Saturday, September 27, 2008

"A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift

Source: LibriVox
Length: 27 min
Reader: John Gonzales

The story: In 1729, Jonathan Swift published a pamphlet that proposed to solve all the British Empire's problems, particularly the poverty and starvation in Ireland. This solution would decrease the number of poor people, bring income, provide food for many, and alleviate religious conflict all without costing the British Empire a shilling. The proposal was simple, but obvious in hindsight: women of the lower classes would nurse their children until they were one year old, then sell them off as food for the higher classes. The skin of the babies could even be used for a gentleman's fine gloves! What possible objections could be raised to such a beneficial project?

"A Modest Proposal" was the grandfather of our current political satire. Even before the Industrial Revolution had begun, Swift saw that the rise of Britain as a mercantile power was pushing its people into a hyper-capitalist worldview that saw people as just another commodity to be exploited. No one was really wanting to eat the peasants' babies, but more were subscribing to the idea that everything has its price and that price should be maximized, without regard to who it hurt. Swift jumped on this idea and took it to its logical extreme. In a sense, this pamphlet was the first issue of The Onion or the first episode of The Colbert Report.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: This piece could be read aloud in two very different ways. One would be to play it straight, earnestly arguing that babies should be roasted and allow the listener to figure out that the reader is not, in fact, serious. The other would be to adopt Swift's tone of sarcasm, letting the listeners know that the reader is in on the joke. Gonzales chooses the second, but doesn't allow his sarcasm to become so thick that it ruins impact of what is being proposed. He has a snooty British accent that gives a overtone of reality, while at certain points his voice overemphasizes the deliciousness of baby flesh to play up the humor. The balance of straight man and joker is hard to achieve, but Gonzales hits it just right.

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