Satire: From Swift to Southpark
In Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, an essay he published anonymously in Ireland in 1792, the speaker, also an Irishman, addresses the very real problem of poverty his country was facing at the time. After explaining the misfortune that has stricken Ireland, he puts forth his Proposal. This Proposal, as well as many of Swift’s other works, is extremely satirical. The plan Swift then has the speaker put forth consists of murdering and consuming one year old children to provide food for the impoverished, the occasional garment, and economic growth for the nation (2432). Obviously, Swift did not really want his fellow citizens to start murdering and consuming one year olds, so what was he trying to do? I’ll tell you: he was trying to bring attention to the situation. He was trying to make his fellow citizens realize that something had to be done. Sadly, A Modest Proposal did not lead to any lasting changes for Ireland’s rural poor. However, it did get attention, as was Swift’s aim, and still today is a prominent example of satire. In his book, Swift’s Satire of the Second Person, Henry W. Sams exalts Swift for his mastery of satire and explains his take why it is so effective: “The judgment of history has attributed to Swift greater magnitude, more profundity and seriousness, than to other satirists. Many reasons may be advanced to explain the preference given him, for his genius appears in many aspects. And yet it is possible that in satire, as in tragedy, there is a quality to control the emotions of men which is beyond all other qualities to be desired. This is the quality which Swift displays when his reader, unable to bandy his satire away, sits down quietly under it.” (44).
In this article, we will take a look at Swift’s satirical Proposal, in the context of Ireland’s impoverished condition of the time, and what is possibly the most influential satire of the present day, South Park, taking into account the context of American society, ultimately finding similarities in aspects of each of the works and their effectiveness, showing the standard Swift set for works of satire responding to national dilemmas, and it’s persistence in the modern day.
To discuss these works, we must first address the real-world contexts in which they are based. A Modest Proposal is based in 18th century Ireland, impoverished and seemingly hopeless. The current state of the nation is exactly the problem Swift addresses in A Modest Proposal, and a large theme in South Park, based in modern day U.S.A. Though many topics have been addressed by South Park in its last twenty years on the air, the political commentary of the last two seasons has been especially thorough, covering issues from PC culture to the 2016 presidential election. By adopting the feature of a continuous story line over the last two seasons, South Park writers have become more able to dig into the issues they focus on than they were in the past. This new level of attention given to certain issues on South Park allows for a more developed commentary, which like A Modest Proposal, cannot be fully appreciated without a basic knowledge of the context in which it is based.
One of the issues South Park has spent a lot of time on over the past two seasons is political correctness and the culture surrounding it. In one instance, Kyle, one of the four main characters, is honored by President Obama at the White House after he gives up his hopeless opposition to political correctness, making a speech accepting Caitlyn Jenner and deeming her “stunning and brave.” As part of Kyle’s reward, he is driven home in the shining convertible of South Park’s crude representation of Caitlyn Jenner, who promptly hits and kills a pedestrian while making her exit, in reference to a real life event (Parker) (Mandell, USA Today). This scene in season 19’s “Where My Country Gone?” critiques the real motives of PC culture by showing the dismissal of major injustices in favor of a focus on their hot button issues. With all of South Park’s direct criticisms of political correctness, all its crude comedy, and all its outspoken condemnations; it’s easy to point a finger and say, “that is not politically.” And if you did so, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, the answer you expect may still not be the right one, according to Frank Rich of Comedy After Monica. He posits that “South Park is neither politically correct nor incorrect; it’s on a different, post-ideological comic map altogether.” I agree with Frank Rich, and I think his observation pertains to A Modest Proposal, too, even with its vulgar elements of infanticide and cannibalism. Which leaves us with the question; ‘While I have no doubt that South Park and A Modest Proposal are not politically correct, how am I supposed to bypass the grotesque ideas that they put forth and accept the thought that they are also not politically incorrect?’ Simple. They’re satire. What they’re saying outright is not what they really mean, so how can we judge them on the basis of those ideas? We can’t. Thus, while we cannot label these satirical works politically correct, we also can’t label them politically incorrect. It’s like Rich said ,”[they’re] on a different post-ideological…map altogether.”
One aspect important to effective satire is the relationship between the speaker and the audience. If the audience in no way relates to the satirist, then the real message they present will either go unnoticed or the reader will not identify with the author’s point of view. In A Modest Proposal, Swift builds this rapport between the reader and the speaker by addressing and showing concern for the very serious problem of poverty in Ireland. In South Park, this rapport with the viewer is built through consistently meeting the entertainment expectations they hold, as well as the behavior of more sensible characters with which the viewer can identify. With this rapport in place, the speaker now has the ability to effectively convey their message to the audience.
Finally, we must address the basic facet of these satires that is especially important due to their national, political implications: the open ending. The reason A Modest Proposal and South Park work is that they leave the audience to decide. Swift didn’t expect his audience to eat blindly from his hand. If that had happened, 18th century Ireland would be a darker moment in history by a thousand times. What he did expect his audience to do was to take notice of the problem he was presenting, or at least the fact that something should be done about it. He wanted to inspire the reader to give it some thought, and reason their way to their own solution, while also arousing a hunger for change in them, so fierce that it stimulates staunch allegiance to his cause—or—at least, to make them consider the problem at hand. The writers of South Park hold the same expectation of their viewer, they think ‘If I pose this question, will the viewer at least give it some thought?’ Over the last two years, one of the biggest themes South Park has been focused on is the presidential race and election of 2016.
Though South Park takes no objective stance in their political analysis of the race between Hillary and Trump, the former being referred to as a “turd sandwich”, the latter, being parodied by schoolteacher Mr. Garrison, being referred to as a “giant douche”, they do seem to hint at some of their beliefs (Parker, “Member Berries”). Seeing this, it comes as no surprise that Swift also offered a nudge in the right direction, which we will look at before returning to that of South Park. Near the end of A Modest Proposal, Swift’s speaker offers what is called an apophasis—a rhetorical device where the speaker brings up a subject to deny its merit. In this apophasis, the speaker says, “let no man talk to me of other expedients,” many of which he goes on to list, including taxing absentees higher, only using domestically manufactured clothes and furniture, and “putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shopkeepers.” (Swift 2436). These “other expedients” are clearly much more reasonable than the one the speaker presents in A Modest Proposal, for good reason too; they are the legitimate suggestions, or proposals, that Swift puts forth in all the irrational jumble coming from the speaker. Though Swifts main goal in A Modest Proposal was gaining public attention, he uses the apophasis to submit his best ideas on the problem at hand. Thus, if there is a real Proposal, the apophasis is it.
While South Park may not have a clear-cut apophasis like A Modest Proposal, the writers still find a way to give the reader a nudge in the direction of their thoughts on an issue. In the issue of the 2016 presidential race, while heavily criticizing both major candidates, they give a special amount of attention Mr. Garrison, who is representative of our current president, Donald Trump. Garrison, originally enraged by the growing population of minorities in America, decides to join the presidential race (Parker, “Where My Country Gone?”). Soon, realizing that he won’t be able to carry out his campaign promises or quit without “looking like a jackass,” Garrison keeps running, but is determined to lose the race. Garrison takes action to lose voters, from sitting during the national anthem to explicitly stating that he is not a competent presidential candidate during several speeches and a debate (Parker, “Member Berries” and “The Damned”). From this behavior of Garrison, we can infer South Park’s underlying proposal regarding Trump; that he was an incompetent candidate, his behavior made it painfully obvious, and perhaps, he was not ignorant of the incompetence that they demonstrate.
In the end, the figure South Park made such a big effort to denounce, Donald Trump, was successful in being elected president. Just as Swift brought no lasting change to Ireland through A Modest Proposal, the South Park writers’ parody of Trump was not effective enough a warning to the American people to keep him out of office. However, these two works still got notice, and they made at least some people stop and think, if not enough. They may have not “control[led] the emotions of men” enough to lead them to their most preferred outcome, but by using effective satirical rhetoric to address the national dilemma at hand, as Swift popularized, they both certainly were effective enough to call attention to and inspire thought on the problems they addressed. Though in these cases neither Swift nor South Park were wholly successful in inspiring the change they wanted, we cannot deny that each displayed “the quality…[when the] reader, unable to bandy [their] satire away, sits down quietly under it,” in the national dilemma they faced, though we can deny this quality’s extensive success in both situations. This quality, popularized by Swift and perfected in the modern day by South Park, is the mark of effective political satire, showing the author’s ability to silence the reader with a point they cannot refute.
Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” 2009. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Fourth ed. Vol. 1c. N.p.: Pearson, 2009. 2431-437. Print.
Parker, Trey. “Where My Country Gone?” South Park. Comedy Central. 23 Sept. 2015. Television.
Parker, Trey. “Member Berries.” South Park. Comedy Central. 14 Sept. 2016. Television.
Parker, Trey. “The Damned.” South Park. Comedy Central. 28 Sept. 2016. Television.
Sams, Henry W. “Swift’s Satire of the Second Person.” ELH, Vol. 26, no. 1, 1959, pp. 36-44., www.jstor.org/stable/2872078.
Groening, Stephen. “Cynicism and Other Postideological Half Measures in South Park.” Taking South Park Seriously. New York: State U of New York, 2008. 113-18. Print.
Rich, Frank. “Journal; Comedy After Monica.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Mar. 1998. 08. Mar. 2017.
Mandell, Andrea. “Caitlyn Jenner escapes charges after fatal car crash.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network, 30 Sept. 2015. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.
Mr. Garrison as a Donald Trump-like chrarcter in “Members Only”. 2016. South Park. Hollywoodreporter.com. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.