Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Modest Proposals

COMING SOON . . . to a garden near you.
Ireland. 1729. 
     Superficially, it could be described as being populated by peasants of Catholic persuasion starving under the yoke of Protestant English landlords. So harsh are their lives that women can be seen everywhere, dragging their swarms of ragged offspring through the streets, begging for the means to survive for yet another day. Men are demoralized by their inability to provide, reduced in their ambitions to only two impulses: to live for one more day and/or to find oblivion in a bottle.

      Enter essayist Jonathon Swift with his acerbic pen and the still-infamous satire, A Modest Proposal, in which Swift proposes that the problem of poverty and hunger be resolved by fattening up these hordes of starving children and selling them to the landlord class as table delicacies. “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 Boyled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragoust.” (

      There are readers who recognize satire when they read it, and there are readers that don't. In the case of Swift's pamphlet even those who recognized its intent were shocked; we don't eat our young under any circumstances, and certainly don't sell them to our overlords to solve poverty and hunger! We don't even suggest it! (Never mind Swift's depiction of the cannibal-chef as an American. What eyebrows that would have raised if it ever found it's way into the hands of US citizens . . . who could read!*)

      A Modest Proposal illustrates a critical dilemma; we tend to see issues through narrow slits in our field of vision, a phenomenon that is well characterized by the expression, thinking inside the box.      
     In the case of the starving Irish peasants, and regarding their fertility, I expect that most saw the world through the small aperture provided them by their clergy: "be fruitful and multiply" and "the poor you have with you always" and "be content with your lot" stuff. The landed gentry no doubt analyzed the problem of Ireland through a different—if an even narrower—slit: we are entrepreneurial and deserving; Irish peasants are lazy, undisciplined, stupid and therefore undeserving.

      A Modest Proposal certainly urges its readers to broaden the slit, to think differently for a change.

      I've been pondering Swift and wondering what he would say about the big dilemma civilization is rapidly approaching today: far too many consumers chasing scarce, non-renewable resources. Specifically, I wonder how he would satirize overpopulation today, given that that was central to A Modest Proposal. I doubt he would modestly propose eating our children: been there, done that. And the likelihood that he would suggest eating our seniors is not only equally bizarre, but dangerous. Irish children probably couldn't read; our seniors can . . . and do.

      But thinking outside the box would at least suggest that it not be only birth control that crosses our minds when we think about overpopulation and gluttonous consumption. We are living too long; we are spending nearly half our lives consuming without producing, being kept alive by more and more, costlier and costlier artificial remedies for ailments that had the potential for ending our demands on the planet at the proverbial three score and ten years.**

      It's food for Swiftian satire, isn't it?

On a different—but related—subject:

      Olivia Chow has decided to run for the position of mayor of Toronto. I just read My Journey, (review will appear soon, hopefully) Chow's autobiography . . . to date, and concluded that she has broad insight as opposed to the tiny slit through which the current mayor seems to see things. Indeed, our current governments generally look out on the world and see little but the economic-growth landscape and like the Irish peasants under their English overlords, we will certainly suffer for allowing them to mis-shape our world.

      Where is a good satirist when you need one! If reality doesn't convince us, could satire?
P.S. Olivia, you go girl!

* satire . . . I love Americans!
** not that keen on this debate since I passed 3 score + 10 . . . three years ago.

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