Well, heres a twist: it turns out that one of the duped interviewees in Sacha Baron Cohens Who Is America? is claiming that he knew he was being set up, and went along for the ride anyway.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the gun-rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League, recapped his entire experience with the Showtime series back in February, in a Facebook post on the groups page, warning members that somebody was trying to trick right-wing gun advocates. (The Daily Beast was the first to surface the old post on Tuesday.) In his original post, Van Cleave said he was unsure who was behind the project—though he cited both Harvey Weinstein and Michael Moore as potential candidates, and later set his sights on the man he suspected the most: Sacha Baron Cohen himself.
“Whos behind this effort isnt clear, but they are EXTREMELY WELL FUNDED PROFESSIONALS,” Van Cleave wrote. “For example, to reel me in and to try to make me feel beholden to them, they laid out the red carpet, by providing luxury accommodations, limousine service, and providing a generous monetary allowance to cover meals and other expenses for two days.”
“They use psychological manipulation,” Van Cleave continued, “as well as lies and tricks to put their victim into comedic situations that subject them to public shame, embarrassment, and ridicule. I believe the intent is to destroy reputations and even lives.”
Van Cleave also said that the producers appeared to be using gun shows to scout for potential sources. The pitch Van Cleave claims to have received came from an “Israeli security expert,” whom we now know was the Cohen character Erran Morad. He was told that their conversation would focus on security and how gun proliferation could promote American safety.
When Van Cleave initially balked at the idea of arming young children, he said that “Morad” showed him what appeared to be a newscast from Israel, with text in Hebrew, about a 4-year-old stopping a terrorist attack using his fathers gun. Still, Van Cleave said he remained unconvinced, and suspected he was being set up, perhaps by a “Sacha Baron Cohen-esq “Borat”-type of shock comedy meant to be devastatingly embarrassing and humiliating to the victim in the crosshairs.”
So, why on Earth did Van Cleave not walk out? “For better or for worse, I decided that I would play along with the scheme so I could find out who was behind this and where this was going,” Van Cleave wrote. “I figured if I was right about this being a set up, I could blow the whistle and get a warning out to the gun-rights community across the country to protect as many people as possible and maybe derail this attack. If it turned out to be nothing, then no harm, no foul.”
Van Cleave said that he subsequently instructed others contacted for interviews to terminate their sit-downs, should anything feel off—or to request to make their own recordings of the proceedings, and leave should that request be denied. As for himself, he wrote, “In the end we played each other and I confirmed what I feared this was all about. Sadly for me, Im sure Im going to be in whatever crazy film finally comes out, looking really stupid and, just as sadly, Ill probably be in good company.”
As amusing as this incident is, it also lends another data point to the debate about whether Who Is America? might actually be just as harmful to the left as it is to the right. On Monday, Jeffrey Lord—the disgraced pro-Trump CNN commentator who was fired after tweeting a Nazi salute—told The Wrap that as far as hes concerned, a series like this will only help Trump in 2020, as it “plays into the beliefs of Trump supporters re: elites hating them etc.” And for those who would prefer a wiser source, theres Ted Koppel, who noted this in his own response to being duped by the show: “Theres a larger issue here and that is if theres one thing we dont need any more of in this particular era its people posing as documentarians. I think theres enough skepticism to go around about people who actually are reporters, who actually are documentarians. And to undermine whatever tiny little bit of confidence might be left by pulling a stunt like this . . . I dont think it helps the overall atmosphere.”
Whatever stance one takes on that debate, we can all, probably, agree on one thing: Van Cleaves account of his interview is thorough, but his main point could just as easily have been conveyed by re-tweeting a certain message about transforming into a corncob.
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