There has been a lively discussion among the young folks in the office about the morality of going to see the hit movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan . I saw a couple of trailers for the film on television and admit that I laughed out loud before I wondered whether I should. Moral heavy-breathing about humor, like scholarly treatises on humor, tends toward the depressing. But I’ve been persuaded that a number of points deserving of attention have been put forward. For instance, here is Christopher Hitchens on Slate :
Having gone this far in a curmudgeonly direction, I may as well add that any act that depends too much on the scatological is in some kind of trouble. Borat ¯and Borat¯rely on excremental humor from the very first frames. This isn’t unfunny just because it’s infantile and repetitive and doesn’t know when to stop; it’s unfunny because the revulsion produced by feces is universal and automatic and thus much too easy to exploit. This is especially true when, in a cheap knockoff of Luis Buñuel, our hero decides to introduce the unmentionable topic at the dinner table. (To be honest, I am still reeling at the relative composure of that Birmingham society lady. If I wasn’t trying to change the subject, I would say that I admired her phlegm.)
Others have noted that Borat, like Michael Moore with his assault-interview tactics, exploits people who are simply trying to be nice. The niceness so typical of Americans is a fair target for mockery, although, all in all, niceness is to be preferred to nastiness. The argument is, however, that Borat doesn’t so much mock the niceness of his victims as he portrays their niceness as dumbness and bigotry. And then there are those complaints by interviewees that Borat or the producers of the film actually lied to them about what they were being asked to take part in. I have more than enough moral questions of moment to occupy my time, so I don’t think I’ll make a major project of Borat . But I have been persuaded not to add my $10 to its box office success. In truth, it didn’t take that much persuading, since I haven’t gone out to a movie in a long time. I might add that David Brooks has an interesting take on the Borat phenomenon in yesterday’s column , "The Heyday of Snobbery" (requires subscription). In sum, Sacha Baron Cohen, the British actor who both created and plays Borat, is pandering. "Cohen understands that when you are telling socially insecure audiences they are superior to their fellow citizens there is no need to be subtle. He also understands that any hint of actually questioning the cultural suppositions of his ticket-buyers¯say by ridiculing pretensions of somebody at a Starbucks or a Whole Foods Market¯would fatally mar the self-congratulatory aura of the enterprise." In its contempt for ordinary and essentially decent Americans, says Brooks, "popular culture has raveled from ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ to Borat the magnificent." Nicely put. Although one remembers that the movie version of Grapes of Wrath has its own version of snobbery, with the proletarian world of the Joads being rescued by the ever-so-enlightened feds who establish justice by imposing their collectivist schemes. Borat may be an exercise in snobbery, but at least it is not agitprop.


I haven’t read all the reviews of Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul , but my impression is that most of them have been quite critical. The point made by David Brooks, writing in the New York Times Book Review , is that, when it comes to his own favored topics, Mr. Sullivan specializes in the kind of raw certitudes that, when advanced by others, he derides as "fundamentalism." Jonah Goldberg hits hard ¯but, for the most part, accurately, I think¯in National Review Online:
Which brings us to Progressivism. The Progressive ideology was born of Pragmatism¯the idea that truths are subjective, and measured by their utility. Pragmatism, explained Horace Kallen in a proclamation Sullivan could have written, "dissolves dogmas into beliefs, eternities and necessities into change and chance, conclusions and finalities into processes. But men have invented philosophy precisely because they find change, chance and process too much for them, and desire infallible security and certainty." But, for these early liberals, Pragmatism was a one-way street: a tool for destroying the dogma of the enemy, while enshrining their own unimpeachable authority. Certainty wasn’t the real enemy. The forces of certainty standing in progress’s path were. Oakeshott stood against this sort of corrosive rationalism, famously denouncing "the pursuit of perfection as the crow flies." Sullivan turns Oakeshott’s reverence for tradition and custom on its head: He enthrones the all-justifying righteousness of conscience, in particular his own, in a moral pragmatism that says that orthodoxies have no binding authority. Pragmatism was built on the arrogance of intellectuals who believed they were smarter than anyone who lived before; Sullivan’s divinization of conscience performs a similar task, with similar vanity. He dedicates page after page to illuminating the grandest mysteries of existence with the only lantern Sullivan trusts: his own conscience. Without this, we would all be lost. Indeed, he seems to believe that his own intense internal struggles (Sullivan always wins these fights, by the way) are mirrored in the struggles of the Republican party¯indeed, the nation itself. The cover of the book depicts two elephants tied at the tail, presumably fighting for the soul of conservatism. This is, among other things, evidence of an enormous category error in which Sullivan endeavors to make the conservative temperament the foundation of a political program. And it is here that the mansion of nonsense most obviously implodes. The notion that certainty is at odds with a just constitutional order, decency, and All Good Things founders on Sullivan’s own hypocrisy. Not only is it a Monty Pythonesque absurdity to imagine a serious political movement founded on such bumper-sticker slogans as "We’re not sure!" and "Hey, hey, ho, ho, certainty has got to go!" Sullivan himself proves that a politics based solely on one’s own glorious conscience is just as capable of the sort of rigid, moralistic, self-righteous preening and us-versus-them logic that Sullivan’s conservatism of doubt claims to stand against.
Goldberg may go too far in accusing Mr. Sullivan of hypocrisy. (See the recent postings by Robert Miller and by me on the nature of hypocrisy.) Hypocrisy entails an awareness of what one is doing, and I am not at all sure that is the case with Andrew Sullivan. It should also be noted that elsewhere in his critique Goldberg makes clear that he is not belittling the role of conscience. But conscience, he correctly notes, must be informed by precisely the authoritative moral truths that Mr. Sullivan insists we cannot know.


Some readers thought I crossed a necessary line in a recent comment on how most Americans perceive homosexuality. For instance, J. Peter Nixon writes at dotCommonweal : "This is not about whether those called to teach in the name of the Church should teach the fullness of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. I would hold that they have an obligation to do so. But when we talk of gays living in places that are ‘not America’ or suggest Americans are right to see being gay, in and of itself, as ‘morally repugnant,’ then we have moved from condemning acts to condemning persons. This the Church does not teach." No doubt I could have expressed myself more clearly, but I do think it is the case that most Americans view homosexual acts as "morally repugnant." This is variously expressed. To many, such acts are a moral "abomination"; to others they are aesthetically distasteful; to yet others they are sadly disordered; and to most they are weird (as in the original meaning of queer ). And no doubt there are many who condemn not only the acts but also persons who engage in such acts. But Mr. Nixon is right: That is not the teaching of the Church. John Paul II wrote on several occasions that the entirety of the Church’s social doctrine is premised upon the dignity of the human person. That dignity is marred but not destroyed by sin. We are to respect and love all persons, and to oppose unjust discrimination against them. Respect and love is entirely compatible with, and indeed requires, the hope that they not engage in sinful acts but resist, discipline, and overcome disordered desires. With specific reference to "gay identity," one prays and urges that such persons not resign themselves to the debasing idea that who they most truly are is defined by such desires, and by indulging them. As for places such as the West Village or the Castro district being "not America," it seems I’ve stumbled onto a patch of hypersensitivity. New Yorkers are regularly told, and New Yorkers regularly say, "New York is not America." Does that mean New York is not part of America? As a chauvinist about New York, I strongly reject the suggestion. But that is not what people mean when they say that New York is not America. I suppose I could have said that notably gay districts "are not representative of" America or "are different from" most of America. But the demand for explication of what should be obvious is the enemy of writing. Of course the West Village and the Castro district are part of America, but I think I’ll stay with the statement that such places are not America, and that is precisely why so many gays want to live in such places. Let me quickly add, pace Mr. Nixon et al., that that is my opinion and not the teaching of the Church.
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