With globalization, our whole economic world has been turned upside down. It seems so has our ethnic humor.
While one could say that making fun of another is not funny, nonetheless we seem to do a lot of it. And the targets of our not-so-humorous jokes have changed along with the world. Remember in the '60s we Americans used to snicker about trinkets and other simple toys that had the label "Made in Japan"? Then in rebuilding its whole industrial base, destroyed in World War II, the Japanese embraced the quality-improvement teachings of a relatively unknown American professor of statistics, Edwards Deming.
Deming had ironically worked to see to it that the U.S. arsenal of freedom was mighty enough to crush the Japanese war machine. Then the conquered requested help from the conquerors to rebuild their country. Deming taught quality, and the Japanese listened. Now in the United States we see the results: Lexus, Sony, Canon and Honda. You name any electronic component, automobile or TV and there is no U.S. company that matches the quality of the Japanese. Who is snickering now?
Our national ethnic jokes switched to Europe and some of the second-world countries behind the Iron Curtain. Who knows why Poland was the target; perhaps other countries had the same gag line. Then came Solidarity, Lech Walesa, a common electrician climbing the gates of the Ganske shipyards, and Pope John Paul II and the laughing stopped. We all wanted to be as noble and fearless as the Poles.
We looked down upon the Vietnamese, calling them "gooks," and look who escaped in helicopters with panicked men and women hanging on for dear life. The Chinese were always the Red Chinese. They were not the mass producers of everything sold at Wal-Mart. Now they own us with a trade deficit so lopsided it is altering the spin of the Earth.
Flash forward to today. The Japanese make better cars and lead in hybrid technology. The Europeans have created a currency among many members of the EU that is more sought-after than the greenback. The Chinese outsell us, and the Arabs are suppliers of our energy addiction. Who is the superpower now?
Lastly, there were the old jokes about the lazy Mexicans. Looking around our homes, restaurants and construction sites it seems they are the only ones working. Who is lazy as our children prop up their feet and play video games?
So the world is changing. I only hope we are. Humor has many different purposes. We express our fears in jokes as much as we show our disdain. We display arrogance and ignorance at the same time. We laugh because we are nervous but also because we are confident.
Some of the funniest stories, however, are the ones we can tell about ourselves. When we can do that, then we can increase our confidence and decrease our arrogance.
When we find ourselves ready to share a disparaging word, maybe we can think about our home on the range and not let one be heard. If there are others who seem to like to pick on a country and its people you might remind them about their shirts, cars, TVs and oil.One can only wonder if we and our leaders had been telling fewer jokes and had taken the rest of the world seriously we wouldn't be in the bind we are today. If Detroit had listened to Deming, we would not be dumping our American cars for the fuel-efficient foreign brands. If we hadn't belittled other peoples, perhaps we would still be leading the world morally, not just militarily, and would not be the first in ridicule.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.