A Modest Proposal: The Scary Part

To me the most disturbing part of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is not eating babies. Sadly, the most frightening part is that 237 years after Swift penned his pamphlet we still haven’t found a way to deal with the issue of poverty. More so than that, we are fighting the exact same ideas that have proven time and again they don’t work. Swift’s work is not only powerful within the context of 18th Century Ireland but to 21st Century United States as well. In fact, Swift’s pamphlet is so relevant to modern American politics that it is frightening.

    A report came out recently that US citizens living abroad are giving up their citizenship in anticipation of a tax hike. One of Swift’s actual proposals included taxing absentees. Currently, the US does tax its absentee citizens but as with the rest of the tax code it is full of loopholes. Many will argue against a citizen paying US taxes when they are not living and working in the US. Here’s the thing. If you maintain a US citizenship, even if you have spent the past 20 years living in Switzerland, you have the right to vote in US elections. So, a person doesn’t live in the US, doesn’t work in the US, doesn’t contribute to the community and economy of the US, and doesn’t want to pay US taxes, but they want to vote in our elections. I get it. You are, technically, a citizen. But how can you have a voice in what happens in a country you do not reside in? Just to be clear, these absentee taxes do not apply to those in the US military nor do they apply to our ambassadors and embassy staff around the world. They still pay taxes, but they only pay US taxes because they work for the US and are paid by the US.

Naturally, there are those who object to the taxation of absentee citizens. The objection is ‘forcing’ an absentee citizen to pay US taxes on money earned in a foreign country when they already pay taxes to that foreign country. However, corporations and private citizens have taken advantage of the tax rates of other nations to avoid paying US taxes. Millions are shuffled overseas and out of our economy each year. A US corporation, located in China, believes that since they pay Chinese taxes they shouldn’t have to pay US taxes. The American CEO of that corporation believes that since he pays Chinese taxes he shouldn’t pay US taxes. And the US allowed that to happen.

The problem is these corporations and individuals want the benefits of being a US citizen without actually having to be included in the system. They want to avoid our taxes and regulations, including human rights issues, yet still be able to vote in our elections. It shouldn’t work that way. If you want the benefit of being a US corporation you should have to pay US taxes. If you don’t want to pay taxes in two countries, perhaps you should consider bringing your ‘American’ business to America. Problem solved.

Sadly, a good portion of Americans don’t feel this way. They have been led to believe that it is an unfair policy and that liberals are just trying to punish those who make money and create jobs. The problem is, those jobs are not jobs for Americans and they do nothing to help our economy or unemployment. They aid another country. Perhaps it is a punishment of sorts. But if it is a punishment then it is because of the greed that causes CEO’s to move factories overseas. Taking jobs away from Americans because China’s government allows them to pay employees $0.35 an hour. It is a punishment for moving factories overseas to avoid EPA regulations that protect our environment. Essentially, it is this; if you don’t want to follow our laws, don’t want to employ Americans because we demand a livable wage, if you want to have what is essentially slave labor for your workforce, we are going to make you pay for it. This is not the government going after ‘job creators,’ but the government going after those trying to avoid our laws.

And this, though on a smaller scale, is what Swift was referring to when he talked about “taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound.” Though in 1729 it was more about absent land owners charging outrageous rents on their properties and then living in England to avoid paying Irish taxes. See, these corporations (and even a few citizens) want to make American money but not pay American taxes. This is not a boon to our economy but a drain. By avoiding these taxes corporations are essentially taking revenue away from our government. Revenue that could be used to pay down our national debt and repair our roads and bridges. Revenue that could be used to pay our armed services what they are worth.

Speaking of manufacturing, another point of Swift’s was that “of using neither cloaths, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury.” Swift’s argument was an economic one and it is an argument that we have been having in the US for the last 40 years. No longer does America produce goods such as furniture, clothing, computer components, automobiles, tools…the list could go on. Instead those jobs have been shipped overseas and we are now importing the goods we used to make. Once upon a time, items were proudly stamped ‘Made in the USA.’ Good luck finding that now. Odds are, the majority of what you own was produced in a third world country halfway across the globe.

Clothing is imported from Pakistan, China, Taiwan, India, Bangladesh, Israel, and about a dozen other countries in-between. That shirt you are wearing probably came from Asia. Right now, the United States is responsible for 21% of the world’s imports on clothing. Let’s break that down. Of all the clothing exports, from all over the world, the United States buys 21%. Stop and think about how many jobs it would create to cut our imports in half and make clothes right here. Imagine the boost to our economy. Why are we not making our own clothes?

The reason is the myth of ‘free trade.’ ‘Free trade’ is a trade policy that doesn’t apply tariffs to imports, subsidies to exports, or require quotas. Essentially, a regulation free trade policy. See, a few believe that unrestricted trade creates jobs and makes money, which it does. For a select few. ‘Free trade’ is the reason behind all the policies that allow our manufacturing jobs overseas. In fact, ‘free trade’ encourages this move. Manufacturing jobs created the middle class and ‘free trade’ destroyed it. Many of these other nations have trade restrictions. That means other nations limit what they buy from us but we buy from them as much as we want. This is supposedly ‘free trade.’ We import more than we export and also import more than we make. This is why our debt is so high. And the only people that benefit are those that control those trade routes. Say you run an import/export business. The last thing you want is a tariff (tax) on the thing you bring into the country. You also don’t want quotas, restrictions limiting how much you can import. These things cost you money. In the ‘free trade’ economy you are rolling in the dough. But the guy that used to make mother boards for Apple gets screwed because now Apple doesn’t have to pay an import tariff on goods it manufactures in other countries. So, not only does Apple get to reap the benefits of an unregulated employment market but they also get to avoid a number of taxes doing so.

Restrictions are not socialist nor are they communist. They are simply good business. If you create a business that buys more than it sells you won’t be in business very long. Yet that is exactly what we have done to our country in the interest of ‘free trade.’ We have increased our imports to the point that they are not only costing jobs but becoming a burden to our economy as well. Sadly, this is exactly the economic point Swift was making in 1729; “of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.” Basically, he is stating that corporations will look to cheat you in any way they can. In 1729, Swift argued to regulate business and trade in order to boost the economy and 237 years later many are still fooled that ‘trickle-down,’ ‘free trade’ economics works. That, my dears, is what we call a tragedy.

Along with Swift’s economical solutions he also presented a few social ones as well. “Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken.” This is probably the most important and most relevant of Swift’s proposals to today’s environment. We need to stop fighting among ourselves. Like today, in Ireland 1729 there were two factions of politics. Like today, those two factions did more fighting then problem solving. Swift cautioned that continuous infighting would weaken the nation, leaving it open not only to attack but also occupation. Swift was giving a historical lesson, pointing to the 70 CE sacking (and desecration) of Jerusalem and saying, “Look, this has happened before.” Given the tensions of Catholics and Protestants in Ireland to this day I am going to assume the advice was not heeded. But Swift was right. Fighting amongst ourselves: democrat/republican, liberal/conservative, Christian/agnostic weakens us as a nation. It leaves us open to attack from our enemies who want, more than anything, for us to be divided amongst ourselves. The reason why is simple. An America united is nearly impossible to beat. When we worked together (like we did during WWII) we not only helped defeat an oppressive regime, but we also created new goods and technologies that expanded the quality of life and prosperity throughout the world. That isn’t happening anymore and it should be.

The fact that I can even look at a 237 year old document and make valid comparisons to our society and political climate proves we have some work to do. We have tried the ‘trickle down’ way, let’s see what happens if we tried it Swift’s way. Just once. Our faults as human beings, as a collective society, are the reasons that classic works should be taught. They show us a picture of the past that we can compare to our own and say, “Something isn’t right.” It may have been written two centuries ago, but A Modest Proposal proves that humans really don’t change all that much. Sure we have better technology and figured out slavery is a bad thing (something that only took us about 8000 years to figure out), but there are places where we are still lacking. Holding an economic perspective from the 18th Century is one of them. Works like Swift’s need to be taught in the hopes that a generation will come along that will understand the flaws of the past and seek to keep them from becoming flaws of the future. If politicians of today want to solve America’s economic and employment woes they need look no further than to a document that predates even our own constitution. Sad, but true.

Swift teaches a lesson that can stand the test of time because it is universal. Treat people with kindness and respect, have sympathy for their plight, and do what you can to care for them lest someone comes along and thinks it is okay to eat their babies. After all, it’s not like they are real people. Extreme, yes, but sometimes people need to be slapped upside the head with a notion so utterly appalling that they begin to rethink their viewpoint.     

Just think, if Swift’s ideas had been applied to US racial tensions, how many people would not have been murdered simply for the color of their skin because someone, somewhere thought it was ok. After all, it’s not like they were human. Or more recently, would victims like Matthew Shepard still be with us had someone, somewhere not thought it was ok to kill a gay man…because it’s not like he was human.

Swift’s essay is brilliantly satiric and at times hilarious in its irony. Yet it is also a morose tale about human behavior. How cruel it is and how little it changes. A Modest Proposal is relevant today not because politics sucks, but because humans still have a tendency to hate and dehumanize what they don’t understand. What is different. In America, a country of immigrants, a country full of, ‘other’ Swift’s lesson is one that is vital to our survival as a society.

A Modest Proposal: Analysis

In 1729, Jonathan Swift anonymously published what would become one of the greatest satirical writings of all time. In less than 3500 words Jonathan Swift captured people’s minds, hearts and imaginations with ‘A Modest Proposal.’ Swift was a Methodist preacher and was fairly outspoken on his position of the Irish poor and the treatment of them; as well as, the treatment of the English to the Irish in general. His writing addressed the situation of poverty in Ireland.

Swift opens his ‘Proposal‘ with a tone that can best be described as insultingly sympathetic, derogatory, and superior. Keep in mind that Swift wrote this 284 years ago…spelling and grammar has changed since then. Though not necessarily for the better.

“It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in stroling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants…”

This is our introduction to the ‘proposer.’ He keeps his tone in a way that seem as though he is sympathetic but in such a snooty way it comes across as derogatory. Kind of a: “Oh, those poor helpless people. Such a shame they aren’t smart enough to not be poor. Someone should do something.” Or like: “Can restraint be taught? Teenage mothers [shouldn’t] get public assistance unless they jump through some pretty small hoops. Making them live in group homes makes sense. A lot of these girls didn’t have fathers or full-time parents. But there are people-I think we can call them saints-who dedicate their lives to helping kids like this. Whoever they are, and whether they work out of a church, a temple, or some kind of public facility, they deserve all our support.” This was the tone Swift set up. Someone who apparently wanted to help the ‘poor souls’ but would do so in such a disparaging way. Source: The America We Deserve, by Donald Trump, p.107-8 , Jul 2, 2000

Keep in mind, the ‘proposer’ is a character that Swift is portraying. These are not Swift’s actual thoughts and ideas. In speaking through a ‘proposer,’ Swift is able to use sarcasm and satire in order to make his point. With a healthy dose of irony thrown into the mix for fun. Swift needed the anonymity because his stance on poverty was very well-known. By speaking through a character Swift was able to sound like his opposition. Suck them in. Get them to agree with him…until they don’t. He needed a character because he wanted his opposition to hear what they sounded like from his perspective. Swift is not just passionate about poverty in Ireland he is downright angry about it. His anger comes across in the sarcasm. The ‘proposer,’ is someone whom people can love to hate. A top-notch jerk. For sake of clarity, the ‘proposer’ will hereafter be referred to as ‘Jack.’

Jack is someone who is annoyingly superior. Taking the role of someone who is all-knowing and never wrong. “…whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation,” as he states in paragraph two. Something needs to be done and by golly, if someone could find the solution they should be knighted and have a large ostentatious statue in town square. Honored by the people for all time. Guess who has such an idea.

So by paragraph three, Jack has effectively established his opinions of the poor in Ireland. Jack has an idea, and not only will it help the poor starving children but also “those who demand our charity in the streets.” Paragraph four is so horribly cold and calculating that one could forget Jack was actually referring to human beings. He mentions that he has spent years pondering the subject…then he callously calculates how much a child costs in its first year of life. “…they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and partly to the cloathing of many thousands.” Here, Jack is referring to the poor Irish children and how, through his plan, cease to be a burden on society. This is a foreshadowing of Jack’s proposal, which will come in a few more paragraphs.

Jack is making himself out to be a superior statistician and economist. He’s building to his point by making the reader aware of how large the problem is. Furthermore, Jack states that his ‘scheme’ will

“…will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expence than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.”

Apparently, in 18th Century Ireland abortion was an issue as well. Not only is Jack able to solve the problem with the poor but he is able to solve the problem of abortion as well. What a guy! Able to solve all the world’s problems in one simple solution. He even takes the time in paragraph six to crunch the numbers himself. This way he can go, “See, it’s all right there. I have done all the work, all you have to do is implement solution.”

“I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old, is no saleable commodity…” Now is where we start to turn. After detailing in the previous paragraph the cost associated with child rearing Jack makes the point that selling children into slavery is not an option because it is not cost-effective. Wait, what?! By this point Swift should have your attention. Jack has actually considered slavery as a viable option to deal with the poverty problem. This is another little tell that what is to come is quite a doozy. If the guy can actually, consider slavery then what in the world could his solution be.

Paragraph eight. Short, simple and sweet. Probably one of the most sarcastic and ironic lines ever written. “I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.” There has been nothing humble about Jack. If anything, he used the first two pages to show off his knowledge and intelligence. He has been horribly superior and does not hesitate to point out the flaws of others. He continues the statement to point out that he feels there is no way people should object to his proposition. Given what he reveals his proposition to be in the very next paragraph, this last bit is so sarcastic one cannot help but laugh.

Now is the time for shock and awe. Paragraph nine, the proposal itself.

“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, 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 ragoust.”.

By this point, even if you came in knowing nothing, you should have figured out that this is not a serious piece. Though if you took it seriously you are not alone…so did the Queen of England.

A bit more about this paragraph, it is important to note that the information about the wonderful taste of children was made by an American. This is where the pre-Revolution context kicks in. America too, was a British colony and despite how pathetic, heretic, and barbaric the English thought the Irish were it is nothing compared to how they felt about Americans. Jack needed to have a source of information that was believable. The source would never have been English, too distinguished for that. The source could also not be Irish because no one is going to believe a group of people would recommend eating their own young. But an American…yeah, I’ll buy that. This is also the reason why Swift published anonymously. But not for why you would think.

Swift was not worried that people might actually think he would eat babies but instead worried that they wouldn’t take the piece seriously. Swift was very outspoken on the treatment of the Irish poor. No one would ever buy Swift speaking like the ‘proposer’ and they would never believe that he would come up with that solution.

Now, if you remember a couple of articles back I told you to keep Stephen Colbert in mind. This is why. Swift is writing as a character…our Jack. An outrageously contemptuous character whose views are so farfetched and crazy that no sane person would ever take him seriously. Like Colbert. Colbert plays a character so right-wing it is ridiculous. And that is their point. Neither Swift nor Colbert mean what they’re saying. They are the exact opposite of the characters they present and that is the irony. So, if it helps, just continue to read Swift as though he is Stephen Colbert. If you do it in his voice it becomes really, really funny.

I have this image of Swift. Sitting at his desk, building to his climax. He has created a disgustingly superior character. A character that sounds like his opposition. He gets to the moment where he is supposed to reveal his plan. He sits back and thinks, “Shit! Okay, what is the most offensive thing that I can have this asshole propose that idiots cannot possibly take seriously?” He runs his fingers through his hair, yanking at it in frustration. Suddenly, he throws his hands in the air in a ‘eureka’ moment, he shouts, “Eating babies!” Immediately, he gets back to work. Now, I have no idea if this is how it happened but I really like the idea of Swift struggling with the question. Then a victorious snap of the fingers and we have…eating babies. Writer level: epic.

Now, back to the piece. With some distasteful reasoning, Jack determines how many we should set aside for breeding and the number of meals he reasons a small child should make. Even being so gracious as to denote the number of breeding females allowed is more than is given to livestock. From here on Jack will continuously make the comparison between the two. He is just beginning to dehumanize them. Jack justifies this comparison given that poor children rarely are “the fruits of marriage.” To calculate poundage Jack averages, “that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds.” This is just a side point and has nothing to do with the analysis at hand but holy crap they had big babies back then. Now it seems a woman has to be cut open because a nine pound baby is too big to deliver. That is another post, on another blog but I find the statement amusing.

“…therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” SNAP!! Oh, damn! This is where Swift’s voice starts to come through. Horrifically sarcastic, Swift says that the landlords have taken everything from the parents, reducing them to this situation in the first place, that they might just as well eat their babies too. This comment, nestled against all the sarcasm and irony, is incredibly hard-hitting. Swift, not Jack, is pointing his finger at the landlords. Swift is more than insinuating the outrageous rents they charge Irish residents are to blame for the problem. This is him wagging his finger saying, “This is your fault.”

As though nothing has happened, Jack is back with some more proselytizing. “…it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us.” In a callous way, Jack assumes more babies are born in March so that will be a boom time in the market. He assumes more babies will be born in March because it is precisely nine months after Lent. Since fish aids in procreation and since all Catholics can manage to do is procreate lots of babies come in March. And since it is the dirty Catholics who can’t feed all those kids not only will this solve the poverty issue but…BONUS…it decreases the Catholic population as well. Swift is commenting, rather sharply, on the religious tensions in Ireland.

Jack has done the math and figures that one year of raising a child will cost “two shillings per annum, rags included.” Rags included is kind of a double entendre here…but without the sex. Jack is speaking of diapers but by using “rags” he diminishes the poor further. Then he figures the “carcass of a good fat child” would bring ten shillings at market. Thus, “the mother will have eight shillings neat profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.” A couple things here. First, Jack is insinuating that a woman with a child is not capable of work. On top of that, we get the feeling that Jack feels a poor woman is only good for working and breeding. But let us get to the most important phrase, “carcass of a good fat child.” The use of the word carcass brings up images of livestock. Jack is animalizing the children making them into a commodity. Pretty cold. Pretty effective on Swift’s part.

In paragraph 15, Jack goes even farther than referring to the children as carcasses. Their skin can also be useful for they “will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.” He furthers the horror, by suggesting that not only could the children be eaten but worn as well. Yuck! We have horror movies with this plot. People have been jailed, executed, and demonized for enacting the ‘solution’ Jack proposes. The total ‘ick’ feeling that comes with that is deliberate. Swift wanted to make sure the reader was really disturbed.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse comes paragraph 16. Here Jack suggests appointing ‘shambles’ to handle the slaughter. ‘Shambles’ is an area of the city where the butchers go about their business. Outside. The smell and associated mess of the butchers’ leftovers, usually tossed or drained right into the street, is why a giant mess is often referred to as a ‘shambles’. But that is not the most disturbing part. “I rather recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.” Once again Jack is animalizing the children by comparing them to pigs.
Not only that, he is also saying the children should be eaten immediately after slaughter. Because, you know, fresh child meat is the best.

Next, we are introduced to “a very worthy person,” who proposed an idea to Jack. Since deer had been overhunted, perhaps they could be replaced by twelve to fourteen year old children. Regarding the second ‘proposal’ Jack very politely dismisses that idea. Jack’s ‘American acquaintance’ has told him that the meat is too tough and lean in young boys. As far as the girls are concerned, Jack thinks “with humble submission” that they would be a loss as they could soon become breeders. So, no hunting children because their meat sucks and it would negatively affect the breeding program. Pretty heartless. We also continue the theme of Jack making not only the animal comparison but also the idea that Jack is very ‘humbly’ proposing these solutions. It should also be noted that Jack knows about poor meat quality of adolescent males from the savage American. Wow, people must have thought very highly of Americans. However, the primary reason Jack turns down the idea is this:

    “And besides, it is not improbable that some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice, (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon cruelty, which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest objection against any project, how well soever intended.”

Apparently, Jack feels that some may object to this practice (though not of skinning children). His aside is probably the best. (although indeed very unjustly) This tells us two things. First, that Jack finds no moral objection to this idea. Second, this addresses the criticism of the opposition. Regardless of the political viewpoint each side accuses the other of ‘unjust’ moral objections. Funny how some things never change.

However, the most important take away is this: “which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest objection against any project, how well soever intended.” Swift is coming through again. This means, regardless of the intention, some ideas border or cross the lines of cruelty. This is Swift’s objection. Basically, Swift is saying to his opposition, “Look, as cruel and ridiculous you find this idea, that is how I feel about your solutions. This is how you sound to me.” It’s kind of pointing out, “Do you really want to be this guy?”

Naturally though, Jack cannot have a ‘friend’ who holds such an opinion as hunting adolescents. The excuse is, it’s not his friends fault. See, once there was this islander…do you see where I am going with this? Once again the blame for the idea gets shoved off on some ‘savage’ from some far off place. Only, instead of America it is Taiwan (Formosa in the text) and it is the Chinese (mandarins) who eat children. Savage beasts.

Paragraph 19 deals with possible objections to the proposal. Jack presumes that there are a despondent few who wonder what his plan will do about the “aged, diseased, or maimed.” How will he “ease the nation of so grievous an incumberance?” Jack’s response is one of the most heartless things he ever says. “But I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well-known, that they are every day dying, and rotting, by cold and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected.” In other words, they’ll all die off eventually.

The first thing that came to my mind when I read that line was Mitt Romney’s gaff about not being “concerned about the very poor” in the 2012 election. Now, I am not suggesting Gov. Romney ever insinuated or thought, “Meh, they’ll all die soon anyway.” What I am saying is, regardless of the intent the statement came off as being callous and cruel. This goes back to what Swift mentioned before about the perception of an idea despite the intentions. It is the “road to hell” argument. Despite the intention of the idea it is perceived as cruel. Jack does not set out to be cold and cruel; but to find a solution to poverty. (Ok, yes, Jack is fictional and Swift went out of his way to make him as callous as possible but work with me here.) His plan sucks but his intentions are very noble. I think the same could be said of Gov. Romney and many other modern politicians. Their intentions might indeed be very noble but instead their words and ideas come across as cold and callous. Swift is arguing that the ‘solution’ has to be placed in equal nobility to the intent, else the perception will cause it to be dead in the water. A little sad to think that 284 years later politics has changed so little.

But, I digress, and so did Jack. Now we come back to the initial proposal. “I think the advantages by the proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance.” A bit more of tooting his own ‘modest’ horn and Jack will spend the next several paragraphs illuminating the benefits of his plan.

The first bullet point is, of course, that the Catholics (Papists) would decrease in number. Since, “we are yearly over-run, being the principal breeders of the nation.” Again, playing off the religious tension. But this time Swift gains a voice, “our most dangerous enemies, and who stay at home on purpose with a design to deliver the kingdom to the Pretender.” Swift is criticizing the Irish. The poor he is fighting foor. He is saying, “What are you doing? How can you just sit there and let them do this to you? How can you be so complacent? Fight, damn you.” He is questioning not only their national pride but also their pride as human beings. Swift knew that some rules and practices were unfair to the Irish. But what was worse, at least in Swift’s mind (and mine to should anyone ask), was that he also knew the Irish knew they were being screwed over and yet did nothing about it. Swift perceived the Irish as just sitting there and taking it and that pissed him off. Swift hated the complacency. The Italian poet Date once wrote, “”The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” It was true for Swift then and it is true for us now.

Jack’s second point is the tenants will finally have something of value. Thus, they can “pay their landlord’s rent, their corn and cattle being already seized, and money a thing unknown.” Here Swift interjects himself again. Now he goes after the landlords. “Look, they have no money and you already lay claim to their crops and livestock. How much is enough?” Swift is practically beating them over their heads with words, screaming, “Your rents are too high!!!”

Plus, Jack argues, this marketable scheme will not only make us all richer but we shall also produce a solely Irish commodity. No imports are needed. All the money stays in Ireland. Swift is criticizing the lack of manufacturing in Ireland. How can people get jobs if there are no jobs to be had? How can we expect to create jobs when we import everything? Eerie, isn’t it. I think perhaps someone should have given this document to the candidates of the last election. Could have saved us all a lot of time and frustration.

But, wait, there’s more. Jack is back to point out that not only will the “constant breeders” make money, they also don’t have to worry about their kid after the first year. BONUS!! You get to enjoy all the fun happy baby stuff then sell them to slaughter before they can talk back. Then you get to do it all over again. Because every mother knows pregnancy and the first year are the easy parts. Honestly, who wants to keep them around longer anyway? Yes, that is sarcasm…and irony.

But we can’t forget the taverns. People will be knocking each other over to get into the doors. Owners will have to hunt for the best recipes. This creates competition and competition will drive up the economy. A great chef could make bank. Sometimes, I do wonder if Jack was referring to his own time or ours. Sad how the arguments continue to replay themselves.

Jack’s next argument is, by far, the most ridiculous and callous. What a reason to get married this is! And moms would be so much kinder to their children (because they only have them for a year). Instead of being an expense to the public they could turn a profit. Heck, “We should soon see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market.” I mean, mothers love to pit themselves against each other anyway, right? Hell, men would actually “become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal” and because of this they will also not “beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.” Simmer down ladies. Yeah, this one is pretty harsh. So, women can now be compared to breeding horses. The animalizing continues. This plan is so good it will even reduce domestic violence. Damn, look at all the problems eating babies solves.

Now, paragraph twenty-seven. By far, the best benefit to baby eating. Roast is damned tasty. Since babies are good roasted we can sell the beef for profit. Also, if we roast babies we don’t have to roast pigs. If we don’t have to roast pigs we can make more…BACON!! Yes, ladies and gentleman, Jack is stating one of the benefits of eating babies is we can have more bacon. Now, if there was ever a reason to eat babies this would be it. I mean, who is going to turn down more bacon? Seems that even in 1729 bacon was awesome!

There are, of course, many other advantages but since Jack is “studious of brevity” he must omit a few. Ah, irony. At no point is Jack brief. We are already 2500 words in. Another point for ‘modesty’ here and another reference that ‘Jack’ does not exist. The best part is, in the next paragraph, but for the sake of brevity, Jack points out that babies would do well to be served at auspicious gatherings…like weddings and christenings. Wait, what? Now that is irony. Go to a baby’s baptism (a celebration of a child becoming part of Christ’s family) where the main dish is…baby. That’s not just ironic, that’s creepy.

Paragraph twenty-nine is the single most important paragraph in the entire piece. As it begins, “I can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal.” Again, we have Jack stating that his ‘modest proposal’ is so good that you simply cannot argue with it. Though he does point out that his solution will only work in Ireland. “Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: (those who claim residence in Ireland but live in another country) Of using neither cloaths, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: (making our own crap and not wanting so much foreign crap) Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: (give the women something to do or they will spend all of the money) Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: (stop being so damn greedy) Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: (have some pride, be more like the Laplanders [tribe persecuted by the Swedes for being savage yet they clung to their way of life] or even the Topinamboo [a tribe of actual cannibals from Brazil]) Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: (stop fighting amongst ourselves or we will be over-run [referring to the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 CE]) Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: (prudence, people) Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. (If no one can pay your rents they are too high, assholes) Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.” (Regulate the damn businesses, tax those who buy foreign goods, give breaks to those who by local and create laws so that they businesses cannot team up against the government to take advantage of it)
Swift! This is what he wants. This is what he has been fighting for. This is what he had been told was unreasonable. The plans that could not possibly work…at least in the minds of Swift’s opposition.

Swift is saying, these points could work. They are not as ridiculous and farfetched as some claim. This proposal about eating babies is crazy…these proposals are not. “Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, ’till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.” Swift is criticizing those who won’t even discuss these ‘actual’ solutions because, “It will never be done anyway.” His goal is to get the discussion going. A real discussion, not ridiculous propaganda. Ah, how times have changed.

    Back to Jack again. He points out that he has spent years tackling this problem. “Despairing of success” until this proposal came to him. It costs nothing. Is not complicated. Best of all, “we can incur no danger in disobliging England. For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt.” Everything happens within Irish borders so England can’t get mad. After all, it wouldn’t travel well unless highly salted. Now, Swift is back for a nice little bite, “although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.” Slam to England. England doesn’t need salt to eat the whole of Ireland. They are already doing so. Ouch! That one stings a bit.

Now, Jack/Swift are gearing up for the close. Jack is open to other ideas. “After all, I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion, as to reject any offer, proposed by wise men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual.” Yes, he is. Jack is bent upon his own opinion because he just spent the last thirty-one paragraphs spouting off how his proposal is so good no one could possibly argue it. Swift feels this is the way his opposition behaves. That they are so wrapped up in their own little worlds they are not willing to see another view. There is no room for compromise because the other guy is wrong. It’s my way or the highway. As a result nothing gets done. Swift is critiquing the sensibleness of these kinds of politics. (Is anyone else getting depressed yet about how closely this mirrors our society?)

     “But before something of that kind shall be advanced in contradiction to my scheme, and offering a better, I desire the author or authors will be pleased maturely to consider two points.” Yep, modest, not “bent to his own opinion” at all. To sum up: I am more than willing to listen to other ideas but let me remind you how awesome mine is. First, as things now stand, how they will be able to find food and raiment for a hundred thousand useless mouths and backs. I figured it out, how are they going to? Look at all those useless people we have to take care of. There is no way you can do that without eating babies.
The word useless here is very important. The dehumanization has come so far that by this point the poor babies are useless. They are born useless. Will always be useless. Swift is attacking all of those who denigrate the poor. Swift is insinuating this type of proposal is what happens when you go so far as to degrade an entire group of people. This is his warning. If you treat people as worthless, count them as worthless, and speak about them as worthless someone, somewhere is going to think these people are actually worthless. When that happens people do bad things like eating babies…or genocide. Swift is using the most innocent among us to make the point that no human life is ever worthless.

    “And secondly, There being a round million of creatures in humane figure throughout this kingdom, whose whole subsistence put into a common stock, would leave them in debt two million of pounds sterling, adding those who are beggars by profession, to the bulk of farmers, cottagers and labourers, with their wives and children, who are beggars in effect.”

Look at the derision here. Jack is no longer trying to make nice and sound sympathetic. These people do nothing but live off of the government. We, the tax payers, have to take care of them and it is putting the whole country in debt.
It is the 18th Century version of the makers and takers argument. Yep, same argument different century. Isn’t humanity great?

“I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an answer, (respond, I dare you, respond) that they will first ask the parents of these mortals (mortals, no animalism here. Swift is reminding us that we are talking about humans), whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes, as they have since gone through, (ask any parent if they would trade years of hard work and frustration by killing their children before they became too great a burden, go ahead and ask) by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor cloaths to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of intailing the like, or greater miseries, upon their breed for ever.” This is all Swift.

The poor are being oppressed. The landlords are unfair and charge high rents but take away any means of making money and leaving them nothing left to trade. The people are hungry. There are too many homeless subjected to poor weather. A parent risks having a child grow up to suffer the same miseries or of things being even worse. There is little hope their children could have a better life. Wouldn’t these poor kids be better off dead? Wouldn’t it be better if they didn’t exist? Haven’t we already heard similar arguments? The poor breed too much, shouldn’t be allowed to have children, etc. Is this not saying the same thing? This is what you want isn’t it? It sounds that way. You just want the problem to go away and act like the poor don’t exist. That is exactly what this proposal does. Since, you cannot possibly be expected to give up anything to help these people, here is a solution you can only gain from. Is that not what you wanted?

“I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the publick good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children, by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.”

Jack has nothing to gain and everybody wins. His wife can no longer have children and the children he does have are too old to be sold. He is only doing this for the good of Ireland. Taking care of the problem and “giving some pleasure to the rich.”

    Swift really hits the closing hard. He is submitting a harsh critique of the wealthy who are not willing to give an inch to help out their fellow man. He is screaming at all those who won’t discuss an option that ‘does nothing’ for them, regardless of how successful it may be. He is going after everyone whose argument is, “What’s in it for me?” He is providing a cautionary tale about the road Ireland is on. He is telling everyone to be careful how you treat people. How you talk about people. Because someday someone might take you literally. Jack is the tale. He is the one Swift is pointing too. Swift is saying that if things don’t change Jack’s proposal could actually be taken seriously someday.

A Modest Proposal: Introduction Part II

Welcome back! Seems that I ‘forgot’ to mention a tiny piece of information needed to understand Swift’s essay. Do not, under any circumstance, take him literally. Let me briefly explain. First, yes, I failed to mention that detail on purpose. The reason was to give you the appropriate emotions when reading A Modest Proposal for the first time. It’s like watching Empire Strikes Back, it just doesn’t have the same impact if you know about the surprise. But, I digress, let us discuss what I mean when I say do not take Swift literally.

Now, I do not mean to disparage the educational level of my readership, instead this is more of a commentary of common mistakes I see all too often. Literal: following exactly the wording of the original (emphasis mine). A common misconception is to use ‘literally’ as an emphatic modifier. The phrase ‘I literally laughed my ass off’ means that you laughed until your bum fell off. I am not sure that is even physically possible but I do know that most likely did not happen. Now, saying ‘I literally laughed out loud’ is a statement that many would find highly probable. Point is ‘literally’ is an actual word with and actual meaning, not something you can just toss around to emphasize a point. You found something funny, but not just funny, exceptionally funny. Saying, ‘I laughed my ass off’ is already emphasizing the point by using hyperbole or exaggeration. It tells the reader something was beyond the usual funny. ‘Literally’ is not only the wrong word to use but even adding an additional modifier is unnecessary and redundant.

So, English lesson one complete, what do I mean when I say not to take Swift literally? Quite simply, it means not to take his proposition seriously. Do not believe what he says. A Modest Proposal is meant to be ironic and satirical. Yep, that means we have two more ‘lessons’ before we can get to the analysis. Let’s start with the easiest one first. Satire. Satire is when ridicule and sarcasm are used to ‘attack vices and follies.’ In other words, using sarcasm to point out another’s misconceptions, wrong doings, or perceived idiocy. History is filled with satirists and Swift is considered one of the best. Satirists also exist in the modern-day, we just call them comedians now. Don’t believe me? What does a comedian do? A comedian uses sarcasm in humorous way to point out the more ridiculous notions of our society. Satire. There is a reason why those in the literary circle consider Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert among the best satirists of the 21st Century. Now, keep the latter (Colbert) in mind because we are going to come back to him a lot.

Sarcasm is not the only tool in the satirists shed. There is also the beautiful element of verbal irony. Ah, irony. Irony is probably the most misunderstood literary device in existence. Personally, I blame Alanis Morissette. The only thing ironic about the song ‘Ironic’ is that it contains 0 examples of irony. Bad luck, sure, but not irony. “Rain on your wedding day,” is bad luck, but not ironic. However, let’s take a look at the opening of the film Catch and Release. Having your wedding cancelled for a funeral…that’s ironic. Irony is the opposite of what you expect would happen. But that doesn’t meant crappy weather is ironic because you wanted sunny. That is just crappy weather. But, a day of celebration turning into a day of mourning…that’s ironic. See the difference. If you don’t you are not alone. There are entire websites devoted to the determination of what is or is not ironic.

To further confuse matters, there is more than one type of irony. Socratic, verbal, dramatic and situational. Scared yet? Don’t be. It is really not that difficult. Socratic irony is simply playing the fool. One pretends to be less intelligent than they are in order to further the debate. A good modern example is the comedian (seeing a pattern yet) Sacha Baron Cohen. Next comes verbal irony. This one is really simple. Verbal irony is simply stating the opposite of what you mean. This is the technique used in A Modest Proposal. Sarcasm can be an example of verbal irony. That is can be, not all sarcasm is ironic and not all irony is sarcasm. Ok, that sounds really confusing, I admit. Sarcasm, is just a form of wit intended to wound. It is simply a scathing, biting comment. For example, in the film The Searchers, John Wayne’s character Ethan Wood, often makes the statement, “That’ll be the day.” The phrase is given as a sarcastic retort. “I hope you die.” “That’ll be the day.” The intent is that the aforementioned will happen essentially, when hell freezes over, which is another sarcastic retort. This is an example of sarcasm without irony. It is a biting comment meant to criticize another individual but not ironic because the statement’s intent is not contrary to its literal meaning. Wow, that was a mouthful.

Now, an example of sarcastic verbal irony. Person A has the idea that in order to receive government assistance an individual needs to pass a drug test. Person B responds with: “Wow, you’re brilliant.” Now, this is either a compliment or sarcastic irony. If person B agrees with person A’s sentiment then it is a compliment. However, if person B thinks the idea is utterly stupid then that comment is sarcastic irony. It is sarcastic because it is a comment meant to wound or insult person A. It is ironic because what person B really means is, “Holy crap, you are an idiot.” I know, it sounds like a lot. But when you break it down it really isn’t that hard.

Dramatic irony is something that exists only as literary device. It occurs in literature, plays or film. Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something a character doesn’t and the lack of such information causes the character to act contrary to the way s/he would if s/he had the information. Again, it sounds a lot more difficult than it is. I know it is probably the most overdone example of dramatic irony but it really is a great example. Take the end of Romeo and Juliet. The audience knows that Juliet is alive, Romeo does not. Romeo kills himself to be with Juliet. This is dramatic irony because if Romeo knew what the audience knew he would not have killed himself. See, simple.

Now comes situational irony. This is probably the most difficult form to explain and understand. Situational irony is the type of irony we were discussing at the beginning. It is the type of irony that Morissette’s song attempts to portray. Situational irony is when the outcome of an action/event is contrary to what was expected. But situational irony is not simply the unexpected. George Carlin was not only a masterful comedian but was also a master at understanding the English language. In fact, some of his sketches on language are considered the funniest in all of comedy. Carlin once described irony this way,

“Irony is “a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result.” For instance: a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck. He is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony.”

Carlin excelled at separating the coincidental from the ironic. Most things are simply coincidental, like the guy who was afraid to fly in Morissette’s song dying in a plane crash. Coincidence, yes. Tragic, yes. Not ironic. What would be ironic is if say a law was passed requiring drug tests to all persons on government assistance for the purpose of saving money by denying those abusing the system and yet ended up costing the system more money than it saved. That being said, it is not ironic for President B to ridicule President A for having a spying program that targets citizens and then expands said program. That is merely hypocrisy. What is irony is a program of deregulation meant to boost economic growth eventually leading to an economic collapse. In short, (too late) our governmental policies are rife with situational irony.

Hopefully, that clears up the meaning of irony instead of making it more confusing. Which would be ironic. Though if it doesn’t we can always revisit the topic later. For now, let us just prepare for our analysis of A Modest Proposal. That means if you haven’t read it yet you can do so now. Or you could just wait for the analysis and not read it at all. Cheaters. In all seriousness, the essay is less than 3500 words. Meaning, it is only twice as long as this article here. And trust me, Swift is much less confusing than a discussion on irony. 🙂

A Modern Proposal: Introduction Part I

I have decided to begin this analytical series with Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Now some are going to jump in and say, “But, *crazy lady from the internet I do not know*, that is an example of a rhetorical work, not a literary work.” To those people I say, “You’re right, bonus points.” In fact, A Modest Proposal is considered one of the best rhetorical compositions in history. That being said, you have to understand a number of literary devices to understand Swift’s ‘Proposal‘. Not only that, but to write such brilliantly crafted rhetorical piece Swift also had to be familiar with these literary devices. Since it is, in my opinion, the perfect blending of rhetoric and literature it is the best piece I could think of to start.

A few pieces of information to have before we read this piece. A Modest Proposal was written in 1729. Meaning it predates the American Revolution. Later, we will discuss why this piece of information is relevant. Swift, was a Methodist preacher born in Dublin to English parents. This one fact illuminates several details. Swift had ties to both English and Irish communities, though it should be noted he considered himself Irish. Also, he was protestant, wealthy, and educated.  It must also be known, Ireland was still a British colony during Swift’s lifetime. That meant that the English held dominion over the Irish. As a part of that there was a lot of animosity between the Protestants (seen as English or worse English loving betrayers) and the Catholics (seen as ignorant savages) in Ireland. By the way, I cannot be understating this inter-Ireland conflict enough. Finally, the very last thing you should know is that Swift published this little pamphlet anonymously.

Now, go read the essay which can be found, for free, at Project Gutenberg. As a side note, I will do my best to make sure that the majority of texts discussed here are available for free. While reading the essay keep in mind one question, why would Swift not publish this piece under his own name? Seriously, *tries to hide devilish smile* go read it. I’ll wait. *sits back in chair, chuckling maniacally.*