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Reflections #4

Reflections #4
Ali G – the comedy sketch that became a meme and then became reality

In the late 90s, one character in British comedy stood out among many, having a broad appeal that bridged traditional class, age and racial barriers – Ali G.

Ali G is a veritable spaghetti junction of identity politics. The character is played by Sacha Baron Cohen, full name Sacha Noam Baron Cohen, a British-born Ashkenazi Jew from London. Ali G parodies a white millennial male’s take on urban black culture, his signature phrase “Is it ‘cos I is black?” signifies that he may indeed think he is black and not just embracing black culture. Ali G’s place of origin, Staines in Surrey, has a substantial sub-continent Asian community from which he may well also be drawing from. The character is ambiguous and that is the point. Dressed in loud, baggy hip-hop clothing, fake gold chains and his trade mark beany hat and goggles, his appearance was as distinct as they come.

Ali G would often poke fun at those in high society; his guests were a veritable who’s who drawn from politics, business, sport, entertainment and even royalty. To this day, some of his sketches are still genuinely funny, having aged relatively well. Like many of Cohen’s characters, Ali G received something of a new birth by crossing the Atlantic and heading stateside, as he did in the early 2000s. Cohen had his audience laughing at both his character and the guests, often at the same time. Ali G was famous for pushing the limits of what was deemed politically correct at the time, capturing the cultural zeitgeist of a country very much in transition.

Now however, in a desperate bid to stay relevant, Cohen is more famous for his politics than his work (like a lot of celebrities from that era, it must be said). The irony being, of course, that what he comes out with today is infinitely more cringe than what Ali G ever would have said back in the late 90s. A recipient of the Anti-Defamation League’s International Leadership award in 2019 for standing up to “bigotry and racism” (read: Antisemitism), more recently he publicly called out the Writers Guild of America to be more vocal in their support of Israel in their ongoing war with Palestine (as if the backing of the entire American state and media apparatus, along with billions of dollars of funding and subsidies isn’t sufficient enough). Cohen’s questionable behaviour includes having guests sign ambiguously worded release forms that grant the filmmakers indemnity for any "breaches of alleged moral behaviour", stipulating that a legal case can only be brought through courts in New York state (the ethno-religious make-up of the courts and legal institutions in New York is purely coincidental, I am sure).

Ali G donned an early iteration of what has now come to be known as multicultural London English (or multicultural British English), a linguistic mutation of various accents and influences, with its roots in Jamaican patois it is one of the atrocities of modern Britain that offends this writer on every imaginable level. It is more than a bitter irony that a nation that gave the world Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and William Wordsworth is now reduced to this.

We were laughing but, of course, the joke was on us all along. The sad truth is that today in modern-day Britain, the urban gang culture that Cohen parodies is as ubiquitous as a double-decker bus or a red post box in the nation’s capital. I imagine it is the same in other cities up and down the country. In the middle of writing this I stopped for a break to put the kettle on and reach for yet another biscuit, I scroll through X and I am greeted with three new clips of these people committing flagrant acts of horrific violence, what’s more this is just seen as the new normal, just “part and parcel of living in a big city” I guess. Tomorrow, I have absolutely no doubt there will be another. The urban youth used to be confined to the council estates, now (mainly thanks to the government’s social housing policy) they have migrated to the suburbs. In the 90s it was just a joke, now it is a terrifying reality for many of us. Set against the backdrop of this culture, Britain’s cities have become lawless, the police have lost control of the streets and the government can do little more than offer up meaningless cliches and platitudes as the UK descends further and further into unbridled lawlessness. This machete attack in Nottingham in broad daylight and the Afghan asylum seeker Abdul Ezedi’s horrific acid attack in London the two most recent examples of “wild west Britain”.

Young people these days, eh?!

Now, it would be dishonest to lay all of this at the feet of Cohen but what I am trying to emphasise is that Ali G was part of a broader movement that helped to normalise urban culture in the late 90s and bring it into the mainstream. There has been a premeditated and calculated effort to normalise this culture across society by the media, entertainment, sport and advertising industries. As with many cultural movements, this was heavily influenced by the United States. We are presented with a highly curated representation of the reality, one that is sanitised for a modern cosmopolitan audience, adopted by big companies in a bid to sell products, fill quotas and to look sympathetic to an oppressed group. This is your mind on political correctness. You get the hip beats, the dreadlocks and the funky clothes, a bit of inter-racial mingling basically you get enough to feel like you aren’t a racist, but none of the violence and aggression, no machete attacks or gang violence. This is your mind on political correctness. Pattern recognition is a thought crime, any relationship between the background of these criminals and their actions is an expression of your own internalised racism. This is your mind on political correctness. It is the kind of propaganda and regime conditioning that Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann would be proud of.

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