It’s hard to explain an affinity for Jonathan Swift – the honors work in college and all the detailed work in graduate school. Swift was an odd duck, and an old duck – early eighteenth century. But there was something about A Tale of a Tub – particularly Section IX: A Digression Concerning the Original, The Use, and Improvement of Madness in a Commonwealth.
That made sense. It was the late sixties – everyone seemed proudly mad, or proudly angry, on both the left and the right. It was America, love it or leave it, you long-haired spoiled whiner. But few left. One summer they headed for San Francisco, with flowers in their hair, and the next summer they headed off to Woodstock. In between they dropped by Chicago to set things straight at the Democratic Convention, and the police would have none of that. Parents cried and Republicans fumed. And some of us read Swift on the sidelines – “For, if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness, as it has respect either to the understanding or the senses, we shall find all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well-deceived.”
A lot of people seemed self-righteously angry, and aggressively so, and unwilling to budge an inch. They seemed quite mad. And they thought that would improve the commonwealth. Swift had nailed it.
And of course there is A Modest Proposal – for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country and for making them beneficial to the public, of course – and that was cool. Stewart and Colbert, and particularly Colbert, seem to have learned a lot from that. Listen to an argument and extend it logically. You end up in some very dark places, and all you do is act innocent and arch an eyebrow. People suddenly see what is really going on. No wonder a good number of politicians are afraid to go on Colbert’s show. They find themselves trapped by their egos and their certainty, and by Colbert subtly mirroring their certainty, into explaining the implications of what they’re saying, all the implications. That can be deadly. Swift provided the template.
Of course Gulliver’s Travels is what everyone knows – but perhaps that’s a bit too elaborate and self-indulgent. Swift knew that – Gulliver starts his voyage in a ship commanded by Master Bates, after all. But it has its moments. Call someone a Yahoo and you’re invoking Swift. That’s his term, and we still use it.
The less said about the minor in Twentieth Century American Literature the better. Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris, chatting with Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound being crazy and wild, and Sherwood Anderson dropping by, and then heading back to Ohio, and all the rest – it was great fun, even if Stein’s prose was really irritating. And it was Paris in the twenties, almost as cool as London in 1727 – with Pope, Swift and John Gay amazing everyone. But years later there were all the trips to Paris. All those folks were long gone. And one June day it was the fast train under the Channel in the dark to London. Gay’s Beggars Opera was no longer playing. You had to hum Mack the Knife to yourself.
But Swift still satisfies. And he’s once again a man for our times. Something like the madness of the late sixties has returned. And one wonders what he would make of contemporary American politics. He’d be scribbling away. Heck, he might be a staff writer for Colbert.
What would interest Swift? Andrew Leonard writes of the new barbarism – that’s the new push to keep science out of politics. On the face of it that sounds innocent enough, unless you think about it. But climate skeptics have a new goal. Don’t let scientists influence policy, period.
Leonard notes that Joe Romm, a climate activist, is upset at Scientific American. They featured an online poll on global warming and it seems that climate skeptics organized to skew the results – but that’s the problem with online polls. You can vote hundreds of times and make the poll reflect anything you want. And it seems that 56.1 percent of Scientific American readers believe that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is “a corrupt organization, prone to groupthink, with a political agenda.”
Leonard agrees with Romm – this looks like an organized attack of sorts. And thus it is useless. But Leonard says we can learn from it, as one question was “Which policy options do you support?” And forty-two percent of the respondents chose the answer “keeping science out of the political process.”
That says something about the folks flooding the poll, and Leonard doesn’t much like what it says:
Keep science out of the political process? Science? I thought it was supposed to be the other way around; that the goal was the keep politics out of science. I can understand, albeit disagree with, categorizations of anthropogenic global warming as bad science, but I’m afraid I just can’t come to grips with the notion that we should keep “science” from influencing politics at all. What is the point of civilization in the first place if we don’t use our hard-won understanding of how the universe works to influence our decisions on how to organize ourselves?
Yep, listen to the argument and extend it logically. It does lead to dark places:
Watching one Republican candidate for office after another declare, outright, that they do not believe humans are causing climate change is befuddling enough. But to flat-out reject science as a guide to policy is beyond medieval. It’s a retreat to pure superstition, a surrender to barbarism. We might as well be reading omens in the entrails of sacrificial animals. Our wealth as a country, our incredible technological wonders – the Industrial Revolution! – were built upon scientific discovery.
Should the FDA reject clinical test results in deciding whether to approve a drug? Should the U.S. Corp of Engineers ignore physics when building dams and levees? Scientists say asbestos is dangerous to human health and cigarette smoking causes cancer. Who cares? Let’s continue to build public schools packed with the fire-retardant material and give free Camel non-filters to teenagers!
Or let’s encourage the starving Irish peasants boil those Irish babies for tonight’s dinner. It’s a matter of extending the argument, although Leonard doesn’t do satire:
We need more science in the political process, not less. The countries that understand that will thrive and prosper. The ones that don’t will undoubtedly fail, if they haven’t already doomed themselves.
No shit, Mr. Wizard. Would that show even be on television these days? Ah well, happiness is, after all, the perpetual possession of being well-deceived.
Ah well, people are frightened and angry. It drives them a bit mad, and they think it’s good for the commonwealth that they are a bit mad, in both senses of the word.
Martin Wolf, writing in the Financial Times – of London, of course – is a bit better at the Swift thing, with his take on our midterm elections:
An ambulance stops by the roadside to help a man suffering from a heart attack. After desperate measures, the patient survives. Brought into hospital, he then makes a protracted and partial recovery. Then, two years later, far from feeling grateful, he sues the paramedics and doctors. If it were not for their interference, he insists, he would be as good as new. As for the heart attack, it was a minor event. He would have been far better off if he had been left alone.
Wolf calls this a “propaganda coup” – think Fox News – but he’s also none too happy with Obama’s stimulus effort, and the spending bill that came of it:
The truth is not that policy was foolhardy and failed, but that it was too timid and so could not succeed. A big mistake was the failure to address the labor market directly, perhaps by temporarily slashing payroll taxation. There were other mistakes, too: the effort to reduce the overhang of household debt should have been stronger.
Yet even the hated Tarp looks remarkably effective in hindsight. As Mr Summers noted, its cost to the taxpayer looks likely to be ⅓ per cent of GDP. This is far less than the cost of the bail-out of the savings and loans institutions in the 1980s. It is also far less than the direct fiscal cost of comparable crises elsewhere.
But of course the talk is that both TARP and the stimulus bill failed utterly. Someone is in the perpetual possession of being well-deceived.
And the brilliant and insightful but generally humorless Andrew Sullivan comments:
Given the scale and complexity of the crisis, my own view is that Obama’s record is about as good as one can expect from a human being inheriting a catastrophe and acting with limited knowledge in real time.
Of course that doesn’t fit any kind of left-right paradigm, so no one says that. But Sullivan will say that:
I continue to believe that Obama is the president many Independents voted for: pragmatic, smart, non-ideological and remarkably successful under the circumstances. But they have been blinded by propaganda, enabled by profound and resilient joblessness that, in a perfect world, Obama might have prevented, but in the real world, did about as much as he possibly could to alleviate, within prudent parameters.
But Sullivan is like some of us reading Swift on the sidelines in the late sixties:
In this polarized environment, I am an outlier. But if we still want to say “goodbye to all that” we have to keep our eyes fixed on empirical reality, and not be blinded by the easy left-right tropes of the past. It looks as if I under-estimated the capacity of America to move past this – given the unexpected events and economic implosion of the past two years. But that doesn’t weaken the case that we still can and should. Otherwise, the hope we had – and can still feel – will turn to Palinite ashes.
Of course there’s Senator Mitch McConnell – “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
And there’s Sullivan – “Rarely has the rank nihilism of the current Republican Party been better or more accurately expressed.”
But there is the perpetual possession of being well-deceived, and Steve Benen has been discussing how Republicans are “pining for the halcyon days they remember so fondly.” And he has noted how House Minority Leader John Boehner has been so outraged that Democrats are “snuffing out the America that I grew up in” during the 1950s and 1960s. And Benen now adds this:
Putting aside what that era was like for women and minority groups, the striking thing about such pining is how extraordinarily liberal the country was, economically, during these good ol’ days. The top marginal tax rate was 90% (nearly triple today’s figure); union membership was 30% (more than quadruple today’s figure); the Republican Party, which still had plenty of liberals, endorsed all kinds of progressive ideas (spending projects, living wage); and the economy was heavily regulated – airlines didn’t even set their own prices.
So what are these folks talking about? And Benen suggest Harold Meyerson in this column on conservative activists’ misguided understanding of what it is they think has gone wrong:
When the Tea Partyers get around to identifying how America has changed and to whose benefit, however, they get it almost all wrong. In the worldview of the American right – and the polling shows conclusively that that’s who the Tea Party is – the nation, misled by President Obama, has gone down the path to socialism. In fact, far from venturing down that road, we’ve been stuck on the road to hyper-capitalism for three decades now.
The Tea Partyers are right to be wary of income redistribution, but if they had even the slightest openness to empiricism, they’d see that the redistribution of the past 30 years has all been upward – radically upward. From 1950 through 1980, the share of all income in America going to the bottom 90 percent of Americans – effectively, all but the rich – increased from 64 percent to 65 percent, according to an analysis of tax data by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. Because the nation’s economy was growing handsomely, that means that the average income of Americans in the bottom 90 percent was growing, too – from $17,719 in 1950 to $30,941 in 1980 – a 75 percent increase in income in constant 2008 dollars.
Since 1980, it’s been a very different story. The economy has continued to grow handsomely, but for the bottom 90 percent of Americans, it’s been a time of stagnation and loss. Since 1980, the share of all income in America going to the bottom 90 percent has declined from 65 percent to 52 percent. In actual dollars, the average income of Americans in the bottom 90 percent flat-lined – going from the $30,941 of 1980 to $31,244 in 2008.
In short, the economic life and prospects for Americans since the Reagan Revolution have grown dim, while the lives of the rich – the super-rich in particular – have never been brighter. The share of income accruing to America’s wealthiest 1 percent rose from 9 percent in 1974 to a tidy 23.5 percent in 2007.
What is all that – facts? And Benen adds this:
It’s important to appreciate the economic anxieties so many are experiencing. Millions of middle-class families feel put upon and helpless. They’re working longer and harder, for less, and their optimism about the opportunities for future generations has all but disappeared.
But the problem is that these same working folks also struggle to tell friend from foe. Too many have been convinced that “government spending” is somehow evil, despite the fact that it’s this spending that often goes to benefit the middle class. They’ve been convinced that the Affordable Care Act that will deliver tremendous benefits to their family is awful.
In short, for 30 years, people who are struggling to keep their heads above water have been told not to trust life-preservers if they’re paid for with public funds.
Listen to an argument and extend it logically – consider the implications of what is being said, all the implications. That can be deadly. Swift provided the template. And Benen sums it up this way:
For conservative activists who nod their heads when Boehner wistfully thinks back to the ’50s and ’60s, there’s a fundamental confusion over what that means – the era they liked is the one in which New Deal policies created “economic security and opportunity” that were “widely shared,” thanks in part to high marginal top rates and wages that nearly kept pace with the cost of living.
If Boehner and his allies want to go back to “the America they grew up in,” we can, but it’ll require a pretty sharp left-hand turn.
Swift would understand, and perhaps he even wrote this live-in-Alaska segment of the Rachel Maddow Show:
Rachel chatted with some Joe Miller supporters campaigning on a street corner, but before she could walk away, the activists wanted to emphasize that they resent Sen. Lisa Murkowski for being one of 19 Republicans to vote to confirm Eric Holder as the U.S. Attorney General. Rachel asked why that was a bad thing. That’s when it got amusing.
One young man insisted that Holder is “the most anti-gun attorney general this nation has ever had.” When Rachel asked how he arrived at this, he had absolutely no idea why he believes what he believes. He referenced Holder’s “voting record beforehand,” which made no sense, since Holder has never held elected office. Asked what it was, exactly, that Holder did on gun policy he didn’t like, the Miller supporter – who, remember, feels so strongly about this issue that he brought it up – replied, “I, uh, I honestly, uh, I don’t know enough about him to answer that truthfully.”
So, Rachel moved to the next voter who’s mad about Holder, and who also brought up the subject. “He’s anti-gun,” the woman said. Asked what he’d done that’s anti-gun, the Miller support replied, “I don’t have all the facts, but I know that he is.”
That’s Benen’s summary – there’s a video clip at the link of course. And Benen points out that Paul Waldman had this observation – “Keep in mind that these are folks who are so mad about this particular issue, and so fervent in their defense of their Second Amendment rights, that they’re out on a corner talking to people about it.”
In the same segment, a third Miller supporter insisted Holder was bad because of “the voter intimidation with the Black Panthers.”
That voter later argued that members of the New Black Panther Party – which the Bush administration saw as too meaningless to pursue – aren’t being prosecuted because they’re black. This is one of the reasons she’s voting for Joe Miller.
“This is the world that Fox News has created,” Rachel concluded.
Swift would get it.
And the wars rage on, and Will Wilkinson says this about American foreign policy and its causes:
Even the hardened neo-con architects of the war in Iraq are idealists of sorts, sincerely believing that frequent displays of America’s awesome power to wreak devastation and death prevent even deadlier wars and make more favorable the chance that freedom will flourish worldwide. The United States is “causing enormous trouble around the world” not due to some muddled idea of freedom, but due to a mixed-up conviction that America is special, the vanguard of providence, called forth unto the world with the righteous sword of liberation. If America is “almost a rogue state”, it is because our Pharisaic self-infatuation encourages us to see ourselves as a colossus of emancipation both able and obligated to stomp around the globe making it safe for democracy. It really isn’t because Americans insist on motoring to the Piggly Wiggly in petrol-guzzling Ram Ziggurats.
Ah, the perpetual possession of being well-deceived. So there you have it. Conservative friends ask the key question. What would Jesus do? The few who find that sort of thing repugnant ask the alternative question. What would Milton Freidman, after rereading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged again, do?
And some of us just ask what would Swift say?