The Moment of Truth — November 10, 2006

Borat and the Critic From Scheisskopfistan

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I have long suspected Milos Stehlik, director of Facets Multimedia Center in Chicago and film commentator on public radio’s Worldview program, of being a twit. Friends of mine have had the unfortunate experience of working for him at Facets, and things they’ve said about him–that he’s a blowhard, a doofus, a schmuck, an ignoramus, a hardened clump of old, lint-covered menthol cough drops, and a powerful diuretic–were only the first of many clues leading me to discover the vast scarcity of his intellect.

The final piece of the puzzle that is Milos Stehlik fell into place when I heard his review of the movie, “Borat.” The puzzle that is Milos Stehlik turns out not to be a puzzle at all, but rather a failed attempt by someone with hands greased with chicken fat to fold an origami swan out of graham crackers and beef jerky.

It’s bad enough that a country which values ignorance as much as ours does is beset by evil intellectuals, corrupt intellectuals, and unethical intellectuals. Worse yet for the republic is to parade stupid intellectuals before the people. But far worse still is that we import stupid intellectuals from foreign countries and give them public funds to distribute their syrup of ipecac over the public airwaves.

And it is the cruelest indignity of all for Chicago, a city that can ill afford to denigrate intelligence any more than it already has, to be subjected daily to the clowning of perhaps the dumbest of all imported intellectuals available, and crueler still that he chooses to air the most ignorant of his film criticisms not just on publicly funded radio, but during the actual FUND DRIVE when he’s supposed to be ATTRACTING listeners to a world of culture and information, rather than REPELLING them in the most stereotypically snobbish way.

It’s a fact that physicist Stephen Hawking heard Stehlik’s “Borat” review. Since then his only solace has been “Home Improvement” reruns and huffing fiberglass solvent. In short, what John Kerry’s jokes have been to the Democratic Party, Milos Stehlik is to any hope of putting the brakes on humanity’s intellectual devolution. If there were ten more like him, within a week the human race would be reduced to a colony of prairie dogs.

I don’t know what country in Central or Eastern Europe Stehlik is from, but it can’t be any of the ones I know about. The former Yugoslavia spawned the ground-breaking filmmaker Dusan Makavajev; the Czechs gave us authors Jaroslav Hasek, Karl Capek, Gogol, and Kafka; Poland offered Lem and Mrozek; Russia, the great absurdists, as well as Nabokov and Bulgakov; Ionesco was a gift from Rumania. With all these and more coming from that part of the world, Stehlik must hail from some godforsaken backwater no one’s ever heard of, like Scheisskopfistan. Only in such a place could a person interested in the arts remain quarantined from any understanding of satire.

Taking Stehlik’s review of “Borat” point by point is instructive. We in the USA expect rightwing prigs to misunderstand satire. Stehlik does them one better, making the same mistakes the prigs make, but so systematically that we can examine the derailed path of his thoughts as if it were the saliva trail of Rush Limbaugh shot in the ass with a tranq gun.

He begins by deploring Sacha Baron Cohen’s publicizing of his film:

“In what has to be one of the most blatant campaigns of self-promotion, Cohen has staged his impolitic, politically incorrect and just plain loud and lewd mini-dramas from London to Washington, D.C.” An entertainer engaging in blatant self-promotion? By what right does he advertise his movie? And in character, yet! While the rest of us have been entertained by Cohen’s appearances as Borat when he pops up on a fake satellite feed at an awards show or at the beginning of SNL, Stehlik, as a member of the Scheisskopf aristocracy, is offended.

The accusations of loudness, lewdness, and political incorrectness are key to Stehlik’s objections to the film. Stehlik takes Cohen to task for taking “cheap shots” at Kazakhstan, and “for the wrong reasons… not because this ally of our war on terror is a serious abuser of human rights…” Borat reports that in Kazakhstan women are kept in cages, Jews are hated and feared in a pathologically superstitious way, and homosexuals are rounded up and jailed. Since women, Jews, and homosexuals are all humans, a fact of which Stehlik is, I guess, unaware, it would seem to me that Cohen is indeed taking Kazakhstan to task for abuses of human rights. But the actual, factual Kazakhstan is not Cohen’s target. His targets are the USA and himself.

Stehlik really can’t get off the subject of Cohen’s promotion of the movie. Now he synthesizes his complaints about its being advertised with his complaints about the crudeness of its humor: “The film and its promotion are meant to offend nearly everyone, but especially Kazakhs, African-Americans, Jews and women. Considering that at least three of these have been the mainstay of cheap jokes for generation[s], ‘Borat’ has not exactly found original targets.” Speaking as a Jew, let me explain why Borat is not offensive to me. To start with, the jokes are clearly NOT meant to offend women, African-Americans and Jews. The jokes are intended to offend snobs like Stehlik. The so-called Jewish jokes are not anti-Semitic. The character is. And his anti-Semitism, along with his racism and misogyny, are so outlandishly, hilariously, superstitiously ignorant that only a very mixed-up person could feel he was the target of them. And only a Scheisskopf would believe Jews are offended.

Or does Stehlik really think we Jews are sensitive about having horns and laying eggs? Does Stehlik believe women have brains the size of a squirrel’s, as Borat claims the official state scientist of Kazakhstan has proven, and that women who watch the film are going to feel hurt that their tiny brains are the butt of jokes? I wonder if Stehlik read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and threw it in the fire, complaining, “This man is advocating eating Irish children! That’s offensive to Irish, to children, and to British food! And British food has been the target of cheap shots for generations. Shame on you, Jonathan Swift.”

The next step in Stehlik’s dumb journey is to tell us what Borat SHOULD have done. He SHOULD have been holding up a mirror to the USA: “We don’t need to make fun of the perceived stupidity of other nations or of people who seem to be unlike us. We are quite capable of being and doing stupid things ourselves.” Yes, Milos. You are certainly capable of being a stupid thing yourself. You say, “Of course the ideal core audience here are 19-year-old hormonal males.” Not exactly sure what led you to that stunningly wrong conclusion, but the scene with the hormonal dudes on the trailer where Borat commiserates about love and women reveals the sickening stupidity of those drunken, misogynistic young males, rather than the inferiority of women or of Kazakhs. Cohen IS holding up a mocking mirror to the USA, you Scheisskopf! But Stehlik hasn’t heard me, and continues with misplaced indignation:

“Baron Cohen aims for this Jackass crowd with a lot of scatological jokes and stuff that he couldn’t get away with even on cable TV-frontal male nudity, for instance.” Wrong, Stehlik. You don’t even know what you’re talking about when it comes to HBO. I’ve seen many a wang on that channel. And what exactly is wrong with frontal male nudity, anyway? Are you Tipper Gore all of a sudden?

“… he … shows up at a rodeo chanting ‘May George Bush drink the blood of every woman and child in Iraq!’” Hey, Milos Stehlik is warning us: Sacha Baron Cohen wants George Bush to drink Iraqi blood! And he’s trying to get people at the rodeo to condone such blood-drinking! Sacha Baron Cohen is a warmonger and a cannibal! Milos Stehlik is an idiot! “The fact that he is ostensibly a liberal or a civil libertarian, somehow make [sic] his prejudices and stereotypes acceptable. This would apparently excuse him for describing a southern Black American in the film as someone with ‘a chocolate face.’” No, what excuses it is that the character he’s playing is ignorant. Also, the Black American Borat says this about is Alan Keyes, an offensively anti-gay rightwinger–and, unlike Cohen, Keyes takes his own ignorance and prejudice very seriously. In the movie, Keyes actually looks reasonable compared to Borat, and gets off pretty lightly considering how easy it would be to catch him saying something laughably stupid, which he’s been known to do at the drop of a hat. I once saw Keyes tell a teenager who had been shot by a stray bullet from a gang gunfight that she was ignorant to advocate gun control laws because, “In Rwanda they killed people with machetes.” That Cohen can lead us briefly toward sympathy with Keyes is a complex satirical turn in itself. But Stehlik is so hung up on the superficial appearance of racism he misses what is in fact, for a few knowledgeable people, a somewhat challenging moment. Even if you don’t know who Keyes is, though, there is no mistaking Borat’s racism for anything but something we laugh at because it is so god damn wrong.

Most mysterious is Stehlik’s accusation that the film is homophobic. Gay men come off rather well, portrayed as friendly and accepting of this weird foreigner (Borat, not Stehlik), in contrast with most of the straights, normals and pinks, whose xenophobia gets the best of them. In fact, Borat engages in a gay orgy and is only upset later when someone tells him that the men he was frolicking naked with are “homosexuals.” Borat’s prejudice against the label is pathetic to us, because he fully enjoys the homosexual activity until he finds out what we in America call it. The joke’s on him, in that he’s a big fag himself. The episode calls into question the way we in the USA segregate kinds of sexual behavior, and the needless damage such segregation can do. And it shows some hot male ass. But Stehlik is too busy being dumb as a post: “Insulting… was the comment [by a critic] that compares ‘Borat’ to Lenny Bruce. Lenny Bruce may have used a lot of sexual innuendo, but his humor always had a larger social or political critique.” Insulting to me is Stehlik’s implication that he understands Lenny Bruce’s humor. I’m insulted as both a Jew and a satirist, because it’s obvious that, had Milos Stehlik witnessed a Lenny Bruce performance without knowing who Lenny Bruce was or being told that Lenny Bruce should be revered, he would have stormed out, offended on behalf of black people, Jews, women… oh, and Lenny could be pretty homophobic when he wanted to.

As a Jew, a black man, a woman, a homosexual, a heterosexual, and a prostitute, I am offended by Milos Stehlik’s assumption that he has to come to my rescue. And as an appreciator of the arts, I’m pissed off at Stehlik’s Scheisskopf misinterpretations of the Borat phenomenon. The Borat dynamic is complex, and not easily squeezed into the categories of “politically correct” or “incorrect.” It’s well worth examining what’s funny about it and what’s uncomfortable about it and why, and to dismiss it the way Stehlik does as “cheap trash” is just facile and moronic. I said before, Stehlik made his ignorant observations while pitching for pledges to public radio. He came off as a stereotypical elitist liberal snob, ossified in political correctness and offended by even the appearance of offensiveness. I was actually just about convinced to pledge to the radio station when Stehlik went on. But as a member of the hormonal lowbrow Jackass working class at whom the film “Borat” was aimed, I realized that the world of high-tone public radio snobbery was no place for me.

Of course, Stehlik could have meant the whole thing as a satire on the snobbery of public radio itself. He could have, but he didn’t. He’s just plain dim. We don’t need his kind around here. We can “be and do stupid things” without some self-righteous, garlicky foreigner’s help. Even worse, he’s taking the job of dumbass away from a real American who needs it. I say, put him and his bearded prostitute wife on the first toxic waste barge back to Scheisskopfistan.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!