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Friday May 25, 2012

The Primary Problem with “The Dictator”

Posted by Omar Baddar at 2:07 pm

Two weeks ago, I shared my take on the controversy surrounding Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest movie “The Dictator,” noting that while it does seem to include crude Arab stereotypes, I didn’t think the matter warranted any kind of national campaign against it. Last week, I shared an interesting review of the movie that appeared in Foreign Policy magazine, but noted that I hadn’t seen the movie yet, and would hold off any further comment until I did. Well, I have finally seen the film, and can now offer some non-speculative thoughts on it.

First of all, the movie is a little funny (Cohen’s earlier work, though almost equally offensive and crass, was much funnier). Second, crude Arab stereotypes were definitely present, but so were offensive stereotypes of many other groups (particularly the American far right and far left). Third, I was initially dismissive of protests that Cohen was a Zionist (it seemed like an irrelevant point), but there were several jokes made in the film that portrayed Israel as a victim. These included digs at Arab anti-Semitism and the alleged desire to wipe Israel off the map, but no mention of anti-Arab racism in Israel, Israel’s rejection of a sensible peace agreement with the Arab world, or Israel’s active wiping of Palestine off the map). In short, the movie sought to perpetuate the false and fading narrative that the Arab-Israeli conflict is driven by hatred, when the real cause of the conflict is the political injustice imposed on the Palestinian people.

But like “Team America: World Police” from the makers of South Park, the primary problem with this movie weren’t the racist jokes (reasonable people can disagree on whether to dismiss them as humor or be offended by them), it was with one of the underlying political messages. The problematic message in this film was the one implying that it’s better to ignore sensitivity and political correctness sometimes in order to get things done. This can be most obviously noticed in the supermarket scene, where the failing market (initially run by lefty hippies too concerned with political correctness) is saved by the main character who throws sensitivity out the window, and reassigns staff to tasks that better suit their natural attributes (under threat of punishment). Efficiency should not be taken as a higher value than respect for people’s rights. In conclusion, The Dictator is a little funny, a little offensive, and totally not worth the fuss.

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