“Who is America?” contains genuine insight, despite itself

HERE is a thought experiment for an idle Tuesday. Which of the following is more likely to test the boundaries of credulity: that a handful of Republican congressmen, former congressmen and sundry right-wingers would think that arming three-year-olds is, actually, now you mention it, quite a good way to deal with school shootings? Or that the President of the United States of America would stand next to the leader of an openly hostile foreign power and tell the world’s press that he believes the word of his counterpart more than he trusts the assessment of his intelligence community?

At 10pm on July 16th BBC One aired its nightly news, leading with the joint press conference between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Britain’s national broadcaster described it as “a pretty extraordinary press conference by any standards”. At the same time, just three flicks of a remote control away, Channel 4 premiered Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show “Who is America?” (it was broadcast in the United States the previous day). The first of seven episodes followed Mr Cohen in four get-ups: a loony-fringe-alt-right blogger who wants everybody to be part of the 1%; a loony-fringe-hippie-leftie whose children are called Harvey Milk and Malala; an ex-con who paints portraits using bodily fluids; and an Israeli anti-terrorism expert promoting the concept of “kinderguardians”—toddlers with guns—on Capitol Hill.

This is all pretty absurd stuff, if you have spent the past few years blissfully cut off from social media. But for anybody who uses Facebook or Twitter, the caricatures will seem familiar: they are, after all, the way both sides paint their opponents. (The artist character falls flat, however, partly because faeces, urine and blood were used as creative materials by several 20th-century notables).

The clever conceit of “Who is America?” is to subvert the standard approach to reporting in the country. Where it is usually metropolitan-liberal media-types who go off into the countryside to find “real Americans”, he instead has “real Americans” go to the establishment and test their reactions. But that is where the cleverness ends.

It may be tempting to read into the unquestioning acceptance of Mr Cohen’s characters by his interlocutors the willingness of Americans to believe the worst of their fellow citizens, or the uniquely crazy nature of American democracy. Yet there is nothing unique about these people either. Scratch just a tiny bit under the surface and many countries will yield a cast of credulous citizens and buffoonish politicians—as indeed Mr Cohen’s previous work has shown.

The trouble with “Who is America?” is not that satire is hard to pull off in 2018. As the Onion proves on a daily basis, it remains perfectly possible to hold a mirror up to society, no matter how strange society seems. But when everything is possible and nothing is true, to steal a line from the title of Peter Pomerantsev’s memoir of working in Russian broadcasting, simply adding more uncertainty to the mix does nobody a service. Duping prominent figures into displaying their ignorance was amusing when ignorance was something to be ashamed of; the world is now such that, as Michael Gove, a British government minister, famously put it, “people have had enough of experts”. The over-the-top foreign visitor peddling outrageous ideas was novel when Mr Cohen made “Borat” (2006). It is now past its sell-by date.

Yet there is a redeeming quality to “Who is America?”, one that makes it worth watching. In the second segment, Mr Cohen’s hippie-leftie has dinner with a South Carolina Republican delegate and her husband in their ornate home. His character, a self-loathing “heterosexual cisgender man”, declines their offer to say grace in favour of a “First-People’s chant”. Over dinner he informs them he prohibits his son from urinating standing up, that he encourages his adolescent daughter to “free bleed” on an American flag, and that his wife has been having an affair with a dolphin. All the while his hosts maintain their composure, remain gracious and hospitable, and treat him with respect. “Honey, don’t pass judgment,” the delegate chides her husband as he is about to say something.

Mr Cohen takes the most vicious caricatures Americans have of each other and makes them real. But in recording the reactions of actual human beings, he also, perhaps inadvertently, draws out the real people behind the imaginary villains. In every segment, no matter what he is dressed as, what views his characters espouse or how far he pushes, his interviewees remain good-natured. They are warm, friendly, generous and genuine. In bringing out the loveliest of American traits, the show answers the question posed by its title. Who is America? Not its politics, not its politicians and certainly not its president, but its people.

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