Ye gad, Rochelle Gurstein sure tied herself into knots today on The New Republic. Nobody, argues Gurstein, could write a caustic satire like Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” today. The reason? The real world has become so ridiculous that all the satirist can do is imitate it. For example, all Tina Fey had to do to satirize Sarah Palin was speak Palin’s exact words. As it’s hard to tell the ridiculous from the mere imitation of the ridiculous, nothing these days can be taken as clearly satirical or clearly non-satirical. We have lost our “shared sense of reality,” laments Gurstein. Satire in turn has lost its bite.
Now, I tend to think that the reason you don’t see Swiftian satire today is that there isn’t a Swift around to do the satirizing. In any case, Gurstein’s take is only compelling insofar as you share her conviction that the world has become offensive to decency and common sense. Gurstein finds it ridiculous, for example, that Obama has not proposed some brilliant program to “rescue Americans from the devastation caused by the financial collapse.” I think most people would agree that if Obama could rescue Americans at no cost, he should do it. The problem, alas, is that nobody — not even Obama — knows exactly how to fix a financial crisis. Gurstein simply posits that a way to fix it must exist because, dammit, it’s ridiculous and offensive to human decency if we can’t relieve suffering when we see it.
Still, maybe Gurstein is right that Swiftian satire is impossible today. Bizarrely, however, she starts her essay with an attempt at satire, deliberately designed to fail, so as to illustrate her point that Swiftian satire can’t work. And what is Gurstein’s deliberately maladroit satire? Why, a satire of the very aggressive liberal interventionism that she thinks obviously compelled by common sense and decency! That is to say, Gurstein argues, in jest, that instead of redistributing wealth, we should instead redistribute babies, so that babies of poor people are placed with rich parents and babies of rich people are placed with poor parents.
This seems like a pretty effective and recognizable satire to me. Family ties have been an acknowledged obstacle to radical social reform since Plato. If you truly wanted equality of opportunity, for example, children really should be separated from their parents. Since no decent person would actually want to do that, no matter how rationally compelling the justification, it follows that human decency must limit the extent to which we can achieve equality. Gurstein, as she takes pains to tell us, is just being satirical. Equality isn’t everything.
But wait! Gurstein also says that Swiftian satire has become extinct since “our public sphere has acquired” such “an increasing feel of irrationality.” Perhaps then, her “satire” can’t be taken as such but should instead be taken as sincerely as Sarah Palin’s claims about Putin invading Alaska. Maybe Gurstein really does want to consider drastic measures to achieve equality of opportunity. Given that the world has become so ridiculous, it’s just hard to tell.