Jonathan Swift’s Lasting Legacy: How A Modest Proposal Impacts the 21st Century

modestproposal1Throughout history it has been stressed that the space between social classes can be fixed and something can be done to bridge this widening gap, but can there really? In A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift captures the attention of his audience by using satire to pose a “proper” solution for social inequality. Throughout this satirical piece, Swift “highlights the futility of financial improvement unaccompanied by social and moral reform.” (Swift, 2431.) The idea of narrowing this social gap is prevalent today, as the majority of Americans seem indifferent to the fact, that the wealth of our nation is concentrated in the hands of 1% of its people. According to the video, Wealth Inequality in America, 92% of Americans said that the wealth of the nation should be more equitable than it is, inferring concerns about fairness. Ignorance pertaining to wealth inequality, as highlighted by Swift, is still a massive political debate and is being fueled by the fire of modern American writers. The goal of the movement supported by Swift and other 18th century political activists, was to correct the, “desperate social, economic, and political plight” even if the majority of the audience does not even acknowledge that such turmoil exists (Swift, 2431). Swift was able to pave the way for political writers in the 21st century, helping them find a way to connect with their audiences and educate them about economic conditions in their country through his satirical writing, and blatant social critiques.

Jonathan Swift is one of the most renowned authors and political writers of the 18th century. Swift was able to grasp his audience’s attention through A Modest Proposal by satire; essentially he was fed up with the ineptitude of Ireland’s politicians, the degrading poverty in which an overwhelming number of Irish citizens found themselves, the boisterous tyranny of the British, and the hypocrisy of the wealthy. Swift expressed his disgust with the current state of Ireland and proposed that both the English, as well as the Irish, were to blame for the nation’s state. Swift’s essay was organized by presenting an immediate shock to the audience, suggesting that the nation should harvest the impoverished people’s babies for eating. After the initial shock, Swift presented a series of surprises that caused the audience to critically think about the current government policies and the true crisis in which the country found itself.

Swift makes many evident blows to the upper class and wealthy citizens of England throughout his essay. Towards the end of the piece Swift produced six main points, the most shocking of which explained how harvesting and breeding poor babies will make a great fortune for all of the taverns in the nation, “having their houses frequented by all the fine gentlemen, who justly value themselves upon their knowledge,” allowing the guests to contrive to make their meals as “expensive as they please.” (Swift, 2435.) Swift also satirically pointed out the advantages of having their own goods circulating, which would be entirely of their “own growth and manufacture.” (Swift, 2435.)

Swift was set upon solving the nation’s societal gap, or at the very least forcing the people of Ireland to take a harsh look at the reality of their economic conditions. Swift used scientific, methodological language to present statistics of human beings, but in the beginning of the essay he appealed to the masses in a much more emotional manner. Swift managed to pull the readers in by painting a very melancholy picture of poor females who, “instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling, to beg sustenance for their helpless infants..” who later on are to become thieves or slaves (Swift, 2431).

Political writers, and activists in the 21st century use similar techniques that Swift used in his Modest Proposal. The writers who see a need for change, and believe the gap between social classes is worsening, try to find a way to gain the attention of their audience and they do this by essentially slapping the public in the face with the harsh, sometimes outlandish scenarios similar to Swift’s approach. Many political writers of the 21st century expose the underbelly of society through documentaries, which highlight the income gap between the poorest and wealthiest Americans. In the viral YouTube video, Wealth Inequality in America, a YouTube user created an impactful visual of the study conducted by Dan Ariely and Michael Norton in 2011. In this study they essentially asked Americans what their ideal distribution of wealth would be, which tended to be fairly equal. Next, they asked Americans what they thought the actual distribution of wealth was, to which they responded as being less than their ideal. The study showed that the bottom 40% of the population had almost no wealth, while the top 1% held the majority. In the last few years the income of the top 1% of America has tripled, and this wealthy group also owns 50% of America’s stocks and bonds. The study also showed that the average CEO makes in an hour what an average worker makes in a month and questions whether CEOs earn this disparity.

Inequality can and has triggered revolutions, which was the case during the French Revolution, in which heavy taxes were levied on the lower and middle classes to enhance the lives of those in the upper class. It seems the chance of social unrest in America is increasing today, as writers, who harness similar goals of Jonathan Swift, are confronting society with evidence of this stark reality.  These researchers expose the truth about the hardships that middle class America, much less lower class America, is facing on a day-to-day basis. These researchers are using shocking examples of inequality to gain attention and create controversy, just as Swift did in his Modest Proposal. Swift has left as his legacy the idea of encouraging political writers to make a lasting impact on their audience in order to bring about social change.

Politizane. “Wealth Inequality in America.” Version 1. November 20, 2012. Web. February 25, 2014.

Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, volume 1C, fourth ed. New York: Longman 1999. 2430-2436. Print.