Saturday, December 15, 2012

It is Sometimes Forgotten

That after Gulliver spent an early chunk of his travels living with and mocking the petty, quarrelsome culture of the Lilliputians, he fell in with the giant race of the Brobdingnagians.

Suffice it to say that, during his stay with them, Western Civilization did not come off very well at all.

Jonathan Swift wrote "Gulliver's Travels" nearly 300 years ago, in 1726.

Judge for yourself how well his satire-sheathed observations have stood the test of time (with a little emphasis added to guide the eye):

He fell next upon the management of our treasury; and said, "he thought my memory had failed me, because I computed our taxes at about five or six millions a-year, and when I came to mention the issues, he found they sometimes amounted to more than double; for the notes he had taken were very particular in this point, because he hoped, as he told me, that the knowledge of our conduct might be useful to him, and he could not be deceived in his calculations. But, if what I told him were true, he was still at a loss how a kingdom could run out of its estate, like a private person." He asked me, "who were our creditors; and where we found money to pay them?" He wondered to hear me talk of such chargeable and expensive wars; "that certainly we must be a quarrelsome people, or live among very bad neighbours, and that our generals must needs be richer than our kings." He asked, what business we had out of our own islands, unless upon the score of trade, or treaty, or to defend the coasts with our fleet?" Above all, he was amazed to hear me talk of a mercenary standing army, in the midst of peace, and among a free people. He said, "if we were governed by our own consent, in the persons of our representatives, he could not imagine of whom we were afraid, or against whom we were to fight; and would hear my opinion, whether a private man's house might not be better defended by himself, his children, and family, than by half-a-dozen rascals, picked up at a venture in the streets for small wages, who might get a hundred times more by cutting their throats?" 
He laughed at my "odd kind of arithmetic," as he was pleased to call it, "in reckoning the numbers of our people, by a computation drawn from the several sects among us, in religion and politics." He said, "he knew no reason why those, who entertain opinions prejudicial to the public, should be obliged to change, or should not be obliged to conceal them. And as it was tyranny in any government to require the first, so it was weakness not to enforce the second: for a man may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not to vend them about for cordials." 
He observed, "that among the diversions of our nobility and gentry, I had mentioned gaming: he desired to know at what age this entertainment was usually taken up, and when it was laid down; how much of their time it employed; whether it ever went so high as to affect their fortunes; whether mean, vicious people, by their dexterity in that art, might not arrive at great riches, and sometimes keep our very nobles in dependence, as well as habituate them to vile companions, wholly take them from the improvement of their minds, and force them, by the losses they received, to learn and practise that infamous dexterity upon others?" 
He was perfectly astonished with the historical account gave him of our affairs during the last century; protesting "it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce." 
His majesty, in another audience, was at the pains to recapitulate the sum of all I had spoken; compared the questions he made with the answers I had given; then taking me into his hands, and stroking me gently, delivered himself in these words, which I shall never forget, nor the manner he spoke them in: "My little friend Grildrig, you have made a most admirable panegyric upon your country; you have clearly proved, that ignorance, idleness, and vice, are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator; that laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied, by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them. I observe among you some lines of an institution, which, in its original, might have been tolerable, but these half erased, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by corruptions. It does not appear, from all you have said, how any one perfection is required toward the procurement of any one station among you; much less, that men are ennobled on account of their virtue; that priests are advanced for their piety or learning; soldiers, for their conduct or valour; judges, for their integrity; senators, for the love of their country; or counsellors for their wisdom. As for yourself," continued the king, "who have spent the greatest part of your life in travelling, I am well disposed to hope you may hitherto have escaped many vices of your country. But by what I have gathered from your own relation, and the answers I have with much pains wrung and extorted from you, I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth."


Ormond Otvos said...

"He said, "he knew no reason why those, who entertain opinions prejudicial to the public, should be obliged to change, or should not be obliged to conceal them. And as it was tyranny in any government to require the first, so it was weakness not to enforce the second: for a man may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not to vend them about for cordials."

He's talking about suppression of speech here, and you quote him approvingly? Hmmm.

These would anti-sedition laws?

secularhuman said...

I wonder if Swift thought we would have failed to advance even an inch 300 years later.' Probably.... the military-industrial complex, K Street, ALEC, presidents with enough working digits, and, if you look really close, Fox ``News.''

starskeptic said...

When do we get to the Yahoos?

Anonymous said...


OK, I'll step in it...

There is a difference between "free" speech and "responsible" speech. The divide between the left and right shows this ever so clearly.

Conservative talking heads spin lies and lies and lies and pass it as news. Progressives say that liars should not be put on political shows or given prominent space in newspapers. The right accuses the left of tyranny.

The right tells the left that Obama is the most socialist, Marxist, communist, Kenyanist, anti-colonialist president we have had ind is planning to burn Bibles and Guns and send Christians to FEMA camps and turn kids gay. The left tries to get the right held accountable for such utter horseshit. The right accuses the left of tyranny.

Religious fundamentalists want their books badly-translated dictates on behaviors that do not apply to them enshrined in law to keep "those" people in check, but anything that would inconvenience them must be subject to mature modern interpretation and translation. They want bronze-age superstition taught as science to poison the minds of children as to the value of science and math. The left, many of whom are religious, want religion to be a personal matter and everyone to have an opportunity to have an education rich in math and science. The right accuses the left of tyranny.

The right used to say that the darkies shouldn't be allowed to vote if they could not prove sufficient education and wealth, and should only be allowed a partial vote otherwise, because the Constitution was a document of Manifest Destiny and White Man's Burden. The left pointed out that is racist horseshit. The right accused the left of tyranny.

Freedom of speech works well when everyone has some modicum of education, intelligence, and maturity, and also values those traits. We live in a culture where shouting at Latinos or gays or Muslims "puts them in their place" and if you can bully someone into silence, you are powerful and right and smart. We live in a culture where people are more likely to believe in the 2012 doomsday Mayan stuff rather than know anything CERN has done. We live in a culture where "Honey Boo-Boo" and the horrible New Jersey oompa-loompa "psychic" (who's even bad at cold readings) are on The Learning Channel and The Discovery Channel.

I am really getting to the point that I would be comfortable with "responsible speech" laws.


secularhuman said...

Swift, if I understand the passage correctly, is NOT talking about suppression of speech, but about prosecuting slander -- aka falsehoods. aka smears. aka Swiftboating. aka bullshit of the sort Mike K. enumerates. Fox``News'' is a purveyor of slanderous bullshit under the guise of a ``fair and balanced'' reportorial claim. There should be a form of redress against propaganda. Which Fox``News'' does.

tony in san diego said...

not every nation, including Britain, agrees with our constitutional principle of virtually unrestricted freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not a universal law of nature, we are the beneficiaries of a mixed blessing.

ScarabusRedivivus said...

And, after all 4 of his adventures, Gulliver rejected humanity and chose to eschew the yahoos and live with horses.

Ormond Otvos said...

"opinions prejudicial to the public"

Hard to interpret that as slander. Quite a reach.

Sounds to me like Swift had a fairly accurate idea of how many of the public are fit to self-govern.

Modern cognitive science preaches little else.

Technical rationality wasn't really functional while our genes were being born. SOCIAL rationality, maybe.

Happiness is a warm gun, oh yeah!