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Dec 05

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Ethnic jokes are a fool’s game

In any case, being good at pasta is better than being good at war.

By Donald Kaul

Donald Kaul

If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels (and it is), then telling other people’s jokes is the last refuge of columnists (who are often mistaken for scoundrels, for some reason).

Let me tell you a joke. It’s a terrorist joke that belongs to John Cleese, the British actor and Monty Python comic genius.

It’s called “Alerts to Threats in 2011 Europe”:

“The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent terrorist threats and have therefore raised their security level from ‘Miffed’ to ‘Peeved.’ Soon though, security levels may be raised yet again to ‘Irritated’ or even ‘A Bit Cross.’ (The English have not been ‘A Bit Cross’ since the Blitz in 1940, when tea supplies nearly ran out.)

Vintage John Cleese

“Terrorists have been re-categorized from ‘Tiresome’ to ‘A Bloody Nuisance.’ (The last time the British issued a ‘Bloody Nuisance’ warning level was in 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada.)

“The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from ‘Run’ to ‘Hide.’ The only two higher levels in France are ‘Collaborate’ and ‘Surrender.’ (The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France’s white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country’s military capability.)

“Italy has increased the alert level from ‘Shout Loudly and Excitedly’ to ‘Elaborate Military Posturing.’ Two more levels remain: ‘Ineffective Combat Operations’ and ‘Change Sides.’

“The Germans have increased their alert state from ‘Disdainful Arrogance’ to ‘Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs.’ They also have two higher levels: ‘Invade a Neighbor’ and ‘Lose.’

“The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.”

I know, I know. It’s humor that relies on national stereotyping and you shouldn’t do it. It’s like Polish jokes. (Poles, by the way, tell Bulgarian jokes.)

But that’s why ethnic jokes are funny, at least to the less sensitive. They allow one to feel superior to other people without having to actually do anything that’s superior.

If you make a joke about French cowardice, it makes you look brave. Are the Germans warlike? Sure, to peaceful people like us.

All nonsense, of course.

The French are no more cowardly (or brave) than anyone else. Their quick surrender to the Germans in 1940 can be attributed to the fact that only 25 years before they’d fed an entire generation of their young men into German machine guns and cannon. They weren’t cowardly, they were exhausted. (And their reluctance to take part in our invasion of Iraq can be written off to good judgment, rather than lack of courage.)

Germans, on the other hand, while they earned their reputation as bellicose bullies, have pretty much outgrown it. They are now one of the most peaceful nations in Europe and one of the more cautious about signing up for a fight.

The Italian reputation as ineffective warriors has a basis in fact also, I suppose, but their real problem is that they are terrible at picking allies. Do you really want to get enthusiastic about a war when Hitler is the guy running the show?

Italians are wonderful people — warm, welcoming, and possessing of a great ability to enjoy life. If that makes them indifferent soldiers, I say more power to them.

There are a lot of people in the world who are good at war. Being good at pasta is better.

I once made up White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant jokes as a counter-attack against Polish jokes. (I am Polish, kind of.) I’ve forgotten all of them except one:

“At a White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant’s funeral, how do you accommodate all the friends who want to be pallbearers?

“You take two handles off the casket.”

If there’s anyone I’ve failed to insult, I apologize.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. http://otherwords.org

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