Eighteenth Century

Plus ça change

Satire has been used by writers, poets, and playwrights for millennia as a way to make incisive social commentary while also entertaining a mass audience. Generally speaking, satire can be classified as “Horatian” satire (named after the Roman poet Horace) or “Juvenalian” satire (after the Roman poet Juvenal). Horatian satire comes from a place of amusement, and is wry, gentle, and sympathetic to its targets, which are typically human shortcomings and the mild absurdities of life. Juvenalian satire, in contrast, is cynical, caustic, and often angry, and is directed at what the satirist believes to be an egregious moral error. Jonathan Swift’s shocking, abrasively sarcastic A Modest Proposal, of course, falls squarely into the latter category.

As others have noted, the tradition of social and/or political satire has been passed down through the centuries, from Swift and Alexander Pope to Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, and to modern “fake news” comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Swift and Colbert are particularly alike in that they fully assume the identities of fictional, often boorish (or worse) versions of themselves in order to mock similar attitudes and behaviors in others or society in general.

Though we’d all probably like to think that the social ills that plagued Swift’s time have been cured or improved by Colbert’s, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and their targets have unfortunately overlapped at least once. In 2010, billionaire media mogul Ted Turner, while discussing the problem of global overpopulation with an interviewer, suggested that a worldwide one-child policy should be implemented, and “fertility rights could be sold so that poor people could profit from their decision not to reproduce.” On his show, Colbert mocked Turner by upping the ante to a Modest Proposal-like plan to eat poor children. Pulling out a leather-bound book, he says, “I even found some great preparation tips by a guy named Jon Swift. I think he was a famous cook back in England.”

(Watch the video here.)


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