"I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout."
Thus begins Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Ireland from being a Burden to their Parents or Country (1729), perhaps the most important work of satire in the English language. Swift was, of course, seeking to jab the British aristocracy out of its complacency and strip away the polite veneer from a national policy toward the impoverished Irish that bordered on genocide. Alas, some of his more literal-minded readers missed the point entirely and thought he was being a little harsh on the neighbors. Boiled babies? Surely not! Well, a ragout, maybe, if you could disguise the ingredients…
Irony in the service of moral outrage can be a dangerous tactic, particularly when you're surrounded by dullards. This wire story about a Wisonsin teacher's arrest for an anonymous online post about the 1999 killings at Columbine High School is a case in point. The poster, responding to comments on a conservative political blog bashing "lazy" teachers, offered what a reasonable person might consider a sarcastic response, suggesting that the Columbine killers had the right idea: "They knew how to deal with the overpaid teacher union thugs. One shot at a time!"
Unfortunately, one rather humorless reader — a teacher, of course — decided that this caustic jibe should be treated as a hike in the threat level and called police. They tracked the post and arrested a man named James Buss, who happens to be a teacher himself — and a former president of the teachers' union.
If Buss is the poster, just what is he guilty of? Satire without a permit? The cops aren't sure. It makes sense to investigate specific threats against schools, their employees and students; if anyone had bothered to do that in 1998, Columbine might never have happened, as detailed in our Columbine Reader . But when irony is outlawed, only outlaws will have the ability to stir outrage. Everybody else will be brain dead.
Swift also wrote that "satire, being leveled at all, is never resented for an offence by any." Boy, was he wrong. – Alan Prendergastl