A Swift proposal
Swift: “A good fat child will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat”
When Donald the Lyin’ King proposed that COVID-19 might be able to be controlled by injecting bleach, Lysol, sanitizers and other disinfectants into the body, the very idea was so nut-crazy I thought of two satiric works of Jonathan Swift that attacked the policies of English and Irish politicians in the 18th Century.
Born in Dublin in 1667, he trained to be a priest at Trinity College and spent much of his life writing satires about the English and Irish. I always enjoyed his work, and so did my senior English students at Fargo Central shared this joy, by reading and analyzing his two most entertaining works: A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick and Gulliver’s Travels: Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World.
I was reminded of both by the treatment of the poor by the Trump administration. The Trumplicans and the American Tea Party have always tried to cut food stamps, health, education, and other safety-net programs just as the English “nobility” and landowners treated Irish families 300 years ago.
A few lines from A Modest Proposal, as Nixon would say, makes Swift’s position “perfectly clear”: “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 served, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragout. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper, or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter. I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar’s child…to be about two shillings per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat. Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flay (skin) the carcass; the skin of which artificially dressed will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.”
The paragraph is a sample of the finest satire ever produced in the English language.
This one sentence makes it “perfectly clear” why he was so concerned about his fellow Irish: “It is a melancholy object to walk through this great town (Dublin), or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and all importuning every passenger for an alms.”
From Lilliput to Brobdingnag to Laputa to the Houyhnhnms
Swift was an observer and critic of English and Irish politicians all of his adult life and used satire to ridicule their positions. Dr. Lemuel Gulliver, a surgeon and sea captain, serves as his lead character in his adventures in four foreign lands. As the only survivor of a ship wreck, Gulliver awakens on the shore of Lilliput tied to the beach by people who are only six inches high (equal to many of our politicians).
He is taken to the capital city and observes that Lilliputians have ridiculous customs and very petty debates.
Lilliput has two political parties, the Tories who wear high-heeled shoes and the Whigs who wear low heels. The court and cabinet positions are held by those who are best at rope-dancing. Lilliput is at war with the empire of Blefusco over which end of an egg should be broken. This represents religious doctrine.
Gulliver becomes a hero by capturing Blefusco’s naval fleet. He adds to his reputation by putting out a fire in the royal palace by urinating on it. But he eventually loses favor and is sentenced to be blinded and starved. He escapes by finding a boat.
In his next adventure he lands on the island of Brobdingnag, a land of giants. Discovered by a farmer, he exhibits the tiny Gulliver for money while the farmer’s daughter, Glumdalclitch, falls in love with him. The queen then buys him from the farmer and he becomes a favorite at court.
Gulliver describes English customs and governance to the king. The king responds: “The English must be a race of odious vermin.”
Gulliver offers to make cannon and gunpowder for the country, but the king is horrified by the proposition. Gulliver is then rescued by a huge eagle.
He then lands on the island of Laputa where the people have one eye facing inward and the other facing upward. He is taken to the capital city of Balnibarbri where he sees farm fields in ruins and the people living in squalor. The city has mathematicians and scientists but they are busy trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers instead or working on the problems of Laputa. He meets other strange people and decides to go to another country.
He visits the land of the Houyhnhnms, a very intelligent group of horses who are rational, communal and benevolent. In fact the horses have taken the power away from a degenerate human race called Yahoos.
The horses are surprised that, although Gulliver looks like a Yahoo, they register that he is rather civilized. When Gulliver describes England, the horses realize that the English people are as degenerate as Yahoos.
The horses decide that Gulliver must leave their country. He returns to England and is so disgusted with humanity that he avoids his family, buys some horses, and converses with them instead.
We seem to be living through ‘A Modest Proposal’ and the four islands of Gulliver
I can’t seem to keep Swift and his satires out of my mind as I view the disasters and machinations of Donald the Lyin’ King’s administration. The Trump White House is dominated by Lilliputian men and women who all wear high-heeled shoes but are of low IQ. Their main job is to trample the humans wearing low-heeled shoes. There are horses in the cabinet, but they use only the Southern part of the horse that’s going North. They don’t use the Houyhnhnm head.
When I see the Trumplican protesters of scientific state COVID-19 quarantine and stay-home policies shaking hands, violating the six-foot rule and crowding together on the steps of capitals, no face masks, carrying Confederate battle flags, wearing MAGA caps, signs yelling “FREEDOM,” and a few strutting around with AR-15s in battle gear and camos, I can see why the Yahoos of America have lost power to the more intelligent horses.
When Gulliver put out the palace fire by pissing on it, I immediately think of the “trickle-down” economic policies of the Lyin’ King and Larry Kudlow, Art Laffer, and the Ronald Reagan true-believers.
When I think of the Lilliputian war over which end of the egg should be broken, I recall the number of Southern churches and the ministers who have decided not to observe stay-at-home polices. Pastor Landon Spradlin and his wife went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras to minister to attendees. At a motorcycle rally in 2016 at Daytona Beach he had earned plaudits and national attention with this statement: “I don’t believe there are incurable diseases. God can heal anything. There are documented cases of God healing AIDS. God can cause limbs to grow out where they have been chopped off. God can raise the dead.”
On the way home from New Orleans he posted this on Facebook: “The media is trying to manipulate your life by creating mass hysteria.”
We will get a chance to see him raised from the dead. Pastor Spradlin died of the virus in his pickup on the way home from Mardi Gras. His wife thought he had fallen asleep while she was driving. She stopped at a gas station to go to the bathroom and opened the passenger door. He fell out on the pavement dead.
The fight for income equality goes on and on and on ...
More than 300 years ago Swift was fighting for income equality as he watched English noblemen buy up good land in Ireland and turn the owners into sharecroppers. Income equality does not mean that each human end up with the same amount of assets.
President Franklin Roosevelt defined it best during the Great Depression: “Liberty requires opportunity to make a living – a living decent according to the standards of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.”
Swift attacked the rich Protestant English landlords who charged exorbitant rents and often reduced their renters to beggary. If the renters couldn’t pay, the landlords seized their property and goods.
Historians have studied Swift’s satires and have often identified the exact political moves he was attacking.
And Swift did not save the Roman Catholic Church from his scrutiny.
I’m going to use the words of David Morrison, an expert of the times, who has analyzed Swift’s attitudes toward English Protestants and the Irish Catholic Church:
“The author of The Modest Proposal tries to sell his big idea by suggesting that it would be a useful way of reducing the number of Roman Catholics in Ireland. If poor Catholics can breed children for meat, then that will mean far fewer Catholics in the country. Not only will this save money, it will greatly improve the stability of the realm, as there will not be as many traitors around to stir up rebellion against the established Protestant order. The vast majority of the Irish population then (as now) were Catholics, though their country was run by a Protestant elite. Swift is satirizing the enormous contempt this elite harbored for Irish Catholics, both for their poverty and for their religion. In paragraph 22, the author argues that breeding children for meat will also give poor Irish Catholics something valuable, a highly-prized commodity they can sell on the open market. In turn, this will benefit their Protestant landlords, because their tenants will now be able to pay the rent, their corn and cattle already have been seized.”
I’m sure many readers have heard about “The Troubles” in Ireland over the years.
Income inequality has never been corrected in Ireland. The “Great potato” famines in the 19th Century forced many to leave the country.
There are now 33 million people of Irish descent in the U.S. – while Ireland’s population is presently only 4.7 million.
The Irish have accomplished one task. For 40 years the Protestants and Catholics murdered about 3,500 over religious ideology called “The Troubles.”
Read about the Magdalene Laundries. Because of a dark history, the Vatican has lost control of Ireland. The Irish have pulled their ambassador from Rome while approving abortion and even electing a married gay prime minister. Swift would appreciate that.