A Modest Proposal
Maybe you know what it means when somebody has A Modest Proposal. I did not, until very recently, mostly because I am not a native speaker, but now I am in on the joke. A Modest Proposal is used to make a straight-faced suggestion of something completely absurd and outrageous. It all harks back to Jonathan Swifts essay “A Modest Proposal” from 1729.
In this essay Swift, completely straight-faced proposes to solve to problem of poverty, idleness and the hordes of papists in Ireland by selling infants to gentlemen in Ireland and Britain for eating. He presents a perfectly sensible case complete with the economics, the practical details, the problems it would solve and the general benefits to the scheme. Well, except the delicate detail that eating children is just about the most horrendous idea imaginable.
I suppose in all its absurdity it is supposed to be funny, but you have to have an inclination for very, very black humor to enjoy this. Raising children like livestock and cooking them when they are a year old for their tender meat is an absolutely revolting idea and it was just too black for me.
The context of this essay, however, is interesting. Ireland and the Irish were essentially lawless to the British in the eighteenth century. There were no limits to how you were allowed, and maybe even encouraged to, abuse the local population, which was in turn looked upon as a lesser sort of human beings, Papists, poor and good for nothings. As an Irishman Swift was likely upset by the arrogant attitude of the British and while “A Modest Proposal” goes further than even the vilest British bigot, it is written in the same tone as other very demeaning schemes to abuse the Irish, which very outrageous enough in themselves.
Sometimes you need an exaggeration to see the problem.
A second apparent context is the rationalism that was becoming popular at this time and towards which Swift was very sceptic. This is quite apparent in “Gulliver’s Travels” where the scientists or “projectors”, as he calls them, are ridiculed as useless geeks. Swifts saw common sense as being opposed to rationalism (although in truth the two are very connected) and wrote this essay as a rationalistic argument that makes no sense at all.
“A Modest Proposal” is a very short booklet. The only way it could be pumped up to 30 pages was by inserting lots of pictures with no relation to the story and print it in a font larger than those used in my son’s easy-reading books. So, I breezed through the text here in the weekend and I am ready with my second entry of 2019.