The Wilson Quarterly

Imagine that yours is a newly independent nation the size of Western Europe. Your country straddles the world’s sixth-largest oilfield. It befriends the United States. It lays out millions to brand itself as one of the most stable, diverse, and ­rapidly ­modernizing states on the ­planet.

Then enters a fictitious reporter, star of the $250 ­million–­grossing film Borat: Cul­tural Learn­ings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakh­stan. Suddenly, your unknown country is famous. But it’s been ren­dered as a medie­val backwater populated by rapists and ­anti-­Semites. It’s be­come notorious for an imag­inary festival called “The Running of the Jew.” It’s por­trayed as a world center of ­wife ­beating. It’s de­picted as hiring ­one-­eyed drunk­ards to pilot the planes of its na­tional ­airline.

And how has the actual nation of Kazakhstan handled this ­all-­too-extensive exposure? It has vacil­lated, writes Robert A. Saunders, a historian at the State University of New York at Farmingdale. In responding to Sacha Baron Cohen, a Cambridge ­Univer­sity–educated comedian who has promoted Borat into a lucrative specialty, Kazakh­stan has tried being tough, branding Cohen’s humor as racism. It’s issued threats and demanded that the character be banned. It’s been noncha­lant, saying it can take a joke. And it’s been cynical, touting Kazakhstan as the “perfect home for this autumn’s hottest ­com­edian—­Borat.”

The more Kazakhstan fussed, the more people wanted to see the film. And the more people who flocked to the film, the more tourists wanted to go to Kazakhstan. Visa appli­cations in Cohen’s native Britain spiked as Borat became better ­known.

So in the end, Kazakhstan adopted the attitude of P. T. Bar­num—any publicity is good publicity—and proved that not only circuses but even sovereign nations with oil wealth can make money off ­slander.

* * *

The Source: "Buying into Brand Borat: Kazakhstan's Cautious Embrace of Its Unwanted Son" by Robert A. Saunders, in Slavic Review, Spring 2008. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Read Next

Self-Styled Moses