appear on it in, shall we say, compromising situations. Multiple congressman, current and past, drew flak after appearing in an infomercial arguing for a program to protect elementary schools from shootings by arming children. A Georgia politician was forced to resign after exposing himself (literally) while yelling racist remarks. The list is growing.

Early reviews for the show was a mix of disbelief and kudos, with a single question being the common theme between them: What exactly is the point of all of this? Critics argue that Cohen’s brand of comedy just continues to fuel partisan outrage, furthering America’s political divide, and that even if you look past that, the show doesn’t provide any helpful solutions or insights. It’s a fairly common criticism of works of satire, which is a flawed line of thinking. Why is it on artists and creatives to also come up with solutions?

This sentiment existed back in 1964, finding itself attached to Stanley Kubrick’s satirical masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In one review:

Dr. Strangelove was clearly intended as a cautionary movie: it meant to jolt us awake to the dangers of the bomb by showing us the insanity of the course we were pursuing. But artists’ warnings about war and the dangers of total annihilation never tell us how we are supposed to regain control, and Dr. Strangelove.”

In a half-century anniversary review of the film, the New Yorker responded:

“Why should a popular artist have any obligation to propose ‘sane’ solutions to an intolerable situation? Surely it’s enough to expose with overwhelming comic energy the contradictions and paradoxes of ‘mutual assured destruction.’ Sane actions are the business of scientists, the military, and Presidents, a few of whom may have been roused to act by this movie.”

Every episode of Who Is America? begins with the title sequence: a montage beginning with JFK’s “Ask not what” speech, the moon landing, Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech, and Jackie Robinson crossing home-plate. Then: fast forward to Donald Trump infamously mocking a disable reporter, Harvey Weinstein, and the Charlottesville “Unite The Right” march. The final image of the title sequence is successive flashes of words that combine to ask the question “Who Is America???” This then allows us to interpret what follows, the show itself, as an answer to that question.

So, who is America?

America is Phillip Van Cleave, President of the Virginia Citizen’s Defense League, who thinks arming elementary school kids with guns is a sensible solution to preventing school shootings.

America is Larry Pratt, Executive Director of Gun Owners of America, who thinks the same, and also uncontrollably laughs at the sentiment that “it’s not rape if it’s your wife.”

America is Jason Spencer, Georgia State House of Representative, who, at the first request to act Chinese, resorts to stereotypical sounds, and words like “chopstick”, “sushi”, and “konichiwa.”

America is Dick Cheney, former Vice President of the United States, who autographs waterboarding tools.

America is Kingman, Arizona, the town whose residents brisk at the near mention of a mosque, with some saying “we don’t want that shit here”, and others volunteering that “I am [a racist], I’m racist towards Muslims.”

If you’re one to believe that art that highlights the problems of society isn’t enough and that art should also provide more “substance” by coming up with solutions, then Who Is America? is undoubtedly a lost opportunity to you. It’s not up to Sacha Baron Cohen to come up with solutions. It’s probably best that he doesn’t. Being willing to point out that a problem exists should itself be commendable, because not everyone is willing to do even that. When viewed through this lens, Who Is America? accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.

Another common criticism of Who Is America?, and Sacha Baron Cohen in general, is that his brand of humour is cheap and troll-like. This is more understandable, but Cohen’s methods are much more sophisticated than they seem, as he isn’t so much a modern troll as he is a classic Shakespearean Fool, who uses his intelligence to play a fool that disarms and exposes those with power. What appears to be meaningless comedy and theatrics is actually a revelation about reality, made public.

This is what Who Is America? really is. Cohen doesn’t so much as bait his subjects into making racist comments or look foolish as he does mirror his subjects, creating a seemingly “safe” place for them to be themselves, revealing to the world something Cohen already knows. The great secret of the Fool, then, is that he is really no fool at all. Similarly, the secret of Who Is America? is that it’s not cheap humour; it’s a presentation of the current, American reality.

I strive towards a career that ends up leaving me somewhere between Howard Beck and Howard Beale.

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