Today is Borat day, the day in which Sasha Baron Cohen's film will "hit the collective American conscience with a juicy splat," as Manohla Dargis puts it in her review. Dargis's response to the film is representative of the critical reaction: she says you will laugh, frequently, but with an "increasingly abused conscience." The Anti-Defamation League is wringing its hands that people won't get the joke, but as Stephanie Zacharek at Salon says, "that, I'm afraid, is the way the knish crumbles." The critics I've read all agree there's something cleansing about seeing comic renditions of ritualized pogroms, somehow.
As everyone points out, Borat is a satire, an inherently conservative genre. Like all true satires, the film even presents an alternative, ethically correct vision of behavior. Several of the film's subjects show an unexpected tolerance and decency, such as the gun store owner who politely refuses to take Borat's bait about shopping for a gun to kill Jews.
But satires don't usually don't prompt questions like Dana Stevens's "Does Borat go too far?" She writes, "It's hard to address that question in a movie as ruthlessly piety-demolishing as this one: Whatever particular group you choose to stand up for, you end up looking like a humorless fool." Ron Rosenbaum, also writing in Slate, works through this quandary more thoroughly and concludes Borat "doesn't satirize the obviousness of anti-Semites; it implicitly caricatures concern about anti-Semitism."
This may be useful, however. As Rosenbaum points out, the film is only ostensibly anti-anti-Semitic. Something more troubling is going on. Borrowing a bit of dialectical logic from Slavoj Zizek for a moment, Borat reveals the anti-Semite not to be an aberration from the human, but excessively human. In his passionate attachment to Pamela Lee Anderson and other absurdities of contemporary American life, the buffoonish anti-Semite Borat reveals the ridiculousness of the masks of propriety of a fabulously wealthy yet bitter and fearful culture. The nastiness of the film comes from its pitiless assault on the human weaknesses of our presentations of self. This is why critics look for respite from the troubled laughter of the film. Dargis finds it in the nude wrestling scene, which serves "an elegant formal function" in Borat. Zacharek finds it in the instances in which "for every American who rises to the bait he so temptingly dangles, there are at least two more who go out of their way to be kind to him." In other words, we find our respite in the moments of consolation offered by satire, that favorite form of the eighteen century, when people knew all about masks, pieties, and chaos.