Sacha Baron Cohen: Ali G vs. Boutros Boutros Ghali


The key to Ali G’s success is quite simple. While very obviously a fake, a flimsy impersonation, Ali G succeeds in making everyone treat him like the real thing. Ali G is a lad, a white British suburban dude wearing hip hop clothing and jewelry, claiming to be black despite his lily-white face and using slang expressions that exist only in his private vocabulary, showing fancy gang gestures signaling nothing at all, to anyone whatsoever. Under the pretext of his show`s supposed educational value Ali G has interviewed countless influential politicians, pop celebrities and experts of one bent or the other, including onetime UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali.

Although Ali G’s questions are, without exception, utterly stupid and ineffably inappropriate, most interviewees react with surprising patience and magnanimity. Often regarding Ali G as an authentic representative of “youth culture,” his guests eagerly try to understand his unfathomable slang and sometimes even pretend to succeed in doing so. Aside from never questioning his claims of being Black, they indulge in lengthy answers to persistent questions such as: “And why isn’t Disneyland a member of the UN?” Sometimes, they agree to send out “a message for today’s youth,” to the sounds of Ali G beatboxing in the background: “My name is Boutros Boutros Ghali — put down your gun and listen to Bob Marley.”

Reconsidering the Disneyland question, one might ask oneself whether this really could be the UN view of the world — over a hundred nation states represented through harmless, exotic peculiarities. Although different, they do not embody alternative ways of life. In other words, the UN, just like Disneyland, is an institution reflecting and consolidating globalization. And while in Disneyland, the nations unite on the playing field of a global company, in the UN, they do so not in a universal mode, but under the auspices of one particular cultural frame; later on in the show, Ali G recognizes the fact that the prevailing seating order follows the English alphabet.

So who is Ali G? He is a creation of Sacha Baron Cohen, a Brit whose family is of Alexandrian origin. Baron Cohen’s thesis at Cambridge, bearing the title “The Black-Jewish Alliance: A case of mistaken identities,” analyzes the civil rights movements of African-Americans and Jews, two struggles that were united in the 1950s but grew apart in the 1960s. The disintegration of the common dynamic was due to certain political achievements (for example universal suffrage was introduced in 1964), but also to the rise of Black Pride on the one hand, and pro-Israeli sympathies in the wake of the Six Day War on the other, that is the emergence of ethnic consciousness on both sides.

If the “black-Jewish Alliance” has yet to materialize in any political arena, it has persisted in a completely different field since the 1930s. In showbiz, the alliance between blacks and Jews has a long tradition stretching back to the days of “blackface,” to a time when no blacks were allowed onstage — or, later, on television — without their faces being (re)painted black. Among the “whites” who would sometimes play “black” roles, many were Jews. This is arguably the black-Jewish alliance Ali G — a Jew impersonating an African-American rapper — is restaging.

When comparing the two versions of the Black-Jewish alliance, we might catch the gist of Ali G’s political program. In the first case, the aim of Blacks and Jews alike was to be integrated within American society. This would be the model now pioneered by globalized care of the UN. In the second case, the outcasts insist on their marginal position, abandoning the ideals of ethnic emancipation and multiculturalism. The latter version, incidentally, leads us right back to Ali G vs. Boutros Boutros Ghali.