February 25, 2020

Baron Cohen Exposes Who America Isn’t

Sacha Baron Cohen did a cannonball jump back into the American television pool this week with his new Showtime series, “Who Is America?” 

Four cringe-inducing interviews by four colorful Cohen characters provided part of the answer to the question in the show’s title. A specific branch of Mussar — the rabbinic philosophy of character development — provided the rest.

While Baron Cohen skewered extremists on both sides of the political divide, the sketch that drew the greatest social-media response — posted to Twitter and YouTube to promote the show — has Baron Cohen playing Col. Erran Morad, an Israeli antiterrorism expert. 

As the Morad character, Baron Cohen executes a multilayered scheme to obtain congressional support for his “Kinderguardians” program to end school shootings by arming and training children from age “16 up to 3” to shoot and kill. The gambit works, almost too easily, and along the way exposes the twisted thinking of several key players in the gun lobby.

The only person to emerge unscathed from the sketch is Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who responsibly refuses to support training 3- and 4-year-olds in the use of firearms because, “Typically, members of Congress don’t just hear a story about a program and then indicate whether they support it or not.” But Gaetz unwittingly sets up the joke as the scene cuts to three legislators and a former congressman doing exactly that.

I usually dislike “gotcha” interviews and cringe humor. I also understand some critics’ concerns that Baron Cohen’s antics will undermine the public’s waning trust in the news media and entrench extremists. Most importantly, the show does not elevate the sociopolitical conversation in America; it actually drags it through the mud.

It’s painful. Nonetheless, “Who Is America?” is important because it is the postmodern incarnation of Navardok Mussar. 

The Mussar movement rose to prominence during the 19th century, and its central premise was that humans are deeply flawed and their ability to experience spiritual greatness can be achieved only through intense character development. 

Three schools of Mussar developed: Slabodka, Kelm and Navardok. Slabodka emphasized people’s inherent greatness as a deterrent to sin — a variant of the American exceptionalism myth; Kelm believed extreme discipline would tame man — an Ashkenazi version of aristocratic restraint; and Navardok taught that sin was an act of self-indulgence, so its followers set out to destroy the ego.

Negating the self was not just theoretical in Navardok. Its followers developed fieldwork exercises. They were renowned for walking into hardware stores and asking for a sack of apples, or entering a pharmacy and saying they wanted to buy nails. The idea behind these acts was to show that the shame or embarrassment we feel in these situations is a reflection of the damage to our vanity; to damage the ego until it was gone. The good self that emerged without the ego was the true self.

“Who Is America?” is damaging America’s vanity. Baron Cohen is exposing the fringe elements of our society in order to destroy them. The emergence of America’s good self, once the extremists are gone, is our true self.

Who is America? Not these crazy people. The rest of us are America.

When we watch the extremists embarrass themselves, we feel shame, but Navardok Mussar suggests that it is the pain of an extrication process that is necessary to discover our true selves — a diverse, respectful and sane society.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.