When is prejudice funny?

Is Letterman really allowed to make “senile-old-man” jokes at John McCain’s expense?

If David Letterman used crude anti-black stereotypes to make fun of Barack Obama, or crude misogynist stereotypes to make fun of Hillary Clinton &#8212 “Barack Obama looks like a guy who just figured out a sure-fire way to steal a watermelon,” or “Hillary Clinton looks like a nun who’s about to rap your knuckles with a ruler” &#8212 he’d be taking either a short involuntary vacation or early retirement.

So why is it OK for Letterman to use use old-man stereotypes &#8212 “John McCain looks like the kind of guy whose new denture adhesive allows him to eat corn on the cob” &#8212 to make fun of McCain ?

Yes, it’s important to be able to laugh about serious things, and yes, I find old-man jokes pretty funny, although &#8212 or perhaps because &#8212 I’m rapidly becoming one. But then, I have tenure. If I’d just been laid off and had to look for work, maybe I wouldn’t find the stereotypes so funny.

Thinking about the politics of it, the last thing Obama needs is stirring up resentment among the elderly. I hope the campaign against McCain is relentless. But it doesn’t have to be mean-spirited.

Update In response to reader emails:

Yes, there may be a genuine issue about McCain’s mental acuity, as there was about Reagan’s. All the better reason not to confuse it with generic “old guy” jokes.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com