Eat the Babies! – Satire and Outrage Culture: The Modern Legacy of Swift’s A Modest Proposal
Satire as defined by the Oxford dictionary as, “The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” Its use is recorded in ancient Greece and has continued as an expression of literature and art today. One of the most well-known satirists is Jonathan Swift. He was a proponent of social reform used his wit and his ability eviscerate the object of his ire to address corrupt policies and practices. His content was often so shocking that cause public outcry, all the while selling out printed copies of his works. His legacy continues to be relevant today as media personalities, writers, and websites take up the mantle of “speakers of truth” to the government. While satire does help to highlight hypocrisy and corruption in a way that forces one to think sometimes gets taken too seriously, especially in the current environment of outrage culture, when someone only hears the part that confirms their personal bias or ideology.
One evening in early October, while reading for class, my phone began to blow up with notifications from my news feed about a woman advocating eating children to combat climate change. I quickly clicked on one of the articles, (how could I not with such an outrageous and vaugly familiar headline), to see what the ruckus was about. The article detailed an incident at a townhall headed up by New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) on October 3, 2019. It included an imbedded video clip starting toward the end of the event during Q&A at which time a rather normal looking woman stood up and gave the following speech which I found transcribed in an online article from The Washington Examiner (full article link).
“We’re not going to be here much longer, because of a climate crisis. We only have a few months left. I love that you support the Green [New] Deal, but it’s not going to get rid of fossil fuel. It’s not going to solve the problem fast enough. A Swedish professor said we can eat dead people, but that’s not fast enough. So I think your next campaign slogan needs to be this: We’ve got to start eating babies. We don’t have enough time. There’s too much CO2. All of you, you’re a pollutant. Too much CO2! We have to start now. Please, you are so great. I am so happy you are really supporting the new green deal, but it’s not enough. Even if we would bomb Russia, we still have too many people, too much pollution. So we have to get rid of the babies. That’s a big problem, just stopping having babies. That’s not enough. We need to eat the babies! This is very serious, please give a response. (Picket)
The video shows the woman taking off her jacket in the middle of this speech to reveal a shirt with the logo “Save the Planet Eat the Children.” Okay weird, but what does this have to do with a blog about 18th century British literature. Remember when I mentioned that the headline was familiar? That’s because I had just finished reading Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.
Swift’s pamphlet first published anonymously in 1729 quickly became one his most popular essays. In it he uses irony and satire, “which is built by and sustained by the devices of classical rhetoric, even to its very structure, which Swift modeled on the five-part classical oration,” to address the plight of the Irish poor and the British government’s inactivity and impractical solutions to address the problem (Beaumont p. 307). Almost as well known as his satire, Gulliver’s Travels, Swift’s A Modest Proposal is widely considered a masterpiece of satirical form. As one writer put it, “A Modest Proposal is so skillfully constructed that it still has the power to startle, even if one has read it many times before. And for anyone who meets it for the first time, it explodes like a land mine” (Damrosch p. 420).
Swift, who had written several other serious but ignored proposals for addressing the Irish economic crisis, writes in the voice of a sincere, rational proposer, laying out the terrible conditions of the Irish poor before offering his solution.
“I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection. I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasee, or a ragoust.” (Swift p. 2432)
Eat the babies! What a shocking concept, but remember, Swift was a well-known satirist at the time and many people found the piece to be clever and humorous. The majority of those outraged by it would have been those who felt most criticized by the Proposal. Few if any would have taken it seriously enough at the time to be outraged by the content. That can’t necessarily be said to reactions to it today. You would think that the outrageous premise of the piece would preclude anyone taking it seriously but:
“When the Gaiety Theatre reopened in Dublin in 1984, the actor Peter O’Toole gave a reading of A Modest Proposal, saying he had chosen a piece “with a little something to offend everybody.” The result was a mass walkout. One headline reported, “O’Toole Defends Disgusting Reading.’” (Damrosch p. 420)
This wasn’t the first time Swift or his work was called “disgusting,” but the reaction of this more modern audience does highlight a troubling trend that seems to have reached a peak in U.S. culture today.
Getting back to the incident at AOC’s townhall meeting, one of interesting things was how fast news of it hit social media and then how quickly more legitimate news sources started re-broadcasting it. Almost immediately the woman advocating cannibalism as climate control was labeled either as crazy person and/or a typical AOC supporter. I didn’t see any of the initial social media posts or initial news posts mention anything about stunt, satire, or even a whiff of A Modest Proposal. Despite the outrageous statement, the too good to be true public forum, the initial reactions were belief in the woman’s sincerity, not that it was a planned satirical performance. Instead of looking at context or thinking about the unusual circumstances, people saw what they wanted to see. It was later revealed that she was plant and that the whole thing was a stunt but doesn’t change those initial reactions.
These “outrage” reactions seem to be happening more and more often even to clearly marked sources of satire. The Onion, a very well-known source of satirical news articles has become almost legendary for people quoting their articles as fact (Fallon)(Onion article). Another satire site, The Babylon Bee, known for its Christian and conservative satire has also become increasingly misquoted as a factual news source, even to the point of being fact checked by one the premier fact checking sites, Snopes (Chokshi) (Bee vs Snopes feud).
Maybe the fact that information comes to us so quickly from so many sources, (frequently anonymous or unattributed), due to the instant speed of modern technology contributes to this practice of instant reaction to underdeveloped or misreported news. Satire has had a long and colorful history in our country and comes in many forms. My personal favorite are the political cartoons in newspapers. Satire also serves a purpose in our society, to put a check on the mob, to hold our leaders accountable, to make us stop and think. I wonder what Jonathan Swift would think about the reaction of far too many educated people to satire now. I wonder if he wouldn’t look and see leaders and politicians doing and saying things more absurd and outrageous than anything he had ever written about and think we had lost our minds.
Beaumont, Charles Allen. “Swift’s Classical Rhetoric in ‘A Modest Proposal’.” The Georgia Review vol 14.no. 3 (1960): 307-317. JSTOR. 11 2019. <www.jstor.org/stable/41395720>.
Bindon, Francis. Portrait of Jonathan Swift. National Portrait Gallery London, London. Digital Image.
Chokshi, Niraj. “Satire or Deceit? Christan Humor Site Feuds With Snopes.” The New York Times 3 August 2019. Internet Magazine. November 2019. <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/03/us/snopes-babylon-bee.html>.
Damrosch, Leo. “Frustrated Patriot.” Damrosch, Leo. Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World. Yale University Press, 2013. 411-423. JSTOR. <www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vkw6q.32>.
dcexaminer. “Distraught woman at AOC town hall urges ‘eating babies’ to fight climate change.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 4 October 2019. Web. 06 November 2019.
Fallon, Kevin. “Fooled by ‘The Onion’: 9 Most Embarrassing Fails.” Daily Beast 14 July 2017. Internet Periodical. November 2019. <https://www.thedailybeast.com/fooled-by-the-onion-9-most-embarrassing-fails?ref=scroll>.
Picket, Kerry. “Woman at AOC town hall urging attendees to ‘eat babies’ to fight climate change part of political hoax.” The Washington Examiner 03 October 2019. digital periodical. November 2019. <https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/get-rid-of-the-babies-distraught-woman-at-aoc-town-hall-urges-eating-babies-to-fight-climate-change>.
Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Restoration & the 18th Century. Ed. D Damrosch and Kevin Dettmar. 4th. Vol. 1C. Pearson Education Inc, 1729. 2431-2437. Print.