Discuss the relevance of "A Modest Proposal" in today's social and political reality, and possible future. Discuss some historical situations that posed similar problems about ends, the means, and outcomes.
Satire is an important political tool, and an essential component of any free nation. Citizens must be allowed to criticize, mock, and even make fun of their leaders if we are to retain a government that is truly "of the people, by the people, and for the people." Jonathon Swift used his wit to challenge the British government and the British people for neglecting those under their rule. Like skits on Saturday Night Live or the opening monologue of The Daily Show, Swift's work highlighted to the public the inconsistencies and inefficiencies that made up social policy. To be informed voters, the public needs to see such things.
Imagine if Swift had been a 20th-century Cuban citizen and not a 19th-century Irish author. His voice would never have been heard. In today's political climate, we have to be conscious of this. President Trump has called the news media the "enemy of the American people." In tweets, he has called for the cancellation of Saturday Night Live: "Time to retire this boring and unfunny show." However, the show is doing for social policy what Swift did. Swift specifically targets some of the policies being proposed that would seem to be a "one size fits all" approach to the population and poverty issues. Saturday Night Live has targeted the Mexico wall in a similar way, highlighting the flaws of the policy.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was a precursor of Saturday Night Live. The following quote from a recent NPR article highlights the importance of satire and the legacy of Jonathon Swift's work in today's climate:
On their final show, Dick Smothers read a letter he and Tom had gotten from former President Johnson. These days, President Trump responds to Saturday Night Live skits with angry tweets. Back then, Johnson, reflecting on his treatment by the Smothers Brothers, responded by writing:
"It is part of the price of leadership of this great and free nation to be the target of clever satirists. You have given the gift of laughter to our people. May we never grow so somber or self-important that we fail to appreciate the humor in our lives."
"A Modest Proposal" retains its relevance for multiple reasons. First, it is a very entertaining essay and a masterpiece of satire. To read Swift make his absurd case using facts, figures, and bizarrely twisted logic is to read a master at work. But its messages also provide lessons that can be applied to historical and modern issues. First, Swift uses the format to draw attention to the wretched suffering of the Irish people, who, the essay makes clear, face starvation and poverty under English rule. The essay can be read, then, as a condemnation of the inherently exploitative nature of colonial rule, an issue with far too many parallels in human history. Perhaps more importantly, Swift's essay is a satire of social scientific solutions to real-world problems that do not take humanity and human experience into account. This is particularly true of the cold economic theories that were beginning to hold sway in the eighteenth century. If we imagine people as purely economic units, and deal with them using the coldly rational dictates of economic theory, then we lose sight of the purpose of public policy in the first place. Swift's "modest proposal" that Irish children be sold for meat makes economic sense. It is framed as a way of breaking the cycle of overpopulation and poverty that afflicts Ireland under English rule. But eating Irish children is unacceptable under almost any set of moral standards, so the proposal is obviously absurd. Swift's essay is thus a warning against trying to solve human problems without keeping human beings in mind. Swift's imprecations against this kind of arrogance might be leveled against any set of government policies that prioritize market gains, profits, or even price cuts (think, for example, of the current political debate about healthcare in the United States) over actual outcomes.