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ali g on 7/11

  1. 25 February 2003


    Ali G, apparently, has scandalised the US by saying on television: "Yo country has problems, there nuff sadness since the events of 7/11." A leading US critic has declared the comment to be beyond the pale: "Nothing excuses joking about September 11, 2001," says Tom Shales of the Washington Post. "The word tasteless doesn't even begin to cover it."

    So why do I find it quite funny? Is it coz I is an old European decadent, too fattened on irony to understand the bounds of good taste? Is it because I've been guilty myself once of accidentally uttering the name of the convenience-store chain while meaning to invoke the terrorist outrage? Is it because it's a good example of the way in which Sacha Baron Cohen's satirical vehicle works to expose the arrogant insularity of branded western "individualism"? Or is it coz I is racist?

    I only mention the final option because it's important to remember, before anyone starts mouthing off about the US lack of sophistication in its humour, that Britain was just as outraged when it first got a dose of Ali G, with even less good reason.

    The debate about whether or not the character was racist went on and on, the highlight coming, rumour has it, when Yardies issued death threats, saying Sacha Baron Cohen was disrespecting their culture. Suffice to say that a culture which considers murder to be an appropriate response to comic creations it dislikes deserves as much disrespect as can be mustered. Or maybe Yardies, like Americans, have a greater sense of irony than they're given credit for.

    Because, actually, it isn't true that Americans have no sense of irony. Americans are funny, satirical, perfectly capable of laughing, sometimes darkly, at themselves. Which I guess is why Americans commissioned and broadcast the Ali G tirade.

    And Americans are responsible, after all, for what is certainly the most influential ironic commentary ever created, The Simpsons, whose scriptwriterscan claim credit for coining the currently popular phrase "Cheese-eating surrender monkeys". I'm afraid I find that funny, too.

    I find the other jokes about the French that are currently doing the rounds in America funny as well, and the whole Europe-US slanging match a welcome diversion in terrible times. I laughed at – Q: How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris? A: No one knows, they've never tried.

    But now I confess I'm curious to know whether Mr Shales found this unspeakably offensive, too. After all, Paris only fell to the Nazis with comparative ease because France was still reeling from the loss of more than a million young men in defence of the country a couple of decades before. The point of this joke is that it wouldn't be funny if it wasn't so unfair and outrageous.

    And that's a lot of what makes Mr Baron Cohen's joke so funny as well. It's not in itself highly offensive – it doesn't carry the implication that a million deaths, or even many thousands, means absolutely nothing – it just carries the message that these deaths have different levels of significance to different people. Since Ali G is a "different person" in an entirely negative way, there isn't even any suggestion that his attitude is right while the attitudes of others are wrong – on the contrary.

    However, the satirical intent in Mr Baron Cohen's joke is revealed in the reaction it inspires. That Britain is so ready to make a big deal out of some people in the US taking such umbrage to a joke this innocuous says something about our own attitude to America, too. How willing we are to encourage the dominant strain of messianic fervour in US culture, which dictates the significance of 11 September is too huge for there to be enough respect in the world to honour it, too awesome for any act of vengeance to compensate for it.

    Europe, immediately after the atrocities, fell in with the idea that this was not an isolated act of fiendish terrorism unlike anything that had ever been seen, but a "clash of civilisations". A crude attack on two tower blocks full of innocent people was deemed by general consent antagonistic enough to be countered with a sophisticated attack on a nation full of innocent people.

    Now, as a second country braces itself for the same treatment, Europe – and the people of Britain, if not its leadership – appears to be deciding that enough is enough. As a veteran of the early, comparatively tiny, post-9/11 peace marches, I ought to be rejoicing in this mass change of heart. Instead, as celebrities line up at awards ceremonies only too eager to surf this tide of humanitarian opinion, and Middle England takes to the streets, as one journalist reported with gentle humour, displaying "good nails and nice bags", I feel bloody irritated that it took them this time to speak up.

    I'm not naive enough to believe that the war on Afghanistan could have been averted, or pig-headed enough to maintain that Afghanistan has not benefited – marginally – from the military action. But I do wish that the early discourse after the attacks could have been more meaningful, that America could somehow have reached an understanding that they were not at war, but simply the targets of lunatics, that this "if you're not with us you're against us" mentality had not become so entrenched.

    I personally feel less upset by the prospect of war against Iraq than I did about the prospect of war in Afghanistan. The latter was the important precedent, and it was set too quickly and with too much acquiescence. Arguing now about the legitimacy of military action against unstable, bellicose states feels like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. What we learnt from Afghanistan is that it works, in a repugnantly blunt and limited way, and what we could still learn if we wanted to is that it would work much better if the humanitarian effort was followed through much more assiduously.

    I've also become increasingly more disgusted by the divisiveness of left-wing rhetoric: the simple-minded anti-Americanism (how not to win friends and influence people), the wilful damage that is done by the insistence that the war is being fought over oil (even if it was, what use would this stance have in talking the US down?), the playground level of the insults against the intelligence of Bush and Blair (they may not be the most original thinkers, but they're pretty bright); the heartless hard-left insistence that national sovereignty should always be respected (I thought the left was against life being a lottery – if so, then why is being born under a vicious dictatorship hard cheese?); and the hectoring insistence that only Palestinians, and never Israelis, are victims (yes, it's key that this situation should be sorted out, but again, is haranguing with such bias the way to win hearts and minds?).

    Mind you, I'm not exactly won over by the alternative arguments. The contradictory and ever-changing nature of the intellectual push for war against Iraq is a disgrace, the nature of the war that will be fought remains grotesque in its technological pitilessness, and the lack of honour for (or even a method of counting) the dead to come, is still beyond pity. But a portent just as terrible for the future of the world is the perceived cultural gulf that widens and widens between America and so much of the rest of the West. I don't suppose America is any more divided by Ali G than Britain was. Which is something to be thankful for.

    d.orr@independent.co.uk

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