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 a “tit for tat” standard, as I posted on earlier? This would be: “They kept harping on an embarrassing dog incident from decades ago to attack our candidate; we have a right to give them some of their own medicine.”
- 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.”