Who is America?
Showtime 30 minutes, 7 episodes
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Comedian and cultural provocateur, Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest project, Who is America?, on Showtime Sunday nights (10:00 pm ET/PT) is putting the magnifying glass on the racism and extremist beliefs of seemingly “normal” Americans and people in power. Cohen, in various disguises, attempts and mostly succeeds at getting prominent people to reveal ludicrous beliefs and go along with stunts that are implausibly convincing.
In Who is America? (WiA) the entertainment isn’t the hate or extremism expressed; but the actions of those who, without shame or reflection are indeed outed for their lack of shame, racism or dishonesty. It’s both shocking and not shocking: it’s astounding to see the ease in which some people in power express their racism and paranoia (Rep. Jason Spencer, GA House of Representatives) and it’s simultaneously not shocking for those who grasp the depths of racism and extremism in America without Cohen’s magnifying lens on it.
Seeing the racism and xenophobia on WiA expressed by Rep. Spencer and some residents of Kingman, Arizona (S1 E2) is eye opening and offensive but it’s not entirely shocking, especially for black, brown, and Middle Eastern Americans. Spencer shouts the “n-word” and uses ethnic slurs against Arabs when he interacts with Cohen as the character, Erran Morad, Israeli anti-terror expert.
Hearing some residents of Kingman, Arizona express their hatres of ‘sand n---rs’ --even if a mosque built in their community would bring a huge economic boost their community needed, their ignorance is both laughable and deeply disturbing.
People of color experience this racism and know it, hear it, and feel it as part of their daily life in varying degrees. When people in the Kingman focus group say to Cohen, disguised as an ultra liberal representative of a development company, that they are racist against Muslims and barely tolerate the black people in their community, it is ridiculous and offensive, but the subjects of their hatred are familiar with such animosity.
The KinderGuardians spoof (S1E1) has Cohen as Israeli anti-terrorism expert Erron Morad getting members of American government to buy into an idea to arm toddlers and preschoolers to protect themselves against gun violence in school. As preposterous and implausible as it sounds to provide small children with stuffed animals, “gunimals” fitted into firearms, what’s even more ridiculous are the lawmakers and politial figures who accept the KinderGuardians program as a good idea.
Cohen duped gun rights advocate Philip Van Cleave into participating in what Van Cleave believed was a gun rights video advocating for arming small children, going to the extreme of singing an altered rendition of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes that would encourage deadly aim. Morad/ Cohen gets endorsements of his KinderGuardians program from Republicans Joe Wilson (SC) and Dana Rohrabacher (CA), and eager support from former congressman Joe Walsh (now a talk radio host) and Senator Trent Lott (now a lobbyist).
When I told a friend, who is black, about the program and said foolishly: “It’s shocking!” her response was, “What’s so shocking about it?” and I knew how absurd my astonishment was about what the episode revealed. My experience watching Who is America? is different than hers and different from many people who are ‘other’.
Otherness implies that there is a dominant culture and there are “others” outside of the dominant culture; that Anglo-European is the standard or main culture and everything else is ‘other’. Groups of people are defined as non-white, a definition of identity still dependent on or defined by whiteness. US Anglo-European culture is only a part of the larger, constantly evolving American culture. America has always been a pluralistic society, as a country of immigrants. Sadly, American pluralistic culture has a long tradition of cultural groups being either oppressed or oppressors.
Cultural pluralism or “multiculturalism” is where people can identify with their own heritage, their culture, to have dialogue and collaboration with others. As long as there is deep hatred, racism and xenophobia, none of this is possible. When there is an environment of acceptabillity of such hate, it tends to normalize hate and keep racists in a bubble of comfort where they can air their views. This is one thing Cohen is revealing. We see this currently in many supporters of Donald Trump: whites of lesser economic status and education, despite never having any real power, identify strongly with Trump, giving themselves an illusion of power, an imagined social status and justification to blame and hate those who are ‘other’.
That some of Cohen’s unwitting participants claim that they were somehow duped or forced against their will to do or say the things they said is ludicrous. It brings to mind the classic psychology work by Stanley Milgram. Milgram conducted groundbreaking experiments on obedience to authority at Yale in the 1960s, and posited that in a social situation people have two different states: autonomous or agentic, depending on how much credibility particpants ascribe to the authority figure. Cohen plays with this, even if he is unaware of it, by seeing just how much he can get participants to go along with the ruse and to see if they take responsibility for their actions or blame Cohen. Many are blaming Cohen for their inane and reprehensible behavior.
Where author and Toni Morrison writes to ‘de-fang cheap racism’ Cohen plays cheap tricks on unsuspecting people to unmask their racism and xenophobia in a more accessible, albeit lowbrow manner that still makes the pont salient for those who may doubt the ubiquity of racism and hate in America. Where citizen groups like Moms Demand Action and March for Our Lives understand that the prevalence of guns and gun violence is a scourge on American society and is tied to politics and power, Cohen exposes the perps on the right that endorse gun violence and see it as no problem at all.
Who is America? is funny but it’s also frightening; but in times like these people need a reality check to know things really are as bad as they seem.
As the tagline reads: you’ve been warned.