The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


February 19, 2014

Thomas Sabo | Beware the use of verbal irony

JOHNSTOWN — Ford Swigart would say, “See, I told you so.”

Swigart was a 1960s-era Pitt-Johnstown literature instructor. He served up a communication caution when he taught Jonathan Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal.”

Swigart said that the essay was effective because it was a brilliant use of verbal irony.  The danger, he said, of using verbal irony is the reader who doesn’t recognize it and takes the text literally.

The subject of Swift’s essay was Ireland of his day and the problems the country was having with kids running rampant, overpopulation and poverty. A contributing factor to the problems was absentee landlords in England.

Swift’s “modest” proposal was anything but: Ireland’s problems could be resolved if the women would produce even more babies, but then sell them to the rich in England and the barbarians in America where the babies could be cut up and sold as gourmet food.

The idea is so absurd, Swigart said, that no one should take it literally. But, he wondered out loud, how many people fail to recognize verbal irony when confronted by it?

To find out, he updated Swift’s essay and had it printed in the newspaper, using his name, not Swift’s.

At first, Swigart was not surprised by the calls; callers were saying he was nuts. Some, however, would stay on the phone to listen to his explanation of verbal irony.

Swigart’s attitude changed when a man called to say Swigart’s children should be killed first. The man hung up before Swigart could say a word of explanation.

I found Swigart’s story interesting. As a high school senior, I won a prom safety essay contest by writing that reckless teenage drivers should get drunk and kill themselves, thereby getting rid of people early who would be society problems in the future.

Contest judges said I won because of effective use of verbal irony.

But, remembering Swigart’s experiment, I do not use it when writing newspaper articles.

Who would think that combining a touch of satire with a subtle tongue-in-cheek approach would produce similar results?

Recently, I wrote an article concerning health hazards associated with smoking in a VFW. The first response to it was from a World War II veteran who called to thank me for writing it. He said he would like to go to the VFW, but smokers were keeping him out. I appreciated that, since it was for veterans like him that I wrote the article.

But then came an onslaught of responders who focused on the digression and, as Swigart had warned could happen, didn’t get it.

A digression is an idea discussed in an article that strays from the main point but expresses a connected thought.

A VFW by definition is Veterans of Foreign Wars. Why not use the name, I thought, to help take a swipe at the government’s ability to use words to make it seem that a war is not really a war.

For instance, on June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. When American troops became involved in the fighting, were they going to war?

In South Korea, the word does not apply. The period of fighting is called “6-2-5 Upheaval.”

In North Korea, however, our troops were at war. There, the battles are called “Fatherland Liberation War.”

What of the U.S.? Since our military was involved as part of the United Nations intervention and not a declared war, President Truman played the word game and labeled it “a police action.”

Satirically, I suggested the VFW, to stay current with the name game, should rename itself the VFW/PA.

A decade later, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, in a period of cold war between America and the Soviet Union, declared a need to keep America safe by containing the spread of Communism in Vietnam. Neither asked Congress for a declaration of war; American military

forces were supporting South Vietnam in a “conflict” between democracy and Communism.

To keep current, I implied tongue-in-cheek, VFW stationary should have updated to VFW/PA/C.

Following the 1941 date that will live in infamy, American military forces went to war to save the world from the Axis powers of Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini. Seventy years later, terrorists led a similar attack against the World Trade Center and American forces rallied again, but by then the word war had evolved to peacekeeping missions.

To keep current, old VFW stationary would be recycled, replaced by VFW/PA/C/PKM.

It almost seems as if the government owes the VFW an apology for inconvenience.

Regardless of the label, Americans have always risen to answer the call of patriotic duty. A war by that word or any other name produces national heroes, including Nathan Hale, Alvin York, Audie Murphy and Jessica Lynch. For all involved, the duty becomes, as Murphy labeled it, a journey “To Hell and Back.”

My own military career began in the midst of the Vietnam conflict and lasted through Desert Storm.  Although I did not see battlefield action, I have friends who did.

Because of my satirical discussion of war words, there are some who think I don’t honor my contemporaries’ service and suggested that veterans who fought under a government-applied word other than war should not be allowed membership in a VFW.

They somehow got lost in the forest of satire and came out on the wrong path.

Swigart would say, “I told you so.”

Thomas A. Sabo of Johnstown is a former newsman and former English teacher in the Westmont Hilltop district.

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