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Sacha Baron Cohen’s political provocations are exhausting and dangerous

Baron Cohen’s prankster provocations are a bad match for our current cultural climate.

Sacha Baron Cohen
Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America is stoking controversy before it even airs.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Sacha Baron Cohen has always trafficked in fake reality. So you might think that his new Showtime comedy series, Who Is America?, would be perfect for skewering the interplaying phenomena of actual fake news and actual real news that gets labeled as fake. But we no longer live in the culture that spawned Baron Cohen’s 2006 prankster hit Borat. In an upended world where reality pretty much fakes itself, and where social media feeds an endlessly provocative outrage cycle, Baron Cohen’s game may be getting old fast.

So you could be forgiven for being already completely over the latest news involving the notorious pop-culture instigator and a number of right-wing politicians whom he apparently duped into being a part of his upcoming show.

Over the past week, well before his series even debuted (it premieres this Sunday night), Baron Cohen has prompted indignant responses from a number of right-wing political figures. Sarah Palin blasted him after he apparently tricked her into sitting for an interview for what she thought was a legitimate historical documentary. Then former Republican Rep. Joe Walsh reported that Baron Cohen had tricked him into attending what he thought was a legitimate pro-Israel event.

And on Thursday, incendiary Alabama Judge Roy Moore joined Walsh in blasting Baron Cohen over the faked pro-Israel event — which seems to have involved Baron Cohen somehow convincing a number of conservatives to travel to Washington for the gathering.

In a statement released to numerous baffled reporters, Moore railed against Baron Cohen for using “trickery, deception, and dishonesty” and threatened to sue Showtime if it aired anything “defamatory.”

Moore’s bizarre “I love God and so does Israel” reaction was exactly the kind of surreal, eye-grabbing free publicity Baron Cohen couldn’t have begged for. And even more tantalizing — or horrifying, depending on your point of view — was the idea that there may be more squirming politicians where Moore and Walsh came from:

On the one hand, all this may seem like the beginning of a glorious sublime parade of politicians owning themselves. But on the other hand, these politicians were tricked into appearing on the record as themselves, in a way that further perpetuates and entrenches not only the cultural ideological divide, but the idea among conservatives that “liberal” media, including entertainment media like Baron Cohen’s production, is a constant and perpetual trap to be distrusted at all costs.

Not only that, but the mileage Team Reality will get out of Baron Cohen’s performance-art antics won’t be nearly as potent as the validation Team Fake News will get out of claiming that Who Is America? represents a new low for liberals. And that’s because Team Reality was losing its hold over a single dominant reality paradigm long before Baron Cohen cycled back onto the scene.

Sacha Baron Cohen is an old comedy dog with old comedy tricks

When Sacha Baron Cohen first came to prominence with the early-2000s series Da Ali G Show and the hugely successful 2006 feature film Borat, his provocative comedy was provoking an entirely different culture.

Think about it. In 2006, YouTube was barely a year old, and the massive culture of performative, provocative pranksters that it engendered had yet to arrive. Twitter barely existed. The 24-hour-news cycle was in full gear, but it was only 24 hours, and was considerably more contained than the current endless outrage cycles spawned by instantaneous virality and massive social media spreads.

Baron Cohen’s Borat was successful because he was a novelty — a mix of performance artist and prankster who successfully blended the real and the fictional in a way that felt new.

But Borat was also foundational. Today, you’ll meet 13 YouTubers attempting to prank you for a stunt before you’re halfway through a stroll down Venice Beach. At any given moment, alt-right memers on 4-chan are faking images of left-wing outrage, so that they can spread the fake left-wing outrage among right-wing social feeds in order to make right-wingers think shrill left-wing hysteria is real.

At any given moment, actual progressives on Twitter are reacting with shrill hysteria to a false right-wing meme designed to provoke them into just such a reaction. Russian bots are doing a better job impersonating American teenagers on Tumblr than actual American teenagers. And systematized alt-right performance art a la Infowars makes it easier than ever to create false reality.

Among the public figures who were apparently tricked by Baron Cohen’s stunts was former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, who told the Hollywood Reporter that Baron Cohen’s production crew had engaged him in an elaborate and absurdist interview that resulted in him asking the crew to leave his home. Koppel made it clear he found the whole thing tiring — and, crucially, indicative of a larger milieu of exhaustion:

“I think there’s a larger issue here and that is, if there’s one thing we don’t need any more of in this particular era it’s people posing as documentarians. I think there’s enough skepticism to go around about people who actually are reporters, who actually are documentarians. And to undermine whatever tiny little bit of confidence might be left by pulling a stunt like this … maybe it will make for a good comedy show. I don’t know. But I don’t think it helps the overall atmosphere.”

In other words, 12 years on from Borat, we are so past the point at which we could believe in a single, stable version of reality that Baron Cohen’s methods don’t feel invigorating, or as though they’re advancing the conversation around politics or comedy. We’re in a moment where the most revelatory comedy standup is a performance where a comedian rejects comedy as a remedy.

With his old bag of tricks, Cohen is successfully promoting his show not by adding to the conversation, but by gleefully poking at it and watching everyone — politicians and onlookers alike — get upset.

Correction: This piece previously mis-identified Ted Koppel as an anchor for NBC.

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