CSotD: Good News, but with footnotes

Ann Telnaes notes some bad news coming out of Afghanistan, as the Taliban shows how empty its promises of respecting women turned out to be.

She does well to point out the dismal situation, but there’s a question as to whether it qualifies as news, since it seems to fall under the category of “What did you expect?”

As noted here before, we are in a situation in which we need to cooperate with Afghanistan’s new leaders in the interests of evacuating as many additional people as we can, but that doesn’t require trusting them and it sure doesn’t require liking them.

I’ve been reading Lady Florentia Sale’s journal of the disastrous British retreat and hostage captivity in 1842, and what strikes me — aside from her calm acceptance that they could be killed at any moment — is the constant back-and-forth of promises made, promises broken, alliances forged, alliances broken among the Afghan warlords.

She knew their lives were balanced on tribal loyalties that shifted with the wind, and it’s galling that our own military leaders, 175 years later, didn’t have her grasp of reality.

The difference, I suppose, being that she was there, under gunfire, hunger and threats of execution, not weaving her viewpoint from a comfortable seat on the other side of the globe.

So Telnaes is right to be dismayed, but, again, there’s little justification in being surprised. As the late philosopher Dennis Green said, “They are who we thought they were.”

Meanwhile, with more than half the country not even born in 1975, we’ve got people who don’t know Saigon from Cincinnati prattling on about “another Vietnam,” when the rush to evacuate there came two years, not two weeks, after the last American troops had been withdrawn.

Even with two years to watch the collapse of the South Vietnamese government and decide if they wanted to stay or go, the ending was still panicked and chaotic, because that’s how wars end.

The chaos in Afghanistan is no more surprising than the endgame in Vietnam or in Berlin, where my father helped deal with the inmates of Dachau and a host of displaced Polish slave laborers, which was, in turn, better than the aftermath of our own Revolution, when we marched 6,000 British and Hessian POWs up and down the East Coast while we tried to figure out what to do with them.


In such times, you take what good news you can find, and Cartoon Movement reports that Afghani cartoonist Hossein Rezaei — who drew the above image of women who support the Taliban — managed, barely, to make one of the last planes out of the country.

If you need some good news, click on that link, but be aware that even good news has its limitations, and many details of his personal life and family have been withheld in order to keep them safe.

War remains Hell, even in its best moments.


If you’d like some more unadulterated good news, look to York, Pennsylvania, where, as Brad Meltzer reported on Facebook and the York Dispatch explained in depth, the sane, decent parents and children rose up against their lunatic white supremacist neighbors and persuaded their school board to rescind a ludicrous, overtly racist ban on books by and about minorities.

It’s a battle won and it seems likely to confirm that, while York will continue to make dumb bells in their famous factory they will stop trying to turn them out in their schools.

But, even there, it’s one victory in a continuing war against ignorance and paranoia, a trend being fostered and encouraged throughout the country, in which conservatives have learned that winning seats on school boards and city councils can chip away the supports of a free nation.

As Will Bunch wrote

Keep your eyes on the prize. This war isn’t over.


And, by the way, making books available isn’t the same as actually reading them.

Mannequin on the Moon (AMS), by activist-cartoonist Pia Guerra and New Yorker cartoonist Ian Boothby is normally a smart piece, but this misfire reminded me of a column I wrote years ago and have cited often as proof that people don’t read the books they praise.

I’m surprised I didn’t include Gulliver in that list of praised-but-unread classics, since it often turns up on lists of books children should read, even though the 18th century prose and Swift’s combination of philosophy and satire are far beyond the grasp of even bright kids. (My college classics seminar saved it for senior year.)

And the portion in Lilliput is only the first of his travels, while being tied down on the beach is only the opening of that initial adventure.

I wonder how many of the people who recommend it for children got as far as the part where Gulliver extinguishes a fire in the Queen’s chambers by pissing on it?

In any case, anyone who actually read it would get the satire in two countries going to war over whether soft-boiled eggs should be broken at the big end or the small end.

Point being that making books available is only Step One.

Step Two is reading them.


Juxtaposition of the Day

(John Branch – KFS)


(Marc Murphy)

Branch gets credit here for tying the cruelty towards refugees with the cruelty towards women in the Lone Star State, but Murphy is more accurate in pointing out that the perpetrators of the assault were feds, not state employees.

If there is any good news in this bizarre event, it is that the Biden administration will now likely be forced to confront its maintenance of the cruel excesses it inherited from Trump, a racist cabal whose advisors made no attempt to hide their white supremacist leanings and their beliefs that immigrants from “shithole countries” posed a threat to their majority at the polls.

Which optimistic hope seems very much like the little boy sorting through a pile of horse manure because there surely must be a pony in there somewhere.

The appalling actions of the Border Patrol are reminiscent of a disastrous 1999 Super Bowl ad that was condemned as spectacularly racist and ultimately drove the company into bankruptcy.

Wonder how that attitude will play out in 2021?


8 thoughts on “CSotD: Good News, but with footnotes

  1. I’m not sure if I’ve read all of Gulliver’s Travels or not. I’m pretty sure the book I used to have (gift from Grandma) was an incomplete version, confected for kiddie sensibilities. I’ve dipped into it since then, but never sat down with the complete one until I made a recognizably complete traversal.

    So instead, I rely upon the animated Fleischer version, which had zippy songs and boffo yoks from Gabby the Town Crier. ALL’S WELLLL!

  2. Lillitput and Brobdingnag are pretty straight forward, as is the Land of the Houyhnhnms (and yahoos), but that third voyage had us — students who had read Aristotle and Aquinas — going, “Okay, slow down a minute, Lem …”

  3. In some ways, reading Gulliver’s Travels is a bit like reading Dante’s inferno – more than half of the challenge of understanding it depends on knowing certain newsy specifics from the day. Whereas a contemporary reader might say “I see what you did there,” a modern reader is at a loss without explanatory footnotes.

    Case in point would be Stephan Pastis’ coup arc from Pearls Before Swine. The events it depicted were intended as satire, not prophecy. Well WE all know what happened because we follow news, and we follow cartoon news, but when it finally ran, lots of readers were puzzled that Pastis would write that about Biden and needed explanation about the unfortunate alignment of that story’s original planned run date with the events of January 6th.

    Imagine the amount of supporting material it would need in a comics anthology published 30 years hence, and you see what the modern reader is up against with Swift or Dante.

  4. Some books are beyond understanding without you have read all the background materials. I read Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood once a year and I’ve given up hope of understanding it all, mostly because I’m not well-versed in mediaeval Catholicism.

  5. There is much to be said for annotated versions.
    Lord knows I wouldn’t have enjoyed Lewis Carroll’s Alice books half as much if I had read them unannotated.

  6. I think Gulliver and the roughly-contemporaneous Candide stand by themselves well, though footnotes could explain how particular bits fit into the world of that time. But they’re wonderful because you don’t necessarily need to know those things.

    For example, Pangloss is funnier if you have read Leibniz, but a footnote pointing out the parallel would simply be trivia. Similarly, knowing about the Lisbon earthquake and the various wars adds shading to Candide’s adventures, but the story stands alone.

    By comparison, I agree with Rich Furman that you need to know who Dante is consigning to the various circles of Hell or you miss half the meaning.

    Ditto with Swift — it’s fun to know he’s poking at such-and-such a person, but the satire is broad enough that you can enjoy it by applying the sarcasm to our own system. Which I guess says something about the futility even of brilliant, popular satire.

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