Since all of you know Swift’s A Modest Proposal, since in fact you were raised on the essay, I need say no more about it. It is part of the education (or maybe was part of it, since I haven’t been to high school for 50 years, and I don’t know — wait for it — what they are “teaching” anymore) for everyone doomed to know English as a first language. A modest proposal.
I really like Jonathan Swift. He was so brilliantly and humorously contrarian! Alexander Pope I can barely tolerate, but Swift! He has no equal in English literature except for Mark Twain. Let me add here, I was raised on Mark Twain as well. When I was a wee one, my mother, an uneducated woman who nevertheless prized learning, and who was herself a dedicated reader of novels, bought me a copy of the Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain. It sat in my bedroom on a shelf, tantalizing me, until I was advanced enough to read it. There I remember the “Story of a Bad Boy” coupled with the “Story of a Good Boy.” It was delicious to read that the bad boy became a great success in life and the good boy an utter failure. What we call morality, Twain implied, was a great lie. Modern life, in truth, had little to do with it.
In any case, I was thinking about A Modest Proposal while reading about controversies in the USA over the extent of the quarantine in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus. There are people out there, in America, including members of Congress and for that matter the President, who are arguing that the trade-off between lives and economic activity ought to be resolved in favor of economic activity. Free trade is our way of life, according to not a few right-wingers, and we can’t let something so inconsequential as the death of several thousand, or several several thousand, get in the way of it.
Think about it: what good does it do for us to be alive, if being alive also makes us poor? Why worry about people who succumb to the virus, when most of us have not succumbed, and are eager to get back to work?
The renowned philosopher Giorgio Agamben has made a similar appeal. Why should we be so obsessed with what he calls “bare life,” when what we really need is a bigger experience of life, meaningful, political life? But Agamben is on the left, whereas most supporters of getting the world back to business are on the right. Is there a secret compact between the two positions, the one that says life has to be about making money, and other that life has to be about politics and meaning? And that in any case “bare life” is not worth supporting?
It is not impossible. But the solution is there for everyone to see. The old and infirm, the carriers of the virus, whether young or old, whether symptomatic or not — they ought to be shot, or otherwise disposed of. If we are talking about ten percent of the population, so be it. The rest of us, we ninety percenters, will not only survive, but thrive. We will get our economy going again.
It is simply not fair that ten or twenty percent of the population should hold the rest of us hostage. It is not fair that because those unfortunates are sickly, the rest of us should have to decline into a Great Depression. They are infected; the rest of us are not. And what are we supposed to do, while we healthy ones are prevented from working, or from amusing ourselves? A quick roundup of the infirm and the non-infirm carriers ought to do the trick. Our hospitals are stretched thin. It is all but impossible these days to get an appointment for a breast enhancement, let alone an abortion. And what’s next? Skin cancer? No, I say round them up, the carriers and the sufferers, and let’s reopen our health care system to the rest of us.
Whether shooting them is the best option, I yield to others. I am no expert on execution. There are other methods. The electric chair. Gas. Lethal injection. Cutting off life support. Hanging. Beheading. We can make executions as horrendous as we can in order to deter those among us who might be tempted to contract the virus, in order to get a few weeks off from work or apply for unemployment benefits, or we can be kindly as we conduct executions. But whatever the means we choose, it has to be swift. We simply cannot go on much longer without drastic measures. Sacrificing the lives of hundreds of thousands will save the lives of hundreds of millions.
And a new day will dawn. You know it, a new day. A few days from tomorrow, if only we act swiftly, you and I can go to McDonald’s again, and order a Big Mac, and sit in the dining room and … well you know what happens there.
Lechaim! we Jews say. To life! There is nothing wrong with killing off the people whose diseases might obstruct our love for life and the jobs we perform that support it. Choose life over death. Even Nietzsche, one imagines, would support the idea. Those who are sick are sick. Let them die. The rest of us, one supposes, will be free to dine at McDonald’s. Or to work there. And pay taxes.
And by the way. It’s all China’s fault.