Did you hear the one about the Kazakh comedian?
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No, of course you didn't. He's in solitary confinement. Or so the punch line would go if they had a sense of humor in the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.
What has the autocratic Kazakh president's knickers in a knot - that's important enough to appear on his agenda with President Bush this month - isn't his country's rampant corruption, his soldiers in Iraq or the murder of opposition-party politicians.
Instead, it's a boob named Borat.
For the uninitiated, Borat is a fictional, mustachioed Kazakh journalist who makes out with his sister, wears a Day-Glo-green thong, utters anti-Semitic, anti-gay and anti-gypsy quips, and hits the fabled American highways on a quest to marry Pamela Anderson. His tour-de-force of political incorrectness will soon be at the nearest Cineplex in the aptly named "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."
Borat is the alter ego of Cambridge-educated British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen - himself Jewish - best known in America for his riotous HBO series "Da Ali G Show," in which he interviewed unsuspecting celebrities and politicians in a rapper guise.
Now Borat's movie is doing the same with average Americans. Think the "Tonight Show's" Jaywalking segment on crack.
Did I mention that Borat isn't real?
No matter. President Nursultan Nazarbayev is so livid over the "misrepresentation" he intends to waste the most powerful man in the world's time kvetching about fictional movie characters.
His government has already threatened Cohen with the most Western of menaces - a defamation lawsuit - and pulled the plug on his borat.kz Web site.
Yet with Nazarbayev as their leader, it's no surprise that Kazakhs don't understand much about freedom of expression.
The blast-furnace-operator-turned-prez has systematically muzzled the media, outlawed opposition parties and harassed advocacy groups, according to The Washington Post. And Transparency International ranks Kazakhstan as one of the world's most corrupt countries.
Then there's the small matter of $78 million in bribes that U.S. prosecutors accuse Nazarbayev of taking from an American businessman.
It's hard to know which camp looks more ridiculous here, Kazakhstan's suddenly sensitive dictator or the White House, which last month - to great fanfare - launched a campaign against high-level foreign corruption as "a critical component of our freedom agenda."
Never mind. Nazarbayev not only gets an Oval Office tour, he gets a sleepover at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport.
Maybe the two leaders are commiserating on their mutual experience with parodies of idiocy. Or maybe it has something to do with Kazakhstan's vast oil reserves.
For the record: As a native of Appalachia, I understand a thing or two about negative stereotypes. For years, we've been plagued by toothless jokes, gene-pool jibes and Jeff Foxworthy. So I'm not wholly unsympathetic to the Kazakhs' gripes about Borat. National identity has been a sensitive topic there since the country's split from the Soviet Union.
But I've also learned something: Those eye-rolling saws often shed more light on the teller's ignorance and prejudice than they do on the butt of the joke. And judging from the "Borat" trailer, the movie is less about poking fun at Kazakhstan than it is about exposing the goofiness and bigotry in everyday America.
A friend who served in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan assures me that the Kazaks do, indeed, have a sense of humor. Perhaps they should see Borat as a boon instead of a battle.
Thanks to Cohen's character, Kazakhstan has just received more publicity than it could buy with a battalion of PR agents, which, by the way, it recently hired.
Instead of threatening Borat, Kazakhstan should be thanking him, maybe even hiring him as a humorous travel pitchman. Hipper-than-thou yuppies and smirking backpackers would undoubtedly flock to the semi-desert nation.
Instead of carping in Washington, Kazakhstan should take a lesson from Hollywood: There's no such thing as bad publicity.
Bronwyn Lance Chester is a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune News Service. Readers may send her e-mail at thelancepointyahoo.com.
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