Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? is fucking with my mind.
I don’t know whether I should be laughing at his subversive shenanigans or bursting into tears as he tears holes in the already thin veil of civility and human decency shrouding our world. It’s at turns like getting carsick from the It’s A Small World ride at Disney World, or like watching surgery being performed on a rollercoaster.
I don’t know whether Cohen wants to shock or amuse. What I do know is when I hear the opening strains of “Indomitable”, Who Is America?’s theme song by DJ Shub, I brace myself. I hold on for dear life. As DJ Shub and Northern Cree Singers’ thunderous dub shudders through my home theatre speakers, raw, fearless, and with tension climbing faster than a cat up a tree chased by a dog, I fill with anxious anticipation, knowing that Cohen too will corner his prey, capture them in his duplicitous web of deceit, and make them dance like the puppetmaster he is. It’s an intense juxtaposition, hearing DJ Shub’s song, a musical embodiment about discovering one’s self and embracing the beauty and power of culture and ceremony, as the lead-off for a television series that revels in cultural chaos. Although we’re not privy to all the set-up and full range of Cohen’s conversations with the politicians and celebrities he ensnares in his traps, I’m shocked and saddened by just how easily they agree to go on camera and read someone else’s ideological bullshit off a teleprompter. Whether talking about arming toddlers or fabricating humanitarian relief missions, what’s truly humiliating for Cohen’s targets is not what he gets them to say, but that they value their own morals and self-judgement so little that they accept the premise of the situations hook, line, and sinker. Blow a little smoke up anyone’s ass, I suppose, and you’ve got comedy gold.
It disgusts me, but I will keep watching. And I will laugh and I will gasp in disbelief, and I will clutch my gut for the sheer audacity of Cohen’s stunts. But I will not look away. I will not avert my eyes. I will be lion-hearted and steadfast. Who Is America? is searingly funny, defiantly political, and like DJ Shub’s “Indomitable”, it is vitally necessary art. The goal of both the show and DJ Shub’s song is to shift perceptions and expand people’s minds beyond xenophobic anxieties so that they can embrace differences as a positive and not a negative. From there, perhaps we can start to view uniqueness as a strength, and have the courage to stand up for human decency and against injustice.