Off the Record: If you have to explain it…

E.B. White, the noted American essayist, author, humorist and poet once said, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.”

I feel sympathy for Lee Zion, the editor and publisher of the Lafayette-Nicollet Ledger, who has spent the last couple of weeks trying to explain the point of his March 7 editorial, entitled, “As for me, I like Option Number 2 better.”

Zion’s editorial examines the issue of America’s declining population growth rate. He points out a recent report by the National Center for Health Statistics which shows the nation’s fertility rate is below the “replacement rate.” We’re not having enough babies to replace the old folks who are dying.

A lot of conservative commentators are very concerned that we’re going to wind up like Germany or other European countries with low birth rates, where immigrants, especially Middle Eastern and Muslim immigrants, are moving in and changing the culture. They see an America in the not too distant future where us “traditional” Americans (that is to say, white) are in the minority, overtaken by immigrants, legal or otherwise, from south of the border who come north and have a bunch of kids.

Zion’s take on the issue is that there are two solutions to this issue of declining population. Option number one: We can embrace immigrants and all the energy and new ideas they bring with them.

Option Number Two (and here’s where the need to explain comes in): All women of child-bearing years can have sex with him. The resulting kids may all need glasses, he warns, and will be prone to writing annoying essays, but they will be white.

Now, to the right audience, this is a stinging piece of political satire, hearkening back to the great Irish essayist and author, Jonathan Swift and his classic 1729 essay, “A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick.”

In his essay, Swift starts out by explaining the plight of the poor in Ireland, where desititute mothers littered the roadways and streets, begging for alms to support their starving broods of children who were destined to grow up to be beggars, thieves, criminals, or emigrants to Spain where the boys might join in the Spanish military and come back to fight against England.

Swift proposes, instead, that young children, at about a year old, could be sold as food for the wealthy aristocrats and nobility in England.

“I have been assured … that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragout,” Swift writes.

Now, Swift is not seriously suggesting that Irish babies be sold to be eaten by English nobility. He is instead offering a stunning rebuke to those in power who refused to take responsible action to alleviate the suffering of the poor, and who refused to even regard the Irish people as anything but sub-humans.

In the same way, Zion was not seriously suggesting that he be put in charge of fathering a new generation of Americans. But the essay has inflamed many of his readers, who think he is sick, perverted, and a danger to their children.

He has been savaged in Facebook comments, many of which he published in this week’s paper. (He also published comments that defend him as well.)

Parents took their complaints to the Nicollet School Board, which responded by making the Mankato Free Press its official paper. The Nicollet School District’s minutes and officials announcements will be published in the Free Press, and not the Ledger. This is a big financial hit to a small newspaper.

We’re sure the Ledger has lost subscribers and maybe even advertisers over the issue.

Zion writes this week that when an editor or reporter becomes the news, instead of reporting the news, “it’s usually a sign that something went badly wrong, and this is perfect proof.”

I’m sure Zion will be apologizing and explaining for quite some time. I recognize and appreciate his ambition in writing this essay, but I understand the outrage, too. I am a great admirer of Jonathan Swift, but I should point out that when Swift first wrote his “Modest Proposal,” it was published and distributed anonymously. It might have saved Zion some heat if he could have done the same.


Kevin Sweeney has been the managing editor of The Journal since May 1985. A native of St. Paul, he worked at newspapers in LeSueur and Albert Lea before moving to New Ulm. Contact him at