What Would Swift Do?

My argumentative writing students are currently working their creative mojos on a rhetorical analysis assignment that asks them to break down a political cartoon of their choice. Just a couple of weeks ago we wrapped a unit on classical rhetoric, in which Jonathan Swift’s infamous “A Modest Proposal” served as a capstone. One student made the insightful point that if Swift were alive today, he might very well be a political cartoonist.

So when I saw this flap at the Washington Post regarding a recent Tom Toles cartoon, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, knowing the student was obviously on to something. When the Joint Chiefs of Staff mail in an angry letter in response to a political cartoon, clearly the rhetorician has struck a nerve at the highest levels of power. Toles’ use of pathos is so exacting and effective here, the generals simply can’t help themselves but to pen an emotional missive, and in doing so clearly missing Toles’ central argument. Their assertion that Toles’ cartoon “make[s] light” of the depicted quadripilegic soldier’s “tremendous physical sacrifices” is certainly the honest, gut response of career military men, and should be respected as such; however, it’s fairly obvious that it’s “Dr. Rumsfeld” being made light of here, not the dismembered soldier in the hospital bed.

Swift uses somewhat similar misdirection in his Juvenalian “Proposal,” which of course famously advocates raising the poor, papist children of Ireland and literally serving them up as a feast to their English occupiers/overlords. Just as Toles uses the pathetic image of the soldier to grab our attention in his cartoon, Swift also draws our attention by using pathetic imagery of flaying the carcasses of Irish toddlers after roasting or stewing the meat in a fricasee or a ragout. Undoubtedly, Toles’ soldier and Swift’s dinner menu represent terrible moments, and even more awful ideas; this is, of course, precisely why they are used.

And that’s a big part of why rendering a literal interpretation of these two texts is particularly dangerous. Toles and Swift want us to consider these pathetic images carefully, because there is a larger context to think about: namely, just how did we get to the point where we have to be confronted with images like this? In other words, what problems underlie these terrible images? And, ultimately, what can we do to ensure we don’t see soldiers losing limbs and children being sold for food?

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