As a joke, there's nothing funny about it.
But as a teaching tool, Duke Professor Lorand Matory has long found value in a terribly off-color, anti-Semitic joke he was once told by a German friend.
And so Matory, a cultural anthropologist and chair of Duke's African and African American Studies department, thought nothing of recounting the joke, which he prefaced properly and condemned after the fact, during a recent live interview on the university's website.
Duke University photo
The interview was part of Duke's Office Hours feature, an online talk show that features faculty members and invites live viewer e-mail comments and questions. The interviews are then archived for viewing on Duke's website.
This week, two people who watched the video took umbrage with the joke Matory and complained to his dean, George McClendon.
McClendon didn't share the concerns expressed by the two critics, but passed them along to Matory with one warning: In the Internet era, your words, no matter how genuine or innocent, could be used against you.
So five days after the 59-minute conversation was recorded, it was removed at Matory's request.
"People with more expertise than I with Internet scandals were very concerned that someone could cut and paste and make it look like I was telling a joke," Matory said Friday.
Though the video was still unavailable Friday on the Duke website, Matory and a university administrator allowed the News & Observer to view it. It may eventually be re-posted, they said.
The joke, a reference to the holocaust, won't be repeated here. Here's how it came about. During Matory's wide-ranging interview, he spoke of the importance of seeing differing points of view, even the most abhorrent. The joke, he said, was an example of doing just that.
He prefaced the joke by saying "I even assume that my worst enemy has a perspective I'll benefit from understanding." He then told the joke, and after the punch line, added that "They couldn't understand my sense of moral outrage."
It was not Matory's joke, and he clearly found no amusement in it. Though he laughed at the punch line, he did so in imitation of the German joke-teller's cackle. That too was clear.
To Matory, who studies cultures and perspectives for a living, the joke is telling because it suggests that Germans, at least those telling the joke, don't view the Nazi movement as evil - as much of the rest of the world does, Matory said Friday. It was one of just several stories and anecdotes he used during the office hours interview; he has also used it in class several times in the past with no complaints, he said.
Matory is an expert in the cultures and societies of West Africa, Latin America and ethnic diversity in black North America. Prior to coming to Duke, he spent 18 years at Harvard and while there was reportedly an outspoken critic of now-former Harvard President Lawrence Summers.
He spoke out about what he considered a pro-Israel bias at Harvard, "condemning Summers for saying that professors calling for a divestiture of Israel were 'anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intent," according to the Harvard Crimson, the school newspaper.
McClendon, dean of Duke's Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, said Friday he disagreed with the views expressed in the two e-mails critical of Matory's use of the joke. (Four other e-mailers were complimentary).
"They may have been the only two people in the university not to pick up on the contextualization," he said. "But if two reasonable people simply missed the context, I wanted to let Professor Matory know some other people were going to miss the context."