Johnathan Swift’s essay, A Modest Proposal, was a brilliant satire, designed to expose and mock callous attitudes to the poor in 18th Century Ireland. [Spoiler Alert!] Swifts’ solution to abject poverty was intentionally untenable, the eating of children. Swift took aim at those who would try to offer quick-fix schemes and cure-all-solutions in the face of real economic, social predicaments, and he lambasted the commodification of the poor.
Like Swift, we too live in age where the poor and marginalized are commodified, and devalued by those in power. Refugees are called terrorists, migrants are called very bad people, rural Americans are denounced as hicks and rednecks, people of color are dismissed as thugs, welfare recipients are declared a drain on our economy, and the LGBTQIA are decried for destroying tradition. But when people are routinely robbed of their value, it isn’t too long before we hear demands for their sacrifice (and we’re okay with it). The real horror of Swift’s proposal wasn’t the graphic description of raising children as livestock. The horror was that poor children, and the marginalized, were already laying their lives down to keep the reigning aristocracy well-fed. Swift’s modest proposal was “why don’t we do the things we are already doing to the poor?” It was satire, but it laid bare the upheaval and classism of 18th Century Ireland. And it’s true for us as well.
Joy Ladin is the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University Modest Proposal. She is the first openly transgender woman employed by an Orthodox Jewish University. Her poem Modest Proposal lacks the biting irony of Swift’s essay. She is more straight forward, in her proposal:
Let’s not kill or die today.
Let’s make angels out of yarn, men of snow, mashed potato animals
that smile as we spoon
their eyes of melted butter.
Instead of killing ourselves or one another,
let’s neatly stack anxiety’s sweaters
and scratch our itchy trigger fingers
by whittling turtles for our mothers,
or pretending to understand Heidegger,
or imagining the sexual embrace
through which time and space
first conceived of matter.
If we still aren’t over killing and dying,
we can search the stacks for library books
that haven’t circulated in generations
and savor the mold
that spores their spines
the way wine snobs savor the nose
of vintage wines bottled
between wars to end all wars.
Look, we’ve played all day
and haven’t spilled a drop of blood
apart from the occasional paper cut.
In an hour or two, when it’s very dark,
let’s make up stories out of stars,
and fill them with all the killing and dying
we didn’t do today, except in our imaginations.
Let’s pull our comforters over our heads
and sing ourselves to sleep
like good little civilizations.
From The Future Is Trying to Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow Press, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Joy Ladin.
Ladin isn’t being ironic here. She’s exploring the “what if,” wondering, “what if we stopped wars and violence, brave sacrifices and wounding one another? What if instead we were free to play, explore, read old books—savoring their mold—, make stories out of stars, pull the covers over our heads and sing ourselves to sleep?”
It sounds idyllic and unattainable, even less plausible than Swift’s gory satire. We want peace, and celebrate the laying down of arms, provided that the other side lays theirs down first. I like Ladin’s proposal, but it is less modest than Swift’s. He told us what we were doing, she asks us to change.
But isn’t this something we’ve read before?
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Return of the Remnant of Israel and Judah
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
Isaiah 11:7-10, NRSV
The predators—the wolves, the leopards, the lions, the bears, the snakes, the rich, the powerful and despot, the very bad people, the terrorists—will not bare their teeth. They will velvet their paws and stand alongside those they once victimized. Enmity and violence will be gone. Instead prey and predator alike will make angels out yarn and mash potato animals, the Little Child will lead us as we stack anxiety’s sweaters and whittle turtles for our mothers, pretend to understand Heidegger, contemplate the cosmos, We will play, explore, and dream. No more killing. No more dying.
With Ladin I am done with this serious business called war and long for the play of peace where there is no bloodshed outside the occasional paper cut. I long with Isaiah to see the day when all the violent predatory behavior cease and to have a Little Child to lead us to make stories out of stars. I will entertain no more proposals that advice me to eat the young and vulnerable. Peace is the proposal on the table. Advent says it’s coming.