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Waiting for the Barbarians

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Shorter Kate McMillan: I'm so bored with civilization.

(Cavafy's original here.)

Let's get one other thing straight here. McMillan's column is called "A modest proposal for curing a whiny nation," a reference, of course, to Jonathan Swift's famous satirical essay. Like far too many people who throw the phrase "modest proposal" around, McMillan completely misunderstands what Swift was up to.

Briefly, Swift was deeply distressed by the level of poverty in early 18th-century Ireland, which was caused, he believed, by bad economic policy. He had been proposing actual solutions to this problem for years, all of which had been rejected by the power elite, who saw poor Irish citizens simply as resources. Eventually, Swift got fed up and wrote his "modest proposal," taking on the character of one such member of the power elite, and taking their attitude to its logical conclusion: if we really see them as resources, why not eat them? In other words, Swift's essay is a reductio ad absurdum, meant to show the folly and viciousness of treating people without dignity.

Unfortunately, too many people (and McMillan's one of them) get this completely reversed. Instead of attempting to show how bad it is to treat people without dignity, she imagines how wicked cool it would be. Instead of attempting to alleviate suffering, she alleges that suffering would be good for us. Instead of trying to build up a more just and fair civilization, she pretends to ponder how awesome it would be for us if it all came crashing down. And instead of proposing real solutions to real problems, she's just complaining about people she doesn't like. She's not drawing a Swiftian reductio ad absurdum; she's just being absurd and counterfactual. There's no purpose here, no solution, and no actual satire -- and most of all, no problem being addressed, except the one swimming around in her own imagination.

She doesn't like do-not-call lists, so she fantasizes about people (not her, of course) dying? Now that's a sense of entitlement. What a whiner.
Cross-posted at The Vanity Press.

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This page contains a single entry by published on February 14, 2008 2:54 PM.

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