Joke Ethics: The Obama Dog Jokes Dilemma and The Gut Test

The question: how should fair and ethical people regard the viral “the President eats dogs” jokes? This depends on the standards we choose to apply—and remember, double standards are banned.

  • Is it a humor standard? Political jokes don’t have to be fair; most of them aren’t. They have to be funny. If they are funny, they don’t have to be especially tasteful, either.
  • Is it a motive standard? If the real motive for the flood of jokes is to undermine the President in an election year by using absurd images to make him look ridiculous, should that be condemned?
  • Is it an “anything goes in politics and war” standard? Fairness has not been the hallmark of Democratic partisan attacks so far this election year, and things are just warming up. Are Republican just accepting the terms of the engagement?
  • Is it an “ends justify the means” standard? If the Obama jokes shut down the dog-on-the-car-roof attacks, that’s a good enough reason to use them.
  • Is it a “this goes with the job” standard? The volume of cruel and unfair jokes, funny or not, leveled at this President is miniscule compared to what previous Presidents have endured. Obama’s status as the first black White House occupant, as well as his supporters regrettable tendency to declare any ridicule or criticism as motivated by racism, have rendered him almost untouchable by derisive humor, until now. Maybe this is healthy. Clinton was subjected to fat jokes, womanizing jokes, and cigar jokes. Bush was attacked with drunk jokes, anti-religious jokes, cowboy jokes and idiot jokes. Obama shouldn’t be immune.
  • Or is it something else?

It’s something else.

I found myself laughing at a blogger’s one-line dog gag at the President’s expense this morning*, and felt immediately guilty for it: the Gut Test had just been activated. The Gut Test is one of the three famous ethics tests that are useful to set off sluggish ethics alarms. The first, the Gut Test, asks “Does this feel wrong?” The “Mom Test” asks whether you could tell your mother (or father, or most respected acquaintance) about your ethically-dubious conduct without hesitation or shame,and the New York Times Test  is “Would I be willing to see my conduct on the front page of the New York Times?” Sometimes all these answers can point to unethical conduct, and be dead wrong, but the point is that they alert you to the fact that there is an ethical issue to be resolved.

I know some of you will faint in dead shock hearing this from me, but I think, in the final analysis, the jokes are racist in intent, or at least too many of the jokers’ glee is fueled by racism. The dog meat story came out of the President’s account of his Indonesian upbringing, and I think the effectiveness (as political attack) and their popularity (as ridicule) stems, at least in part, from the fact that this topic reinforces an image of Obama as foreign, non-American, possessing alien sensibilities and untrustworthy. I would not conclude this if there had been only a few such jokes, or if they were a limited phenomenon. And I realize that the jokes have been effective at muting the Romney dog attacks, so for many in the GOP this is “just politics.”

At this point, however, if the jokes aren’t intended as racist, the racists are enjoying them too much.

It’s time to stop.


* If you must know, the bloggerheadlined a link about Obama’s recent speech in which he referenced Romney by saying that he, Obama, was not born “with a silver spoon in his mouth” with the  tagline: “I THINK IT WAS A LHASA APSO, ACTUALLY.”

40 thoughts on “Joke Ethics: The Obama Dog Jokes Dilemma and The Gut Test

  1. You are way off track here, Pal. I don’t like him because of the color of his skin but because of the content of his character. He has for too long been given a pass on everything and is now the poster boy (I know you will call me racist for using this term) for ‘Affirmative Action’. Wonder what it feels like to know, deep in your heart, that you were elected BECAUSE of the color of your skin and not on your own merits?

    • 1. Don’t call me Pal, Pal.
      2. Many people voted for Obama because of the color of his skin, but he was elected because of good speaking skills, an effective campaign, media fixes, a lot of luck getting to the position to do so, and mostly because after the economic meltdown, the Democrats could have run—hmmm, let me think of someone completely ridiculous and unqualified—JOE BIDEN!—for President, and beaten McCain, who helped out by running the worst campaign I have ever seen—worse that Dukakis, worse than Kerry, worse than Dole, worse than Gore, worse than Ford, worse than Dewey, worse than Landon, worse than Smith, worse than Cox. That’s bad.
      3. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Mr. Obama’s character. He’s a decent person, in the clutches of unscrupulous advisors, whom he listens to because he’s over his head, and has been from the start.

      • “There is absolutely nothing wrong with Mr. Obama’s character. He’s decent person, in the clutches of unscrupulous advisors, whom he listens to because he’s over his head, and has been from the start.”

        It seems like only last week you were asking us to suggest additions to your list of Unethical Rationalizations. This sounds like one to me.

        • Oooh…you might be on to something. First, who’s rationalizing, me or him? Decent people often rationalize, that’s how they get into trouble. They really Do think if everybody does it, it’s ok. Leaders who have no instinct for leadership are in a bind—they trust untrustworthy aides and advisors who give them bad advice (I personally think Obama has been worse served by his advisors than any President within memory) because they have no experience in executive leadership. I think “he listens to bad advice” is an explanation, not a rationalization, though….especially for a President. It is definitely not an excuse, but it is understandable.

          So how would you phrase the new rationalization? Some existing ones fit: even “everybody does it.” How often does someone say, “I can be President right now, but I’m not ready”?

          • Thing is, the president picks most of his advisors.. And I think they were picked for politics rather than ability. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have Eric Holder.

            I like Obama, I really do. And dog knows there isn’t much alternative at this point. I just hope heads start to roll next term in the Executive branch.

            • No doubt, he’s accountable for his bad advisors. The problem is, with all leaders but especially those who feel inadequate or inexperienced or besieged, loyalty and trustworthiness are almost always the main things looked for in advisors, not ability, experience or competence. Reagan was much better off with Howard Baker as his top aide than Don Regan, but Reagan knew Regan better. Clinton too advice from Dick Morris, for heaven’s sake. Harding’s and Grant’s advisors did those Presidents in. FDR and JFK probably take the cake for the best advisors, perhaps because they had smarter and more able connections, on balance. That Harvard network ain’t what it used to be.

          • Giving it a little more thought, I think you might be right that it’s not quite a justification, or at least not necessarily a justification. I think it depends on whether you think Obama is genuinely just acting on bad advice (i.e. he’s making mistakes, possibly mistakes he doesn’t have the resources to avoid) or if he’s following bad advice because his people are telling him what he wants to hear. I had been thinking of the case where bad advice is offered as an excuse: “My lawyer told me that would be okay” or “Our ethics committee approved that policy.” That sounds like it might be a variation on the Compliance Dodge.

          • To your first point, Obama picked his advisors, that should tell you volumes about his judgement.
            To your question “How often does someone say, “I can be President right now, but I’m not ready”? One guy, Governor Chris Christie

  2. I’m not sure I understand, Jack. Why must a funny joke stop because “… racists are enjoying them too much?”

    I’m sure racists enjoy all sorts of jokes at Obama’s expense that never had the slightest intent toward racism. That’s a sickness that they have, and most jokes about Obama have nothing to do with that. For example, the iconic Obama graphic of “Hope” has been parodied relentlessly, and I’m sure the racists loved that, too, but we wouldn’t go analyzing the colors used in the graphic to see if there might be some hidden message that only racists see. In my view, there is nothing racist in the general nature of the joke — making jokes about what others have eaten are as standard a fare as “knock-knock” humor.

    When I saw these doggie jokes, I knew it was likely related to the fact he was raised abroad, but it never occurred to me that it had to do with his race. Lots of Americans who live abroad do things that are considered normal in foreign lands, but not normal here — like consuming horse meat or poisonous fish. I have seen jokes about that, too. The Democrats clamor about Romey’s long-ago pooch negligence simply begged for a tit-for-tat from the GOP, and that’s what happened. It just so happens the tit makes for a lot funnier joke than the tat — hence it’s viral nature.

    In the end, I think this is just political humor, and while the racists will find everything that gigs Obama to be good and funny, to me, they just seem like jokes; some in poor taste, others just plain funny for their own sake. If I had tried dog meat during my foreign travels, I’d find them just as funny directed at dog-eaters in general, or even at me. I can’t even confirm that I haven’t had dog meat at some point — very often I ate what was set before me without worrying about what it was made of. My Pepe would doubtless swoon if he could read this last paragraph. 🙂

    • I am pretty convinced that the fury with which these have been erupting on Twitter and elsewhere is because they play on the outsider, “other” theme, which is to say that in the exact same set of circumstances, same parties, same everything else but with two Irish-Anglo candidates, the dog-eating jokes would be one day and out. Anyway, that’s why my Gut Test on this flunked.

      And yes, if a disproportionate number of the people laughing along with you on a joke happen to be racists, if the laughter sounds too nasty, then a joke’s not so funny any more. I used to enjoy drunk jokes, too.

      That’s why political correctness is so contagious, I know. But I wouldn’t make a dog eating joke about my Korean friends, and making a million of them about a black president with Indonesian roots comes too close for me.

      • “The volume of cruel and unfair jokes, funny or not, leveled at this President is miniscule [sic] compared to what previous Presidents have endured. Obama’s status as the first black White House occupant, as well as his supporters regrettable tendency to declare any ridicule or criticism as motivated by racism, have rendered him almost untouchable by derisive humor.” — some guy on the internet

        • Thanks for the [sic]…polite commenters just alert me that there’s a typo, which happens too frequently, unfortunately. So you’re quoting me to what end? And “some guy on the internet” is supposed to be some kind of shot? Do you have a point?

  3. I think the jokes are kinda funny. I can imagine what Mr. McCain ate while in captivity. I don’t think Mr. Obama was elected BECAUSE the color of his skin. He had enough education, if not more than a few past presidents. He had more than broadcasting school and better grades than some. He wasn’t governor. Granted. He didn’t have a father in politics. Wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He wasn’t a mayor of a small town. Most of the ones I’ve been around are more or less figureheads. I don’t see much difference between a mayor and a community organizer. Most mayors don’t have a law degree from an Ivy League school. The candidate I would of voted for is out of the race. Now it will come down to who will be better for my livelyhood. I need more information from the GOP candidates. I haven’t heard any concrete policy ideas yet. This crap about guilt by association, really dumb personal stuff, etc. Nothing to do with leadership or policy is just dumb. I still want to see Romney’s college transcripts and his birth certificate. If one candidate or president is asked, then all should be asked.

      • You are so… Really? These jokes are Racist? Typical projection. Study basic psychology, cry baby. The prudes are usually the biggest pervs in their hidden life. They see a carrot and cry “pornography”! Who would even see racism in these jokes? Only a closet racist. I laugh my rear off and never thought racism till I saw your site and HAD to see what a commentator on ethics had to say. Grow up and be a freakin adult. Americans can still make jokes about their leaders. This ain’t Cuba yet. It’s funny in light of the complete pass this joker has been given to finally have him get the fair lampooning all journalists should be giving all politicians. If you see racism, go call your mom and tell her you’re a naughty boy and let the adults have a good chuckle. I’m sure Obama will survive and sleep ok tonight.

        • You…
          1. Were too lazy to read the post, or
          2. Are too dim-witted to understand it.

          Nothing more indicative of an intellectually slovenly commenter than a snotty rant that doesn’t even address the substantive points in the post. Nobody could read what I wrote and perceive that I suggested that the jokes themselves were racist. You can learn to read and comprehend nuances before you tell someone who is trying to promote some thought to “grow up.”

    • I still want to see Romney’s college transcripts and his birth certificate. If one candidate or president is asked, then all should be asked.
      I agree. I’ve written about this here before: I do not understand why it is not a routine, expected part of the swearing-in of every President, Senator, and Representative when there is a clear Constitutional requirement for age and citizenship.


      • 1. I agree that confirming citizenship should be routine. I would advocate eliminating the “natural born” requirement, which I think is anachronistic.
        2. I see no point in demanding college transcripts. They prove nothing; they are irrelevant.
        3. The fact that one side “demands’ irrelevant documents shouldn’t justify the other side “demanding” the same. Tit for Tat again.

        • Some jokes are funny, but it gets to be both “tit for tat” and redundant. I appreciate the jokes on my own ethnic heritage and faith. From the ones who stereotype my back ground it is a laugh how wrong they are. If they get redundant then it stops being funny. With other people’s background I respect their choice whether to laugh at themselves or take the jokes as disrespectful. A few of the jokes about Mr. Obama are funny but there is line where they are attacking him personally and become a sideshow.

  4. I beg to differ with your view, Jack.
    First, the Obama campleader Axelrod started the Romney dog dig. Mitt had no plan to fire back (too puerile an issue); as you know the Daily Caller first nosed out this tale. I love the dog joke pics and menus, not because I am racist, but because it is the first time anyone can have a good laugh at Obama’s expense and it is perfectly fine to do so — hey, he refuses to answer about Solyndra or any other screwups — so let’s see his reaction here.
    Mitt says this campaign is about jobs, not dogs, but still the Obama camp sulks about our dog dig, continues the car kennel slam, and now is bringing up Romney’s miss on banning greyhound racing when he was Gov of MA. Sounds like bullying to me and a poor attempt it is.
    So, I will continue to read canine comics about Obama and wait to see how long it takes for him to tell us to stop picking on him.

    Best rgds,

    • As I said, some of the jokes are funny. They are also effective in deflecting the legitimate (though not that significant) Seamus incident. They are also unfair. To the extent that the people most enjoying them include large numbers of birthers and people who will use Obama’s middle name at every turn, I’m no longer comfortable being part of that club.

      • To the extent that the people most enjoying them include large numbers of birthers and people who will use Obama’s middle name at every turn

        Hm. How do you know this? And is using Obama’s middle name inherently questionable, now that he’s been very explicit using it himself?

        These are serious questions because, frankly, this whole argument seems to have a big situational petitio involved: it’s racist in intent because it criticises Obama who is “different” and so any criticism must be racist in intent.

        • If you read my posts about race-baiting by Obama supporters, I generally agree with this argument. Not with the pointed use of “Hussein,” and not with the unusually long shelf-life of the dog jokes that are, at their core, unfair.

      • Not that significant? Kindly tell David Letterman who is flogging that dog every day. I guess when the only other knock you’ve got on a guy that has been as successful as Mitt is that he once did something that some tender spirits regard as abusive (but not many hunters, who put the dogs in the pickup bed all the time) is that he’s a little wooden, you can see where the Dem’s would get a little annoyed.
        I’m sure Gore thought he had wooden patented. I know he thinks he invented it.

    • And you, apparently, have none. It is often not that difficult to discern probable intent from published writings, tone and content if one applies experience and analysis. A partisan critic and ideological foe of Obama who flogs the dog jokes for multiple days is probably not just doing so because he thinks they are funny. I don’t have to have met him to figure that out. And as it happens, I do have quite an imagination…and you figured that out without ever meeting me. Though given your reasoning, I’d say it was just a lucky guess.

      • Jack, I think the essential point here is that there seems to be no boundary on what constitutes “racism in intent” except that a critique is not racist in intent if it’s ineffective and doesn’t become popular. If the distinction you’re attempting to draw between what is admissible joking, and what is “racist”, has any meaning, you should be able to offer something more substantive than “it’s not racist if its not popular”.

        • You seem to be intentionally misstating my point. It has nothing to do with popularity. The entire narrative of many critics of Obama is that he is un-American, if not by birth, than by religion, if not by religion, then by ideology. Eating dog emphasizes the his non-American upbringing, since no one born and raised entirely in the USA would ever have an occasion to eat dog. The dog joke functions as a “dog whistle”, getting a laugh and still saying, “remember, this guy’s not one of us.” Even that isn’t strictly racist, but it appeals to the racists….like using “Hussein” (But it’s just his middle name!) it allows a reminder of Obama’s perceived “otherness” with plausible denial. Go ahead and deny it. But it’s there, and if only 5% of the jokes’ appeal is their dog whistle properties, I still don’t want to be a part of it.

    • None of the jokes are necessarily racist. I think any President who wrote that he ate dog meat would see the same jokes. I think the vociferous, gleeful and persistent nature of the jokes is magnified by racism, overt or subconscious; I think at this point the political value of the jokes is to emphasize Obama’s “otherness.” I defend, for example, the legitimacy of using “chink in the armor” in an appropriate context even if the player under discussion was Jeremy Lin. If a large number of people went out of their way to use the phrase in relation to Lin, however, I’d suspect something else was at play.

      • You make a couple of interesting assertions here. First, there’s this notion of something being “subcounsciously” “racist in intent”. The notion of “subconscious intention” could be explored in great detail, but I’ll cut to the chase here and suggest its inherently meaningless, oxymoronic.

        Second, you assert that none of the jokes are inherently racist, and that in fact any President who admitted to having eaten dog meat would face the same jokes. However, people enjoying the jokes is, apparently racist, as it magnifies Obama’s “otherness”.

        So then the succession of “dumb” jokes against Palin were sexist in intent, and the succession of dumb cowboy jokes against GW Bush were necessarily intended to denigrate mentally challenged people or Texans? And, of course, the constant repetition of “polygamy” must then be read as inherently prejudiced against members of the LDS church.

        The point here is that this kind of canine ultrasonics don’t stand up to much scrutiny, except as an indication of the mindset of the person observing them.

        The argument also becomes very convenient, in that any effective discussion of any difference must necessarily be seen as emphasizing some “otherness” — and so by this argument will be evaluated as “racist” — if it’s directed at Obama, and becomes widely quoted.

        It’s very much unclear to me how there is an “ethical” claim in an argument that basically says “you can’t criticise my guy, because any criticism that catches on will thereby be ‘racist’.”

        • Not jumping too deep into this minefield, but I’d like to say that it’s a bad idea to make any sort of argument based on the assumption that Jack is a liberal; he’s been pretty sharp in his criticism of OWS, the Obama Administration, the left-leaning elements of the mainstream media, and the Democratic establishment in general.

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