20 April 2009

A Modest Proposal

My thanks go to C. August at Titanic Deck Chairs, who called attention to Richard Ralston’s satirical article, “It's Time to Nationalize Grocery Stores ;).”  In the article, Mr. Ralston, who is the Executive Director of Americans for Free Choice in Medicine, laces the chilling details of a government takeover of the food industry with tongue-in-cheek humor.  His purpose is draw a parallel between the industries of food and medicine, and to demonstrate, by the sheer absurdity of the prospect, that the claims of a “right” to health care are no more valid than claims of a “right” to food.

He is correct, of course, and as I read his article, I fully grasped the implications of his scenario.  I worry, though, that in this climate of unchecked government intrusions - in a culture that clamors for a kingly messiah that promises “change” in the form of a morsel of food dropped into outstretched hands - the absurdity will be missed by too many people.  Anyone who values liberty is sure to get the message of Mr. Ralston’s piece, but I fear that many Americans (i.e. citizens of America, though not American in spirit) would applaud the announcement that food “is surely a right, as it is necessary for human survival.  Therefore all groceries available in government commissaries will be free of charge.”  Are we so very far away from this now?

In a previous post, I wrote of my misgivings about the use of reductio ad absurdum with a public that is more likely to listen to the rumblings of their stomachs than to applications of logic:  

It wasn’t so long ago that I used the poor eating habits of Americans as an argument, in the form of reductio ad absurdum, to defend the tobacco industry in conversations with colleagues.  My case would go something like, “People choose to smoke, so they have no one to blame but themselves for the consequences.  To blame the tobacco companies is like blaming fast food restaurants for making people fat, which is ridiculous, right?”  At the time, it seemed completely absurd to think that legislators would come to assail restaurants for using “trans-fats.” 

Alas, in a society that has abandoned reason, a proposition that is plainly absurd one day becomes legislation the next.

When Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal in 1729, he could be certain that his sarcasm would not be lost on his audience, and the population of Ireland would not suddenly begin relieving their hunger pangs by stewing, roasting, baking, or boiling their children “in a fricasie, or a ragoust.”  I have no such confidence in the general public today, for whom the most egregious violations of individual rights is palatable with scarcely any seasoning at all.


Burgess Laughlin said...

> ". . . I wrote of my misgivings about the use of reductio ad absurdum with a public that is more likely to listen to the rumblings of their stomachs than to applications of logic . . ."

Thank you for spotlighting the pitfalls of the reductio ad absurdum approach. Like sarcasm generally, it is easily misunderstood -- perhaps especially by the very individuals a writer most wants to reach: those who are young or for other reasons are only beginning to consider a new subject.

If a writer is writing only to those who already are knowledgable about a subject or already agree with him, what would be the point?

The principle of form and function in architecture applies to writing as well. The form of the writing should follow logically from the function, that is, the purpose of the publication. In building, the architect must also consider the nature of the site and the budget. In writing, an author takes into account the nature of his intended audience and, in some publications, his "budget," that is, how many words he can use.

Plain talk works for readers who think clearly and are ready for what the author offers.

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the comments, Burgess. I like your comparison of writing to architecture.

I enjoyed Mr. Ralston's article and I think it would effectively reach engaged minds, but would be dismissed by the true believers of the left.

You bring up a good point about sarcasm in general that got me thinking about it. I believe there is a place for sarcasm at times (after all, I used a fair amount of it in my previous post!), but it is limiting, in the sense that if one's work relies heavily on sarcasm or satire, it is hard - maybe impossible - to be great. For example, I love Sinclair Lewis, and my favorite of his novels is It Can't Happen Here, which is more than a little relevant these days. Yet it's satirical approach contributes to its falling far short of Atlas Shrugged. Though the two bear comparison in terms of theme, the latter is immeasurably greater. Where Lewis pierces fascism to the quick, Rand produces the formula that obliterates all forms of tyranny everywhere. This is not something that could be done with satire.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction, p. 125, offers comments about sarcasm that are very useful to objective writers. Her general advice about sarcasm is to use it "sparingly." (She is speaking to students who were hoping to write for her newsletter as intellectual activists.)

On p. 124, she also makes fascinating comments about avoiding overstatements, unsupported perjoratives, insults, and inappropriate humor. What I find fascinating about her brief discussion is the hints of the underlying philosophical nature of some comments.

When I first read The Art of Nonfiction, I made the mistake of reading it quickly. Much later I went through most of the book again, but very slowly. It was in a small study group. The three of us, all writers, covered only one chapter or even just half a chapter at each monthly dinner meeting. Every margin is covered with my notes.

Best to you.