A “Taliban militant and Jewish merchant in the desert” joke is pretty much bound to be an accident waiting to happen. For one thing, you’d have to cut fingers off to count the number of Jewish merchants doing business in the Afghan desert. It’s taking the long way around the barn to put one in a Taliban joke: a red flag that the surreally out-of-place Jewish merchant is the real punch line.
But the sin against humor wouldn’t be so much of one against fellowship if the joke didn’t invoke a set of hackneyed, politically freighted stereotypes and then pick one of them as the laugh line. Seriously: a sneaky Jewish merchant withholding water from a desperate Muslim jihadist? What is this, a stand-up club in Ramallah?
It’s a rare joke that can survive being set up on the lines of an editorial posture. Ronald Reagan was a master of such humor, but one key to his success was staying a long way away from stereotypes about any ethnic group but his own. He disclosed as much in an informal moment on St. Patrick’s Day in 1988, when his staff set up an impromptu visit to a popular pub in Alexandria. “You have to understand that for a man in my position, I’m a little leery about ethnic jokes,” he told the pub crowd on that occasion. “The only ones I can tell are Irish.” Reportedly, he then proceeded to bring the house down with the Irish jokes — which, as someone of largely Irish heritage, I can affirm typically feature such topics as drunkenness, maudlin self-expression, indebtedness, and incarceration.
But you can tell jokes on yourself that come off as you-bashing when told by others. That’s a fact of life that is pointless for the amateur humorist to resist. It may be, moreover, that officials at all levels of authority in the U.S. should just steer clear of Taliban jokes anyway. The Jones joke reminded me immediately of another encounter between American officialdom and Taliban humor, back in 2002. The outcome of that one was a policy aboard Greyhound buses banning all Taliban jokes while a bus was in motion. As a Greyhound spokeswoman explained at the time, very possibly with a straight face:
There is a time and a place for everything, including Taliban jokes. However, the time for telling Taliban jokes is when the bus is safely parked at the station, not when it is full of passengers and rolling down the highway.
Words to live by.