• J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photos
  • Would you be happy if your daughter or son ended up with—or like—a man like this? Not if you’re a Democrat. But you might find him funny.

A few decades ago, Americans were a lot more careless about the company they kept. Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, writing for Bloomberg, recalled the other day that back in 1960, just “5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would feel ‘displeased’ if their son or daughter married outside their political party.”

If you weren’t around then, you probably can’t imagine such promiscuity. But take it from me . . . I remember well that year’s presidential race.

The parties thought more or less identically on communism (hate it), the missile gap (close it), baseball (bless it), and racism (regret it). Americans who wrung their hands over Jim Crow were more likely to be Democrats, but then so were the southern statesmen who made sure Washington left it alone. The race for president came down to a choice between five o’clock shadow and touch football.

By 2010, Sunstein went on, that 5 and 4 percent had become 49 and 33 percent. “Republicans have been found to like Democrats less than they like people on welfare or gays and lesbians. Democrats dislike Republicans more than they dislike big business.”

Reflecting on that shift, author Chris Mooney (The Republican War on Science) wrote a couple of years ago that “the parties are more polarized because they are better sorted psychologically than they used to be. In other words, Republicans are increasingly similar to one another psychologically, and so are Democrats—even as the two groups are also increasingly dissimilar from one another. And therefore, the differences between Democrats and Republicans are not just ideological—they are deeply rooted in personality, values, and psychological needs.”

If our values and needs separate us—so be it. Different strokes for different folks. I write out of concern that the wedge is being driven by something more basic and precious: our sense of humor.

The other day I was emailed a joke. It came from someone who’d been a classmate of mine in that distant era when Republicans and Democrats could be seen holding hands outside geometry class and it was known they shared the same curriculum. He’s one of a group of classmates I’m in occasional communication with these days even though we don’t see eye to eye on much of anything, simply because we all choke up identically when someone recalls a token of the sublime youth none of us actually lived—45 rpm records, for instance. Sky King.

The email was labeled “Nominated for the best joke of the year.” Nothing binds a cohort better than humor. I couldn’t wait to open it.

Here’s the joke.

A Russian arrives in New York City as a new immigrant to the United States. He stops the first person he sees walking down the street and says, “Thank you, Mr. America,n for letting me into this country, giving
me housing, food stamps, free medical care, and a free education!”

The passerby says, “You are mistaken, I am a Mexican.”

The man goes on and encounters another passerby. “Thank you for having
such a beautiful country here in America.”

The person says, “I not American, I Vietnamese.”

The new arrival walks farther, and the next person he sees he stops,
shakes his hand, and says, “Thank you for wonderful America!”

That person puts up his hand and says, “I am from Middle East. I am
not American.”

He finally sees a woman and asks, “Are you an American?”

She says, “No, I am from Africa.”

Puzzled, he asks her, “Where are all the Americans?”

The African woman checks her watch and says, “Probably at work.”

(There was a postscript: “If you don’t pass this on to your friends, by 11:30 AM tomorrow, you will receive three illegal immigrants absolutely free.”)

To judge from the reactions of some old classmates, this joke is hilarious. I was perplexed. I didn’t think it was funny at all. Not because it was offensive—a joke that isn’t offensive is hardly worth telling—but because it didn’t make sense. As I pointed out—in a friendly critique that so far only one old classmate has acknowledged—here in Chicago the Vietnamese would have been naturalized years ago, the African and the Middle Easterner would either be college professors or driving cabs, and the Mexican wouldn’t be on the street either because he’d be holding down a second minimum-wage job in somebody’s factory or kitchen. Besides, being here without papers, he’d never talk to a stranger.

Maybe that’s just Chicago—which, I noted, “has never been all that clear about who real Americans are.” In the southwest, where my old friends have congregated, categories might be more sharply drawn. But there was one other thing. In the joke the Americans were all hard at work while the foreigners loafed. The last time I’d looked over the conservative catechism, it held that foreigners had all the jobs and patriotic natives couldn’t feed their families.

Yet the joke had been nominated as best joke of the year and people I’m fond of had dubbed it a kneeslapper. Its humor obviously traveled on a wavelength I could not tune in. Out of curiosity I Googled the joke, hoping to locate a scholarly exegesis that would reveal its secrets. Google responded with more than 60,000 citations.

The joke’s been around a while. It tends to show up most often on websites that hold President Obama in low esteem, but the earliest citation I spotted was dated September 27, 2007, almost a year and a half before Obama took office. The joke read a little differently back then: The new immigrant was a Somali, and the Russian was the woman who checked her watch. But it was labeled “Best ‘Joke’ of the Year”; apparently every year it resurfaces it’s a contender.

In 2011 someone posted a British version (again introduced as “best joke of the year”). Again, the effusive foreigner was a Somali, who wandered around London looking for someone to thank for the free ride. He met a Mexican, a Pole, and a Russian; eventually an African lady gave him the what’s-what on where the actual Brits were. She “checks her watch and says . . . ‘Probably wapo kwa kazi mida hii (Probably at work).'”

I’m not vouching for the translation, but you have to respect any joke with a punch line in Swahili.

Here and there I’d spot signs of puzzlement. “This joke sounds like it was made up by a lazy American,” someone commented in response to a 2009 posting. A year later, and on another site, someone reacted, “What a sick joke! For all I know, the Russians, Poles, Mexicans, Pakistanis and definitely Africans are the ones at WORK!”

But these exchanges were infrequent, and I think of them as systemic imperfections that are being dealt with. Every year we run a smaller risk of online exposure to those who don’t think every opinion we express is shrewd and every joke we tell hilarious. As for the dinner table at home, the longtime venue for incredulous screaming matches, its time has all but completely passed. Cass Sunstein just told us that.