tablesetting complete with forks, knives, and spoons, and a baby on the plate in the center above the words "A Modest Proposal"

A Modest Proposal

by Jonathan Swift

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Discussion Topic

The relevance and value of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" in its own and contemporary contexts

Summary:

"A Modest Proposal" remains relevant both in its original 18th-century context and today for its biting satire of societal issues. Swift uses irony to criticize the British exploitation of Ireland, highlighting the absurdity of treating people as commodities. In contemporary contexts, it serves as a powerful tool for critiquing modern social and economic injustices, emphasizing the enduring impact of satire on societal reflection and change.

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Why is Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" valuable in its own and our contemporary context?

"A Modest Proposal" was significant in its own time as a critique of the overreliance on reason and empiricism to solve social problems. Writing in the early stages of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Swift was troubled by the proclivity, current in his time, to argue that rationality and an emerging scientific mode of thinking provided the best answers to human issues. From a purely economic and rationalistic point of view, of course, Swift's proposal makes sense. From a perspective that acknowledges the humanity of the people involved, on the other hand, it is ghastly and unthinkable. This lesson is, of course, not irrelevant to the modern world, but the main reason Swift's essay has achieved enduring importance is that it is a masterpiece of satire. By employing humor, albeit extremely dark humor, Swift makes his point in a way that is unforgettable, far more than some sort of philosophical treatise or pamphlet would have been able to do. 

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What is the value of "A Modest Proposal" in its own and our contemporary context?

This is a very interesting question that causes us to look beyond the historical context in which this tremendous treatise was based and see if it still has any relevance for us today. One of the marks of universal literature is the way in which it continues to speak to people in a variety of different time periods and contexts, and the fact that this essay is still studied just as much today as it was then clearly points towards its inestimable value.

This essay's historical value is characterised in the satire that it contains. Swift attempts to show the British how inhumane they are being by ignoring the situation of the Irish famine by presenting a deliberately monstrous "solution" to solve this social issue. The abhorrent idea that he presents was meant to act as a mirror to the British so that in this idea they could see too their own abhorrence and involvement in not doing anything to appease the situation.

However, this essay has relevance to any human disasters resulting from bereaucratic incompetence around the world. Consider the issue of global warming and the lamentable lack of interest that the USA showed in the Kyoto agreement of 1997. This would be an excellent topic for an updated "Modest Proposal." Situations such as this show that we still have a lot to learn from Swift's original essay, and it is still immensely valuable to us for this reason.

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What is the relevance of "A Modest Proposal" to contemporary social and political issues?

Part of the relevance of Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is that it shows us that almost any ridiculous idea can be argued for with what seems to be "logic."

Swift's solution to the problem of poverty in Ireland is to sell Irish children as meat to be roasted, and their skins to sold to be made into leather.  Of course this is absurd and Swift did not mean it seriously.  Yet, his essay is a model of logical construction and argument.

One aspect of his "logic" is his use of statistics.  Swift cites, among others, the following statistics:

a) the cost of raising a baby until the age of one year;

b) the total population of Ireland, and the percentage of whom are of child-bearing age;

c) the number of families who can support their children;

d) the average number of miscarriages;

e) the price that a young child could fetch if sold as a slave.

One could say that Swift's argument is "well-supported by statistics"; except, of course, that the argument is patently absurd.

Swift also uses the "logical" technique of discussing alternative solutions to the problem and showing how they are impractical.

He also makes a list of over six advantages that his proposal has.

Swift closes his essay with a bit of humble open-mindedness:

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.

The next time you hear a politician or radio host recommend a new policy, think about Swift's "Modest Proposal" and ask yourself: Is the policy truly sensible? Or, has the person proposing it merely clothed it with some statistics and pseudo-logic?

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What is the relevance of "A Modest Proposal" to contemporary social and political issues?

Swift's outrageous proposal was, of course, meant to shock and to point out mainly how the British had exploited the Irish; in essence, he mocks the authority of the British officials. Later in his satire, Swift proposes reforms:

...Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence, and temperance. Of learning to love our country....of quitting our animosities and factions...Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing...

Do these words not have a ring of our times? (e.g. partisanship, politics, Wall Street, banks)

It has been argued that Swift's main target was not the conditions in Ireland, but rather the "can-do spirit" of the times that led the people to devise several illogical schemes that would purportedly solve social and economic ills.  It can be argued that the United States has done likewise:  Today in the U.S. there are proposals that began with FDR that have led to the giant welfare state and debtor nation that this country now is.

Another point relevant to our times is that Swift's satire addresses the fact that England was denying Irish citizens their natural rights and dehumanizing them as a mere commodity.  Here in the United States, there are certainly many who feel that their needs and wants are not being addressed and that they are being exploited in having to bear the burden of supporting so many who do not pay taxes, or are not even citizens.

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What is the relevance of "A Modest Proposal" to contemporary social and political issues?

Concerning your question about the relevance of Swift's "A Modest Proposal" in today's world, I'm not sure there isn't any place in the world where it is extremely relevant today.  Are there countries that do not have people suffering from poverty?  Are there countries in which landlords don't charge high rents?  Are there countries with no corruption in government?  Are there countries in which special interests do not successfully influence policies to be enacted that are detrimental to the poor?

The essay is certainly relevant in the U.S. today.  Could anyone argue that government policies, as well as practices of the wealthy, do not contribute to the poverty of Native Americans and other minorities?  Are there no exorbitant fees in hospitals?  No overcharging by lawyers or big business?  Is there no one in America that bilks the poor whenever they get the chance? 

And the U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world?  Is there no need for Swift-like corrections in Asia, the Middle East, or Africa?   

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What is the relevance of "A Modest Proposal" to contemporary social and political issues?

The answer to this would depend a lot on where you live and what your politics are.  However, in general, it seems to me that you could argue that this essay remains relevant in places where there is a great deal of poverty.

The specific conditions of Ireland are probably not really seen anywhere in the world today.  However, there are many places where some people are rich and many people are poor.  You can argue that the essay applies to those places.  You can argue that it says that the people who control those places should pay more attention to the needs of the poor.

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How is "A Modest Proposal" relevant to today's social and political reality and potential futures?

After using a more serious voice to attempt to bring change to impoverished Ireland, Swift felt that his ideas were not being heard and turned to satire in order to shed light on the problems plaguing Ireland. Specifically, Swift focuses on the plight of the poor and outlines an argument for the consumption of Irish babies, metaphorically representing the way the government was consuming the Irish through economic policies at the time.

So is A Modest Proposal relevant in today's society? Absolutely. Do we have marginalized groups in our modern society? You bet. It's crucial that we give voice and space to those who feel marginalized in order to create a better society. While writing a satire and having it widely read may not be the outlet common to our society today, there are similar ways people try to shape public opinion. For good or bad, consider the social and political memes you encounter nearly daily. Think about the emergence of social media influencers who attempt to shape public opinion. While some of this is superficial, there are definitely people using those platforms to tackle meaningful and society-changing issues.

Historically, we could look to the plight of African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. Although technically free from the chains of slavery, they still found oppression at every turn. They found themselves at the receiving end of unfair policies such as "separate but equal" educational resources, which really weren't equal at all. A movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pushed for peaceful means of change. He organized and trained others to organize sit-ins and peaceful protests all over the South (and in some areas in the North). He led powerful and moving speeches employing some of the same rhetorical strategies which Swift utilized, and it worked.

Swift and King show the power of a meaningful argument combined with the platform which engages listeners and readers, and that these strategies sometimes change based on the needs and interests of society.

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How is "A Modest Proposal" relevant to today's social and political reality and potential futures?

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."

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How is "A Modest Proposal" relevant to today's social and political reality and potential futures?

"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.

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