We still don’t understand about respect and tolerance. As before, the key factor remains who’s at the table and who isn’t. Take the Borat movies. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a Central Asian; probably you haven’t either. So look at what we do to them. I’ve certainly met Indians (excuse me, South Asians) in my life, and most of them talked the way that I do. That is, they weren’t so different from a suburban middle-class white born in the United States. I knew some as a boy and young man, and then more, and then Apu was longer allowed on TV. Borat, by contrast, is doing fine.
If Sacha Baron Cohen treated blacks or Jews (or, now, Indians) the way he treats Kazakhstanis, he’d be dragged through the streets of Twitter and meet an untimely career demise. It’s ugly stuff. I remember the Irish kids making jokes like this about the Italian kids, but Borat does material that’s even ranker. The character’s a mockery, an overgrown armpit somehow converted to human size and grinning at you like a witless dog. Cohen’s doing a minstrel show right in the 21st century and nobody minds. They don’t even know something’s wrong.
I don’t say you should be angry. I’m not angry myself—I haven’t seen the new Borat material and I wouldn’t watch that first movie again, but it was one of the funniest, if meanest, films I’ve ever seen. My point is that you should notice. A fact is sticking out from a landscape where it shouldn’t belong. Despite the bank ads with the earth tone families, we’re still pretty mean and kind of dumb. President Barack Obama made the point that if you could choose any era to live in, but you couldn’t choose your race, sex, religion, or orientation, the era you’d pick would be now. True, yet not enough.
We’ve made progress in crowding more and more people around the table that’s set aside for fully recognized humans. We’ve repeated over and over the incantation that accompanies each seating, the welcome thoughts about the dignity of all and the stupidity of abhorring difference. But until a group has enough people ready to make a fuss with boycotts and tweets, that group won’t get to the table. Not only that but it can expect a good deal of mud dumped on its head. Those who do the dumping may then congratulate themselves on owning a rainbow flag or having a friend of some other race than their own. But only a race that’s at the table. Humanity’s now doing better than ever when it comes to pluralism and acceptance, and I agree that’s saying a lot. But somehow it isn’t saying that much.