The Truth, Lies, and Extremes of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Stunning “Who is America?”

Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show, “Who is America?” has been almost enough to shake me from my devout political moderatism.  As someone already worried that society’s critical thinking skills are dwindling, I was still shocked by the illogic of the politicians interviewed, especially those on the political right.  As someone who believes that we are not forthright and measured enough when championing certain political causes, I was still stunned by the deception, displayed by both those interviewed and Cohen himself.  The combined effect was almost enough to allow me to embrace the very thing the show ultimately condemns — angry, hateful extremism and the stereotyping of others.

After watching four episodes, I cannot endorse all of Cohen’s tactics, but I am glad someone out there (but only one person) is successfully using them.  Some of the tactics likely do not expose real truths that outweigh the exploitative nature of lying to interview subjects, but instead reveal an all-too-human deference to authority.  Other tactics of Cohen’s seem to expose something true, and truly grotesque.  In this blog, I explain the differences between several of Cohen’s tactics, and how these differences affect my conclusions about the show.  Also, do watch the show for yourself, and let’s have a conversation about it (or, if nothing else, watch this rap battle).  This blog contains some spoilers.

The format of the show revolves around interviews conducted by different characters, such as Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a self-hating straight, white male who goes to extreme measures to flout socially imposed normative constraints, such as gender roles; Erran Morad, a hyper macho, Israeli ex-Mossad agent, MAGA journalist Billy Wayne Ruddick, who lacks a basic understanding of statistics and relies on false conspiracy theories; Ricky Sherman, an ex-convict seeking redemption; and billionaire Italian photographer Gio Monaldo.  These characters are extreme and horrible stereotypes but are also creepily lovable, thanks to Sacha Baron Cohen’s masterful ability to layer parody upon truth upon archetype upon complex human portrait.

Let me start with the tactics and skits I find more objectionable, and only limited in their ability to illuminate.  These tactics seem more designed to embarrass bad people than to reveal actual truths or create quality entertainment (as opposed to crass entertainment, which is fine, but not justified when those providing the comedy are duped into being clowns).  In one segment, Erran Morad trains three citizens to catch “illegal Mexicans” by, at one point, having them wear underwear with a fake vagina to host a fake Quinceanera.  The scene is valuable, and terrible, in exposing the racist views held by ordinary citizens.  However, it’s not entirely clear how much these citizens are just catering to and obeying the perceived expertise of the character interviewer, and how much of their true nature is being revealed.

Experimental evidence, like the famous Milgram experiment, supports the idea that ordinary people are willing to do terrible things, when asked to do so by an authority figure.  I felt fairly badly for Jason Spencer, who resigned from Congress after his appearance on “Who is America?”  He was convinced by fake anti-terror expert Erran Morad to show his bare buttocks and yell racial slurs because he thought these were ways of fighting terrorists.

Anyone willing to yell those slurs likely should not be a member of Congress, especially if he demonstrates such poor critical thinking skills as to believe everything Erran Morad tells him about fighting terror.  I am not convinced, however, that the scene depicts enough of Spencer’s true character and beliefs to justify Cohen’s deceptive tactics.  I am also unwilling to despise my political enemies enough to enjoy their public humiliation by someone deceiving them into behaving in ways they might not otherwise behave.  That willingness, on both sides, is part of why America is in its current fractured, unfortunate state.  Cohen undercuts his own position when he allows his audience this joy.

There are other segments that I find unobjectionable and immensely revealing.  In some of the most shocking segments, the status or expertise of the character played by Sascha Baron Cohen (the essence of his deception) is largely irrelevant because the interviewee knows that he or she is making a video or giving an interview for a larger audience.  Cohen convinces several gun rights activists and GOP Congressmen to make a video promoting the Kinder-Guardians program, gun training for toddlers and very young children in schools.  These interviewees proudly help Cohen, playing Morrad, make advertisements discussing cute, furry gun models while citing information that is laughably untrue about children, guns, and brain development.  What is revealed is the brute strength of ideology.  Many important, elected officials who already believe in a particular cause are happy to conduct no research, or even reflection, before championing something associated with that cause.  The ignorance of some of our Republican elected officials, and their lack of exposure to pop music stars inserted into explanations they unthinkingly recited about the brain function of children, was fully revealed.

In another example, frequent star of the Bachelor franchise Corinne Olympios, who some claim was exploited by Sacha Baron Cohen, was quite willing to fabricate, in an interview with Gio Monaldo, that she traveled to Sierra Leone to help with the Ebola crisis.  She posed in front of a green screen, wearing a hazmat suit unzipped enough to show cleavage, and gave an interview about convincing a “warlord” not to murder an entire village.  Her ability to trivialize disease and massacre is a terrible commentary on how dishonest and crass people can be when trying to achieve celebrity status.

Another tactic of Cohen’s is situated in between the two tactics I described.  These scenes do not rely on the status or expertise of a Cohen character, but place people in a situation they would likely find unpleasant to see how they react.  Some of these scenes are unsuccessful and unpleasant; they seem designed simply to agitate and embarrass the interviewees, who serve as the straight men and women, with the character being the parody.  The scene with Bernie Sanders comes to mind here.  In one of my favorite scenes, however, Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello convinces townspeople in Arizona that he will restore their town’s economy by building the world’s largest mosque outside of the Middle East.  The horror of the citizens is expected, and yet still somehow stunning.

In an exchange that can only be described as insane, one of the citizens tells Cohen that they don’t want Muslims in their town; black people are even lucky to be there.  Cohen’s character tries to reframe that statement as the sentiment that diversity is important, and the town is lucky to have its black citizens.  One of the group goes out of his way to correct this charitable reading.  No, he yells, what we are saying is we don’t even want black people here, but we tolerate them.

Bizarrely, and I might lose many readers here, the person who came across as one of the most forthright and articulate was Dick Cheney.  Yes, he signed a waterboard kit, which is darkly tragicomic, but this was based on his clearly professed the view that he doesn’t believe this “enhanced interrogation technique” to be beyond the pale.  He would not engage in techniques that were more physically scarring, even as Cohen goaded him, and he was proud of the work he has done in the Middle East.  Cheney came across as smart, even tempered, direct, and coherent in his views.  He did not mock others, exchange snide, cynical jokes with Cohen about taboo subjects, make light of tragedy, or trade in base stereotypes.  Even some of the kindest interviewees, like Cindy the gallery owner, came across as caricatures of real people.  (Cindy calls Sherman a “genius” for his excrement art).

And yet, Cheney is the interviewee who may have done the most real-world harm, leaving me to question my strongly held values:  a preference for open-minded, civil discourse, an exaltation of cogent, articulate views, and an absolute desire for truth in political discourse.  Ultimately, although Cheney may not have lied in this interview, there is good evidence he deceived all of the American public into entering a war.  Although I am even more disillusioned with some politicians, celebrities, and members of the public than before I watched the show, I do not believe it is a call to abandon goodwill for our political opponents.  I see now more than ever that these opponents may not deserve it, but we would likely all be better off to humble ourselves, preserve our own values, and act like they do deserve it, so as not to become them.

If you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.  “Who is America?” is the abyss I will continue to stare into and hope it doesn’t permanently scar me with its gaze.

[Edit:  The mayor of the small Arizona town exposed as Islamophobic and racist stated that she has never seen any of the people at the town meeting, so perhaps everything that appears should be subject to more scrutiny, to make sure that any duplicitous tactics do not affect our conclusions.]