Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told critics to “lighten up” after criticism of a tweet he posted poking fun at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who reportedly said he would like to be the first man from his country to travel into space. Iran has sent a monkey into space as part of a test to build toward a manned space flight.
“So Ahmadinejad wants to be first Iranian in space – wasn’t he just there last week?” McCain tweeted.
After catching flak for his comments, McCain responded, “Re: Iran space tweet – lighten up folks, can’t everyone take a joke?”
Well, no, actually not everyone can.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who is of Palestinian descent, suggested a different response.
“Maybe you should wisen up & not make racist jokes,” Amash tweeted.
It is one thing to hear someone tell a politically incorrect joke at the office or a company party, when you can just walk away. But when you have nearly 1.8 million followers on Twitter, an impulsive or insensitive remark can have much greater impact, for better or worse.
What seems like innocuous humor to some Americans can cause someone from another culture to take offense. It is the need to take those differences into consideration on a world stage that separates statesmen from other elected officials.
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The Senate, for all intents and purposes, is considered the upper chamber of Congress, similar to the way the House of Lords differs from the House of Commons in England. Senators and lords are expected to display better judgment, restraint and diplomacy.
McCain wasn’t sitting around in a clubby atmosphere with a few colleagues telling an off-color joke. He told it to the world, elevating it from a cheeky little aside to something that potentially has far more gravitas in a part of the world that suspects America and its leaders of arrogance and ill-intent.
It’s not McCain’s first time making a joke at Iran’s expense.
At a campaign stop in South Carolina during the 2008 presidential campaign, McCain stirred reaction when he repeated “Bomb Iran,” to the tune of the Beach Boys song “Barbara Ann.”
Certainly, McCain found support Monday from some fellow tweeters who thought the reaction was much ado about nothing. Still others, though, thought the remarks were stupid at best and incendiary at worst.
The joke, for many, was mean-spirited in the same way that former President George H.W. Bush used to refer to former Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega as “a little man,” clearly intending the double entendre as much as a reference to Ortega’s height.
McCain saw a quick opportunity to get a dig in at Ahmadinejad’s expense without thinking that any slight, real or imagined, may well make it more difficult for the U.S. to engage Iran about nuclear weapons, democracy and a host of other issues.
Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”