THIS TIME, THE Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has gone too far. It was bad enough when the organization that describes itself as being "devoted to fighting anti-Semitism, bigotry, and extremism" denounced the artist and humanitarian Mel Gibson for his unassailable observation that "the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." But, now, the ADL has revealed its utter lack of decency by attacking the Kazakh television newsman Borat Sagdiyev.
After all, is there anyone who can reasonably blame Borat for saying that, when in the United States, he prefers to travel by car rather than airplane "in case the Jews repeat their attack of 9/11"? And is it anything other than harmless fun when Borat engages in one of his favorite pastimes--an annual Kazakh ritual called "The Running of the Jew"? And is there any denying the heart-felt sentiments--not to mention age-old wisdom--contained in Borat's song "In My Country There Is Problem," whose chorus goes: "Throw the Jew down the well / So my country can be free / You must grab him by his horns / Then we have a big party"?
Before Abe Foxman has an aneurysm, let us note that the above is intended as satire. And so, of course, is Borat--a fictional character created and played by the brilliant British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, himself an observant Jew. The ADL knows both of these facts--indeed, the organization has praised Cohen for being "proudly Jewish" and for trying "to use humor to unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism"--and yet it is still fretting about Cohen's forthcoming film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The reason? The ADL, according to a statement it released last week, is "concerned ... that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke."
This particular concern--in which the merits, not to mention the intentions, of a work of art take a backseat to the issue of how some audiences might respond to it--has become commonplace. And, to a certain extent, that is understandable. After the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist angered by van Gogh's criticism of Islam, and after the widespread Muslim riots over a Dutch newspaper's publication of editorial cartoons depicting the Islamic Prophet Mohammed, making art that may offend certain audiences is an undeniably risky business. Indeed, just last week, Berlin's Deutsche Oper canceled its production of Mozart's Idomeneo for fear that Muslims would violently protest a scene featuring the severed head of Mohammed.
But, while the Deutsche Oper episode and other less-publicized acts of artistic self-censorship may be understandable, that doesn't mean that they are any less regrettable. Because among the many freedoms upon which the making of good art depends is what Ian Buruma has called, in these pages, "the freedom to offend." The freedom to offend, of course, is an artistic freedom that can be abused. But it can also serve to clarify and reveal things about those it offends.
Just consider the case of Borat. While the ADL may kvetch, there is no greater critic of Borat than Kazakhstan's president Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, who evidently finds nothing funny about Borat's portrayal of his country--and, by extension, his regime--as benighted and backward. Last year, a Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman issued a public denunciation of Cohen's Borat performance and threatened to take legal action against the comic; around the same time, Nazarbayev's government also stripped Cohen's Borat website of its original domain name, .kz. The Kazakh Embassy in Washington has already denounced the forthcoming Borat film, and a foreign ministry spokesman has said that Nazarbayev's government will do everything in its considerable power to stop it from playing in Kazakhstan. Indeed, there were even reports--later denied--that Nazarbayev planned to ask President Bush to do something about Borat during their meeting at the White House last week.
All of which has only served to illustrate the true character of Nazarbayev. Long accustomed to ruling his country with relative impunity--earlier this year, the State Department rated his government's human rights record as "poor," citing its encroachments on political rights, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion--Nazarbayev refuses to tolerate even a fictional character like Borat. And, in that refusal, Cohen has revealed Nazarbayev's intolerance in a way that no State Department report ever will. Here's hoping the ADL's plea to keep audiences away from Borat's film works as well as it did for The Passion of the Christ.
This article originally ran in the October 16, 2006, issue of the magazine.