‘Who is America?’ Cohen splits critics with TV return

Sacha Baron Cohen conjures four new characters in ‘Who is America?’ (Courtesy Showtime)
Updated 16 July 2018
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‘Who is America?’ Cohen splits critics with TV return

NEW YORK: “Who is America?” is both the title of Sacha Baron Cohen’s first foray into television satire in more than a decade and the existential question on the lips of liberals living through the Trump presidency.
Trailed by a blaze of pre-launch publicity and a furious backlash from public figures who believe they have been pranked, its splashy debut won most attention Sunday for hoodwinking Republican politicians into endorsing a made-up plan to train pre-schoolers how to fire a gun.
The series brings seven episodes to pay-to-view channel Showtime years after the British comedian was last on television with “Da Ali G Show” — his wannabe-rapper character interviewing the powerful and famous.
In “Who is America?” Cohen conjures up four new characters. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., is an opponent of “mainstream” media who debates health care with left-leaning Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
There is Nira Cain-N’degeocello, a pink-hat wearing, ultra-liberal hippy, who dines at the home of a Trump-voting couple.
Rick Sherman is an ex-con turned artist who works in the medium of human feces and bodily fluids, and who meets a totally accepting California gallery owner who donates public hair to his paint brush.
Finally, Israeli “anti-terror expert” Col. Erran Morad pranks Republicans into endorsing a concocted plan to teach children as young as three and four how to fire a firearm, along with a “Puppy Pistol.”
Teasers for the new series saw US former vice president Dick Cheney signing a “waterboard kit” and Sarah Palin unleash a furious Facebook attack, upset to have been one of Cohen’s pranked subjects.
Palin, the former vice-presidential nominee and ex-Alaska governor who did not appear in the first episode, slammed the comedian’s “evil, exploitive, sick ‘humor.’ “
But if early reviews are more muted, they are also mixed.
The New York Times called the first episode “tepid and inconsequential,” and ill-suited to the times.
If The New Yorker waxed lyrical about “sporadically excellent conceptual art,” trade magazine Variety warned Cohen’s nihilism can “itch and irritate more than enlighten and entertain.”
The Guardian praised “one moment of viral gold” but otherwise lamented “mostly a frustrating experience.”
After “Da Ali G Show,” which transferred from Britain to America, Cohen found success with hit movie characters such as bumbling Kazakh reporter Borat and gay Austrian fashionista Bruno.
His 2012 movie, “The Dictator,” starring himself as a Muammar Qaddafi style tyrant was less well reviewed.


What We Are Reading Today: The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter

Updated 46 min 49 sec ago
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What We Are Reading Today: The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter

In the Louvre museum hangs a portrait that is considered the iconic image of René Descartes, the great 17th-century French philosopher. 

And the painter of the work? The Dutch master Frans Hals — or so it was long believed, until the work was downgraded to a copy of an original. But where is the authentic version, and who painted it? Is the man in the painting — and in its original — really Descartes?

A unique combination of philosophy, biography, and art history, The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter investigates the remarkable individuals and circumstances behind a small portrait.

Through this image — and the intersecting lives of a brilliant philosopher, a Catholic priest, and a gifted painter — Steven Nadler opens a fascinating portal into Descartes’s life and times, skillfully presenting an accessible introduction to Descartes’s philosophical and scientific ideas, and an illuminating tour of the volatile political and religious environment of the Dutch Golden Age.

 As Nadler shows, Descartes’s innovative ideas about the world, about human nature and knowledge, and about philosophy itself, stirred great controversy. Philosophical and theological critics vigorously opposed his views, and civil and ecclesiastic authorities condemned his writings. Nevertheless, Descartes’s thought came to dominate the philosophical world of the period, and can rightly be called the philosophy of the 17th century.

 Shedding light on a well-known image, The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter offers an engaging exploration of a celebrated philosopher’s world and work.

Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. His books include Rembrandt’s Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award; and A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton).