Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Not-So-Modest Proposal, Among Other Things

Is satire effective in exposing social ills? Most definitely. In actually affecting society and making things change, however, it is likely that most people feel fairly apathetic towards satire. They think it's funny, they feel offended. But does it actually make them change? No. Not really. In A Modest Proposal, nothing is more clear than the fact that Jonathan Swift has a problem with the suppression of the Irish, the elitism of the British, and Americans in general. He does a very good job of telling everyone in a very roundabout way what is wrong with society, who the targets are, and how he feels about all of it. Other people in our society today do this as well. People like John Stewart, John Oliver, and Stephen Colbert all have television shows where they do exactly the same thing as Jonathan Swift. They expose social ills in an attempt to jar us into action and do something about what is wrong with out society.

One of the things both modern satirists and ye olde satirists prove is how separate the social classes are. Jonathan Swift literally suggest that the aristocratic Brits wear clothing made of the lower classes in Ireland. "...the skin of [the infants] which artificially dressed will make admirable gloves for ladies and summer boots for fine gentlemen" (Swift 4). The idea in of itself is atrocious, but it shows how the upper class regards the lower class as animals in a way, such that they will skin the children and use their skin the way they use cow and pig hides. Many modern satirists use this idea as well, though they are not so graphic about it. In the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, the snobby, stereotypical main character is constantly trying to climb the social ladder and become one of the upper class despite being working class. Something she repeats is "It's my sister Daisy. She's not the one with the Mercedes, sauna, and room for a pony" (Keeping Up Appearances). This woman is constantly trying to prove that she is one of the upper class, revealing how most think of the working class people; not good enough. It exposes an ill that many are ill-prepared to deal with, because they see social classes as simply a part of their society. It isn't something they can do much about, as classes depend on jobs, and if everyone is in one class there will still be levels of that class. All this to say that society may recognize the problem here, but they will not do anything about it because they don't feel they can.

Now, even the best of satirists slips out of character sometimes, whether it be because of something they feel strongly about or the people they are targeting are just so blind to what is wrong with them. Jonathan Swift slips for just one paragraph, saying "I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children" (Swift 4). He uses scathing wit here to say that the landlords have already "devoured" the parents, or that they are being used up as much as they can be before being thrown out like so many chicken bones. The entire passage up until this point has been in the character of favoring the upper class while revealing that they care very little about the lower class, and this passage was incredibly opposite of that original point of view. In a piece that aired on The Daily Show, one of the people being interviewed is just so uncomprehending of how he is doing exactly what he is ridiculing. (Daily Show). He is blaming them and pointing at the camera, literally pointing the finger of blame in their direction for...pointing fingers. Sometimes, even when people are being satirized, they cannot see it. The audience might, but the fact that slipping out of character to point something out that the target doesn't even see just proves that though the audience may recognize the social problem the targets certainly will not, and as the targets are in the best position to do something about their own problem nothing will be solved.

Satirists are supposed to be apolitical. They need to be able to show the problems with society in a way that exposes everything, not just what they support. Jonathan Swift does an excellent job of this, and he shows that there is something seriously wrong with the British upper class for eating babies, the Irish for being willing to give up their babies for money, and the Americans for suggesting the whole thing in the first place. "I have been assured by a very knowing American...that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food..."(Swift 3). Then there's "...the maintenance of a hundred thousand children, from two years old and upward, cannot be computed at less than ten shillings a-piece per annum, the nation's stock will thereby be increased fifty thousand pounds per annum, besides the profit  of a new dish introduced to the tables of all gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom who have any refinement in taste" (Swift 6). These quotes both just show that not only are Americans well informed in the eating of infants (or having a very large gap in the social classes like the United Kingdom) but also that the Irish being willing to sell their children will increase their stock and that that gentlemen with refined taste will have more food (note the verbal irony). John Oliver discusses gun control with the Australian government, who were successful in passing a gun control law, and the American government, who stubbornly believe that if we can't fully solve the problem then we should do nothing at all. "People are the know, after spending this amount of time with you, Philip, I'm starting to believe that" (Daily Show). He spent much of the video telling the Australians that their law got people's political careers killed, and then agrees with the government official that didn't like the gun control law that people are most definitely the problem, meaning that both sides of the issue have problems from the opposite side's perspective. The Americans cared more about their political careers than the good of the country, therefore not successfully passing a law, and the Australians lost several good politicians because they did pass that law that didn't stop all gun violence in the entire country. Everyone has problems, and satire exposes those. But does anyone use satire to better themselves? The fact that America still has no gun control despite this clip airing says otherwise.

In short, satire can expose ills in society, be it through verbal irony, scathing wit, or just seeing Americans being total idiots in ways that everyone can recognize as having done at one point or another in their lives. But do people really take satire that seriously? Evidence points to know. Even though many people see the videos, read A Modest Proposal, all of the ills in society that are either not pointed out or have been pointed out many times remain. They recognize that there is a problem, yes, but they do not do much about it. Despite being told blatantly what is wrong with them, people either don't take it seriously or choose to be apathetic. Yes, it's funny. But satire is so layered, so deep in so many ways that the people being satirized cannot see, that it is up to those who can see what is wrong with them to do something. And, unfortunately, nobody does.