The 'Professor' Who Duped Me

Conservative talk show host says Sacha Baron Cohen posed as Reed professor for comedy show on politics. Reed says ploy demonstrates a misunderstanding of what it's about, but that it's honored -- sort of. Maybe.

July 16, 2018

Ali G, Borat, Brüno and Admiral General Aladeen … and “Dr. Nira Cain,” professor of gender studies at Reed College? Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian known for his mockumentaries, added four new characters to his oeuvre for his latest endeavor, Who Is America?, which debuted Sunday on Showtime. And last week, Reed learned that that one of those identities -- used to lure conservative talk radio host Austin Rhodes, among others, into interviews -- was purportedly one of its own.

“We had no advance warning or knowledge of this,” said Kevin Myers, Reed spokesperson, confirming that there is no real Professor Cain. “Though we see there is a Twitter account and some fake books” associated with him.

Indeed, Baron Cohen kept Reed in the dark and apparently went to semi-great lengths to create a digital footprint for Cain ahead of his interviews. The professor’s Twitter bio identifies him as “Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, Proud Democrat. Lecturer on Gender Studies at Reed College. Co-Principal at Wildfields Poly-Ed. Stay at home Male Mom.” And according to Amazon, Cain is the self-published author of Being Food: Living Life in the Food Chain, Immoral Toddlers, The Freedom Illusion and The Third Gender: A Collection of Essays.

All appear to be interesting reads, especially in retrospect. A review for Immoral Toddlers, for example, says, “This book is wonderful. It will explain why today’s toddlers are more interested in eating avocado toast (and not sharing with mommy and daddy) than they are interested in helping with the family farm.” But, alas, all of Cain’s books are -- conveniently -- out of print.

Sunday's Who Is America? episode focused on a stunning level of support for another Baron Cohen character's made-up program to arm schoolchildren with guns, so Cain took a backseat. But he did introduce himself as "a cisgender white heterosexual male, for which I apologize." Two weeks ago after the 2016 U.S. presidential election "was stolen from President Hilary Clinton, I managed to get out of bed," he added. "I’ve been cycling through our fractured nation listening respectfully, without prejudice, to Republicans with the hope of changing their racist and childish views, trying to heal the divide." 

A relatively brief scene featured Cain dining at the home of a South Carolina Republican couple, talking in crude terms about the unorthodox ways in which he challenges gender stereotypes with his children, Harvey Milk and Malala. It was classic Baron Cohen, and not for the squeamish.

Rhodes, who is based in Augusta, Ga., first shared an account of his August 2017 interview with Cain (really Baron Cohen) with local media soon after it happened, as he promptly realized it was fake. But Rhodes’s account gained widespread attention in recent weeks, with a number of other public figures sharing that they, too, were duped into interviews with people they now know were Baron Cohen in various disguises. Among them are Sarah Palin, who blasted Baron Cohen on social media for posing as what she described as a disabled military veteran, along with unsuccessful Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and even TV journalist Ted Koppel.

Rhodes told The Hollywood Reporter last week that he’d first received an email from a TV producer who said she was working on a TV series about "finding common ground in partisan times."

The producer’s team was allegedly “sending ‘liberal academics’ out into the heart of Trump country to discuss their differences with conservatives with the goal of improving communication and striving for a more constructive coexistence,” Rhodes said in an account he shared with the Reporter. “All of this would be recorded by a professional documentary film crew, so the conversations and exchange of viewpoints could be edited together for a Showtime series called Bridging the Divide. (This is actually an intriguing idea -- too bad someone isn't really doing it!)”

On the day of the live radio interview, the TV production crew insisted that no photos be taken, Rhodes said. But security camera footage from his office shared with WRDW shows a tall, balding man who has gathered his remaining hair into a long ponytail, dressed in slacks and a jacket with a boldly patterned blouse underneath. (Cain was wearing a National Public Radio T-shirt during Sunday's episode, which did not feature the interview with Rhodes.) 

“And what a sight he was! When I first met this very tall, oddly dressed man, I said live on air: ‘Well, my goodness. You look like you are coming in straight from central casting,’” Rhodes said. “What followed was 90 minutes of my first and only trip into the radio version of The Twilight Zone, with a guest that was either the most amazingly bizarre left-wing extremist in the country or a complete lunatic. To be honest, I believed at the time he was both.”

Some of Cain’s “best hits” from the interview included “calling the U.S. Army ‘an active terrorist organization,’ saying that ‘The Dukes of Hazzard is like the Southern version of Roots,’ and my favorite, claiming that ‘white supremacists are responsible for most of the gun deaths in America,’” Rhodes added. “At some point it occurred to me that the silliness of his remarks meant we were likely being ‘put on,’ but it never occurred to me to what extent.”

Rhodes said he and his crew were kept off kilter throughout the interview by contrast light and microphone checks and that Baron Cohen ran to the bathroom during every radio commercial break, claiming a “gastrointestinal meltdown.” Finally, Rhodes said, “The interview abruptly ended, without prior notice, when he failed to return from his latest sprint to the restroom.”

Rhodes said he was eventually tipped off by a listener -- incidentally, one who said he’d been tricked by Baron Cohen into briefly appearing in the 2006 film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan -- that Cain was Baron Cohen.

The caller’s suspicions were shared.

“Throughout his outrageous appearance, many of my listeners thought the absurdities they were hearing from ‘Dr. Cain’ had to be made up,” Rhodes said, noting he was in fact a fan of Borat. “We probably received 40 to 50 emails during Cain's interview speculating that his appearance was ‘performance art’ -- either that or the greatest vindication of conservatism ever broadcast over the air.”

Baron Cohen’s new show satirizes right-wing conservatism in particular. But Rhodes is right in that Cain is also a caricature of the stereotypical leftist professor (redundancy intended). His field is no coincidence, of course, as gender studies is a favorite target of critics who say that academe is too centered on identity politics. Those alleged politics play out on Cain’s fake Twitter feed. Still, research consistently suggests that while professors are overwhelmingly liberal, they don't have the political brainwashing effect on their students that many fear.

Cain’s institutional affiliation is no coincidence, either, of course. Reed is often cited as a bastion of academic liberalism, even though some critics’ knowledge of it doesn’t extend past that place Steve Jobs wandered around shoeless. Even Baron Cohen might be surprised to learn that Reed doesn’t have a gender studies department (though it offers courses in gender studies). Reed is also known for one of the most rigorous general education programs around, with extensive study of Western classics.

Myers, of Reed, said that “it’s easy to misunderstand Reed and I think Reedies understand that … There’s a segment that wants to poke fun at schools and intellectuals and we do kind of become an easy target for those who don’t look at all the conversations that are going on but rather cherry-pick the bits that fit into a stereotype or trope, or focus on the most extreme conversations.”

In reality, Myers said, “Reed is a complex place and it doesn’t reduce very well to simplistic [descriptions]. When people are willing to look at the complexities of how Reed is run and the ways people are encouraged to follow their intellectual interests, you see that it’s very much about self-governance. You see people coming together as a community and figuring out a way forward.”

Criticism and misunderstandings aside, does Reed in a way feel honored to be a stand-in for liberal academe, at least for Baron Cohen? Myers said Friday, ahead of the show’s debut, that the jury was still out.

Still, he said, “Whenever you’re recognized in the public sphere like this, it’s an acknowledgment that you’re relevant. So, in a sense, it’s good to know that you’re relevant. But we’re definitely going to wait and see how that reference plays out.”


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