PS Picks: Sacha Baron Cohen's 'Who Is America?'

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Who Is America?

Who Is America?

This PS Pick originally appeared in The Lede, the weekly Pacific Standard email newsletter for premium members. The Lede gives premium members greater access to Pacific Standard stories, staff, and contributors in their inbox every week. While helping to support journalism in the public interest, members also receive a print magazine subscription, early access to feature stories, and access to an ad-free version of PSmag.com.

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Who Is America?: For all the attention it's receiving for its segments featuring elected officials, Sacha Baron Cohen's new show, Who Is America?, purports to expose all of America, and not just its politicians—"representatives" seemingly only by title. Cohen certainly successfully disguises himself as a violence-loving ex-Mossad agent and as an Alex Jones-inspired right-wing conspiracy monger to target his fair share of high-profile politicians: Dana Rohrbacher, Bernie Sanders, Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, Joe Walsh, etc. But his other characters—a liberal college professor seeking to "bridge the divide," an ex-con artist—have also taken their turn at pranking civilians: whether it be in the form of twisted "Trump country safari" dispatches, or his prank of a likely liberal gallery owner.

Even if the idea of fighting bad faith with bad faith—going low when they go low—has its novelty in 2018 amid all our debates about civility, the pranking of the right gets a bit stale. To be sure, it oscillates between humorous and terrifying, and does provide immediate gratification. But it lacks a freshness of insight. Long before Cohen baited residents of an Arizona town to turn down economic stimulus when its promise came with a mosque, a proposed mosque in New York City was the center of a national debate and ultimately was never built. Similarly, we didn't need to see Georgia state Congressman Jason Spencer use the n-word on television to know he was a virulent racist; or Cheney signing a "waterboard kit" to know he endorses torture. Rather than exposing anything new, the politician and Trump country pranks, if anything, serve to disrupt obviously bad-faith defenses of people—to make the coy explicit—rather than to truly reveal some heretofore unknown moral decay.

Ironically, Cohen makes his most cohesive insights (whether intended or not) when he turns to attack the presumed pretenses of tolerance—and fails. In one segment from the opening episode, Cohen disguises himself as an ex-con who makes paints using what he claims were the only mediums available to him in prison: feces, semen, and blood. His target is an Orange County gallery owner and "fine-art consultant," Christy Cones, who he repeatedly goads to stop accepting his art as legitimate. He crusades to find the point where her tolerance is proven to be a fraud, and rapidly escalates his absurdity, seemingly begging for Cones to reveal that her academic theories—the beliefs that everything is art and that any medium can be justified—are mere affectations that crumble when practically applied. At one level this is puerile and standard prank-show shock humor, recalling Jackass: Cohen excuses himself to the bathroom to make a new painting of Cones, he proclaims his paintbrush is made of pubic hair, etc. But redemptively, by the segment's end, Cohen has failed in his pursuit to be told off.

What makes the segment so successful—whether or not Cohen himself would agree—is that it's a firm rebuke of cynicism directed at the authenticity of tolerance. Cones' theories are put to test and still prevail. As with the show's conservative targets, Cones' real beliefs are revealed, but here they match her outspoken ones. If the show wishes to mock that very tolerance—to show the ridiculousness of anyone who would accept literal shit as art—Sacha Baron Cohen comes across as the prude, a clear loss for someone who traffics in shock.

This PS Pick originally appeared in The Lede, the weekly Pacific Standard email newsletter for premium members. The Lede gives premium members greater access to Pacific Standard stories, staff, and contributors in their inbox every week. While helping to support journalism in the public interest, members also receive a print magazine subscription, early access to feature stories, and access to an ad-free version of PSmag.com.

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