A Modest Proposal

“A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.”

– Jonathan Swift

Distinct from Forgeries and Invented Persona, which I deal with elsewhere, is this category of hoaxers whose bent is to pretend cleverly to advocate things they don’t actually believe, in an extreme case of devil’s advocacy or reductio ad absurdum.

I’m thinking here of things like the Report from Iron Mountain. In the form of a government think-tank report, this fabulous satire analyzed the “possibility and desirability of peace” and found that peace would be undesirable to the American state for many reasons. The satire was aimed at the U.S. military-industrial complex from the American left-wing during the cold war, but it has been taken seriously by antigovernment groups on the American right-wing in more recent years, some of whom take it to be actual evidence of an ongoing conspiracy. (A more recent sighting was in a commentary on world politics from the Voice of Islam.)

Alan Sokal's Social Text hoax caused a few chuckles. Social Text, one of those ohsopomo academic journals, accepted and printed a paper of Sokal’s that the physicist had filled with a bunch of things he thought to be utterly ridiculous, surrounded with enough deconstructive camoflage to pass as wisdom.

In 1954 someone pulled a similar prank on Psychological Review, with an article called “Sidesteps Toward a Nonspecial Theory” that exaggerated and mocked quasi-Freudian ideas. Perhaps it wasn’t a hoax at all; I’ve heard weirder things said in more sober tones lately.

A gold star for valor in the face of legislature goes to Representative Tom Moore, Jr., of Waco, Texas who introduced a resolution into the Texas House of Representatives honoring Albert de Salvo. “Above all,” the resolution read, “this compassionate gentleman’s dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout our nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future. His sincerity, diligence and coöperation has earned him warm admiration and affection of his fellow practitioners.” After the resolution was approved unanimously by the House, Moore revealed that Albert de Salvo was none other than the Boston Strangler.

Time to honor the pioneers: Jonathan Swift’s 1729 work “A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public” (by serving them as food to the starving in Ireland) was a wicked satire whose title has become a descriptive code-phrase for this sort of effort.

Daniel Defoe had tried a similar stunt several years previously, with his The Shortest Way with Dissenters, which got him jailed and pilloried (legend has it that the crowd pelted him with flowers as a show of respect).

Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter-to-the-editor back in 1790 in which he claimed to have found a well-reasoned defense of slavery remarkably similar to a recent speech by Senator Jackson – only this defense was written in 1687 by one Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim to justify the enslavement of white Christians in Algeria.

In Slate magazine’s discussion forum, a member using the name “TheVeiled” posted a marvelous modest proposal for more torture in early 2005.

Writes Popular Photography Magazine:

In our April 2005 issue, we published an April Fool’s spoof which generated more responses than anything we’ve done in years.… We took three classic photos by Dorothea Lange, Edward “Doc” Edgerton, and Walker Evans, pretended to be clueless, mindless Photoshop-shootin’ androids, and proceeded to deface them all.… Most of our readers got the joke. But many didn’t. We received hundreds — yes, hundreds — of rants, hate letters, and excommunication threats. Our wanton destruction of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” generated particularly venomous indignation.

Marc Perkel and Cat Yronwode wrote a satire of the hunger of the American press for any presidential scandal, no matter how poorly supported, with their rant “Was the Press Involved in the Death of the President’s Mother?

An Italian group called the “Metropolitan Indians” parodied the sloganeering of the left-wing establishment by slapping up posters in 1972 with slogans like “LONG LIVE SACRIFICE” or “ALL POWER TO THE DROMEDARIAT.”

Want to try this sort of thing out at home? Form a chapter of the activist group Arm the Homeless in your community. The press can’t seem to resist biting when you throw them bait as good as this tasty blend of left-wing homeless activism and right-wing firearm advocacy.

In 1877 Ambrose Bierce pseudonymously penned a satire of puritanical moralism with his book “The Dance of Death” – a scathing attack on the immorality of the waltz that got taken so seriously that he had to write an equally overwrought counterattack.

During the U.S. Civil War, a pamphlet came out that advocated “miscegenation” – a word that the pamphleteers had coined to describe the interbreeding of “the races.” Many abolitionists saw nothing wrong with this idea, but at the time the concept was, as they say, “not politically viable.” Many responded to the authors with qualified (and, they hoped, discreet) praise.

The pamphleteers, however, were racist Democrats who were trying to sabotage the Republicans and abolitionists by tacking them to this unpopular issue. The embarassingly unbigoted letters from abolitionists and Republicans were leaked to the press and the opposition. Sneaky bastages.

Kingston, Ontario has been home to a number of allegedly official announcements intended to buffoon and outrage the allegedly official. Pranksters protested irresponsible logging on (and military test flights above) native land by announcing the logging of the lovely trees in front of (and giving notice of supersonic flights above) the white people’s homes.

Urge your neighbors to join the campaign to ban that insidious solvent and acid-rain component known as dihydrogen monoxide. Or join the Christians for the Cloning of Jesus a.k.a. The Second Coming Project and assist in the second coming.

When did the thorny and ponderous issue of race relations in the United States suddenly become a topic for wit? When Black People Love Us and hit the scene.

Not all of these things are the product of someone with a political or religious axe to grind. I shouldn’t leave out Orson Welles’ panic-inducing radio play, The War of the Worlds, which was taken by many listeners to be a live-at-the-scene news broadcast.

With motives of a less-specifiable nature, Californian Luther Blissett created the Mollusca Information Center to share resources and useful information about an entirely mythical sexually transmitted disease allegedly known to your average joe as “the clam.”

And let’s not forget the famous Bonsai Kitten!

Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift

Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe

Arm the Homeless
Arm the Homeless

Orson Welles
Orson Welles

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On This Day in SniggleryJuly 20, 1969: Neil Armstrong walks on the moon. Sure he does. (See our Cryptozo├Âlgy page for lunar speculations)