Tag Archives: satire

The Cynic’s Political Dictionary

  • Centrist: adj. the act of claiming to not care about identity politics in order to feed one’s own already narcissistic self-value.
  • Communism: adj. crippled by Progress (see Progress).
  • Conservative: adj. a desire to recapture an imaginary Golden Age, and cease caring.
  • Corporation: adj. the benchmark of personhood for Conservatives; n. the Great Satan of Liberals.
  • Economics: v. the act of attempting to predict the future, through a broken crystal ball.
  • Elections: n. the greatest theater production money can buy.
  • Family Values: absolute control of the person (see Person), and her/his genitalia.
  • Fascism: v. the act of feigning fear.
  • Free-market: n. the omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent God of Libertarianism (see Libertarianism).
  • Independent Voter: n. a disgruntled Conservative/Liberal; n. a committed Moderate (see Moderate).
  • Labo(u)r: n. an archaic animal of antiquity that invokes nostalgia in Liberals (see Liberal), and disdain in Conservatives (see Conservative).
  • Liberal: v. a state of perpetual inability to cease seeing faults everywhere in society.
  • Libertarianism: n. the completely rational belief that faceless, easily corruptible conglomerates are more honest and trustworthy than faceless, easily corruptible governments.
  • Middle-class: n. a mythical being with no clear definition; adj. a rhetorical token point.
  • Moderate: n. white bread.
  • Person: adj. act of being valued by your monetary and/or societal contribution; n. a corporation (see Corporation).
  • Politics: adj. the art of self-interest.
  • Progress: v. the infantilization of humanity; adj. hope for change with no plan to act.
  • Religion: adj. a source of false humility for the socially powerful, and a source of false power for the socially humiliated.
  • Socialism: n. the elder brother of Communism (see Communism); adj. being beyond redemption.
  • The People: n. a device that creates the impression of human compassion.
  • Voting: v. a dramatic tragedy.
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Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the Depravity of the Human Animal

The great feats of reason and resourcefulness of mankind is a cherished topic in literature.  Innumerable tales have been written (and will continue to be written) testifying to the way in which our ability to rationalize and contemplate the reality around us definitively separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom (indeed, some might even say, gives us dominion over it).  In defiance to this sentiment lies Jonathan Swift’s 1726 adventure novel Gulliver’s Travels, whose title character (Lemuel Gulliver) starts the story as an optimistic representation of human ingenuity, and finishes as a bitter misanthrope, disgusted at the innate depravity of his species.

Gulliver’s Travels is made up of four different voyages taken on by Lemuel Gulliver, an honest, kindhearted English ship’s surgeon, who has a tendency to find himself in fantastical situations and lands every few years.  The adventure most recognizable to the popular audience is probably Gulliver’s first voyage to the land of Lilliput, where the inhabitants stand only six inches high (the memorable depiction to readers is the part of the novel where Gulliver is lying down on the beach, bound down by billions of tiny ropes, as hundreds of miniature people are surrounding him).  The impression of Gulliver in this first story is that of a curious and reasonable man, who genuinely cares about the well-being of all human life he comes into contact with (from the very small inhabitants of Lilliput, to the gigantic natives of Brobdingnag he encounters on his second voyage).  However, a vital turn in the narrative occurs in Gulliver’s fourth and final voyage, when he finds himself stranded on an unknown land inhabited by an extraordinary race of intelligent horses (referred to as Houyhnhnms) who possess a superb capacity to reason (surpassing, in Gulliver’s opinion, even that of the human species he belongs to).  The Houyhnhnms are not the only inhabitants of this unmapped land; there also exist a species of savage humanoid creatures called Yahoos, which are used by the Houyhnhnms in similar fashion to how Gulliver’s society uses barnyard animals.

Gulliver’s immediate reaction towards the Yahoos is to deny that such an obvious brute could be a member of the human species.  Being devoid of this sort of sentiment about human dignity, the more rational Houyhnhnms easily point out to Gulliver the anatomical similarity between himself and the Yahoos, forcing the narrator to reflect:

The beast and I were brought close together, and our countenances diligently compared, both my master [referring to the Houyhnhnm who takes Gulliver into his dwelling partly out of an anthropological curiosity to learn about (what is to him) the “peculiarly reasonable Yahoo”] and servants, who thereupon repeated several times the word Yahoo.  My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal a perfect human figure (pg. 249).

Thus, Gulliver is forced to admit to himself that he does indeed share a biological tie with the savage animals of this undiscovered land.  Yet, this does little to sooth the repugnance he feels towards the Yahoos (of which he now knows himself to be one; no matter how tamed and civilized of a variant):

Although there were few greater lovers of mankind, at the time, than myself, yet I confess I never saw any sensitivity being so detestable on all accounts; and the more I came near them, the more hateful they grew, while I stayed in this country (pg. 250).

Noteworthy is Gulliver’s mention that “at the time” there existed few greater lovers of mankind, because it foreshadows the shift in sentiment the character will experience towards not just the Yahoos of this land, but the human species as a whole.  However, first one must explore how equally amazing Gulliver must seem to the Houyhnhnms, giving that there only exposure to humans are the Yahoos; whose intellectual capacity Gulliver’s “master” describes as, “the most unteachable of all brutes” (pg. 254).  To the dominant species of Houyhnhnmland, a Yahoo who possessed the ability to reason and communicate [with some struggle Gulliver eventually manages to learn the Houyhnhnm language] is perplexing beyond belief.  This gives hope to Gulliver that he can demonstrate to the noble Houyhnhnms that he is of a different disposition that the brutish Yahoos of their land, as he tries to satisfy his master’s curiosity by offering extensive descriptions of the various facets of civilized human society.  Unfortunately, this does little to dissuade the apparently obvious physical resemblance between himself and the Yahoos in any meaningful way.  The narrator’s Houyhnhnm master even goes so far as to point out the practical imperfection of Gulliver’s human form in comparison to both the savage Yahoos and his own horse-like shape:

He said I differed indeed from other Yahoos, being much more cleanly, and not altogether so deformed, but in point of real advantage he thought I differed for the worse.  That my nails were of no use either to fore or hinder-feet; as to my fore-feet, he could not properly call them by that name, for he never observed me to walk upon them; that they were too soft to bear the ground / He then began to find fault with other parts of my body, the flatness of my face, the prominence of my nose, my eyes placed directly in front, so that I could not look on either side without turning my head; that I was not able to feed myself without lifting one of my fore-feet to my mouth; and therefore nature had placed those joints to answer that necessity (pg. 261-62).

The importance of this exchange on Gulliver’s perception of humanity, and its place within the natural world, cannot be overstated.  Undoubtedly, Gulliver has spent his whole life with the presumption that the human form is the epitome of natural perfection (or, if not complete perfection, as close as any living being could ever hope to get).  Now, under scrutiny of an animal as distinct in form from humanity as any other creature, but whose ability to reason rivals the most educated of the human specimen, Gulliver is faced with the innumerable faults and imperfections of the human body–essentially shattering any inherent exceptionalism the man may have still held for his own species.  [This critique about the human form may have been one motivation for Jonathan Swift, a devout Anglican clergyman, to publish his book under a pseudonym, as it might have blasphemous implications to imply that man is no different/less perfect than any other animal.]  Moreover, the Houyhnhnm is so unimpressed by the human form, that he finds it impossible to imagine such a creature rising to any level of dominance and civility in any possible environment, due partly to the distrust we garner from other animals:

He observed every animal in this country naturally to abhor the Yahoos, whom the weaker avoided and the stronger drove from them.  So that supposing us to have the gift of reason, he could not see how it were possible to cure that natural antipathy which every creature discovered against us (pg. 262).

But more so due to the great cruelty human beings exhibit towards there own kind:

The Yahoos were known to hate one another more than they did any different species of animals; and the reason usually assigned was the odiousness of their own shapes, which all could see in the rest, but not in themselves (pg. 280).

It is therefore established that, without ever even having laid eyes or possessing any prior knowledge of human societies, this Houyhnhnm still managed to deduce through the sheer use of his innate reason, how the deadliest predator to man, is man himself.  Furthermore, he points out to Gulliver that the roots of the conflict amongst the members of the human species are trivial conceits over inconsequential vanities that no other living being would bother quarreling over.

Unlike the human society Gulliver came from, the Houyhnhnms have no concept of politics, religion, art and literature, or tribal affiliations (though, according to Gulliver, there does seem to exist a social hierarchy amongst the Houyhnhnms, akin to a caste system); nor can they contemplate the need for such things.  It is for this reason that Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master remarks that “instead of reason [humans] were only possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices” (pg. 267).  The human development of government and law to mediate our daily affairs is to the Houyhnhnms further indication human nature is antithetical to proper reasoning faculties:

That our government and law were plainly owing to our gross defects in reason, and by consequence, in virtue; because reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature (pg. 279).

Houyhnhnms live in an anarchistic social structure; there are no formal laws, but there is complete orderliness, maintained by the animals’ unwillingness to be stirred by emotive factors when it comes to evaluating the reality of life.  They have no interest in deceit (lacking a proper word for lying or evil), and while they do express joy, friendship, and hatred, they do so without the indication that there lies any deeper meaning behind their emotions besides a reaction to the workings of the natural world.  Thus, to the Houyhnhnms, the great innovations of human intellect–created to shelter, protect, inspire, and entertain us–are testaments to out depravity; our inability to be satisfied with what nature has given us.  We need a supervising authority, because we cannot trust ourselves to behave orderly.  To Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master, human gluttony is an ideal indication of our shortcomings as a species:

For if [the Houyhnhnm said] you throw among five Yahoos as much food as would be sufficient for fifty, they will, instead of eating peaceably, fall together by the ears, each single one impatient to have all to itself (pg. 280).

My master continuing his discourse said there was nothing that rendered the Yahoos more odious than their undistinguishing appetite to devour every thing that came in their way (pg. 281-82).

The reader must keep in mind that Swift’s novel is written as a satire against the conceit of his own society, thus the prose often takes on a hyperbolic tone whenever Gulliver affirms the reasonableness of the Houyhnhnm species.  The purpose of this is more than likely to further point out the contrasting flaws of the human animal, when forced to look past its self-credited righteousness.

Gulliver’s time spent with the Houyhnhnms causes him to development an intense hatred of not just the Yahoos of this unknown land, but humankind as a whole.  He sees human interests as being predominantly preoccupied with vanities and trivialities, whereas the Houyhnhnms concern themselves with more virtuous pursuits:

As these noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by nature with the general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions of ideas of what is evil in a rational creature, so their grand maxim is to cultivate reason, and to be wholly governed by it (pg. 288).

How exactly the Houyhnhnms manage to maintain this level of ultra-stoicism, is left rather vague by the author, but a possible explanation is presented by Gulliver:

It was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain, and beyond our knowledge we cannot be either.  So that controversies, wranglings, disputes, and positiveness in false or dubious propositions, are evils unknown amongst the Houyhnhnms (pg. 288).

The Houyhnhnms do not muse or speculate about abstract mental concepts, therefore they possess no means by which to fall prey to ideological quarrels.  This causes Gulliver to pine for the tranquility enjoyed by his hosts, and emulate their behavior for his own betterment.  He has no desire to return to human society, and be surrounded by vain Yahoos (let alone interact with them).  Even the very knowledge of his Yahoo nature stirs in him shame at belong to this repulsive species:

When I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself, and could better endure the sight of a common Yahoo than my own person (pg. 300).

Unfortunately for Gulliver, the Houyhnhnms eventually concluded that the innate nature of the Yahoos renders them an unteachable brute, thus to have him live amongst the Houyhnhnm as an equal would be unimaginable.  However, since Gulliver has demonstrated some capability of reason, he was potentially even more dangerous on account that he might be inclined one day to organize the Yahoos against the Houyhnhnms.  Thus, he was exhorted to leave Houyhnhnmland and return to his own place of origin, which he did–begrudgingly.  Upon his return to England, Gulliver is a shell of the humanist he was at the onset of his first voyage; disgusted at the sight of his own kind, and unable to bring himself to bear the stench and presence of even his own family (who to him are now no different from any other Yahoo), he finds some level of peace conversing to his horses (whose anatomy fondly reminds him of the Houyhnhnms), living his life with the modest goal “to behold my figure in a glass, and thus if possible habituate myself by time to tolerate the sight of a human creature” (pg. 317).

As mentioned earlier, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travel’s is a work of satire, and should be read as such.  The obvious criticism of human conceit and vanity is the most overt message contained within Gulliver’s final voyage, but what needs to be mentioned is also the apparent lifelessness that comes along with the Houyhnhnms’ dedication to reason.  Devoid of emotional appeals, they do not quarrel, but they also lack imagination, and insight no aesthetic inspiration.  So, to me, the subtler point found hidden in Swift’s prose is that even if the impossible was to be done, and the depravity of human nature could be overcome, and man could learn to be as reasonable as the noble Houyhnhnm, if we remove ourselves of the very facets in life that give us the most meaning and value–despite their contributions to our faults and irrationalities–will we also be giving up the very things that make us human to begin with?

Bibliography

Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver’s Travels, (Signet Classics: NewYork), 1726.  1960 reprint.

Peace is Dead!

Pure pacifism is an extinct concept.  That is not to say that people don’t still oppose wars, because they certainly do.  But it is a very sanitized form of opposition, filled with awkward qualifiers and conditionals, that really amount to little more than a moderate, “Well, no I don’t oppose all wars, just this particular one that we happen to be discussing right now.”  And there is nothing wrong with such a position, as long as it is truly the position one feels is most reasonable, and not a baseless cop-out, adopted so as not to look weak-minded in front of the courageous war proponent.

Pacifists are seen as naturally unreasonable (even by other pacifists), and a lot of that is due to the pacifist’s inability to be aggressively passive.  How often have people who see war as a harsh necessity silenced their peaceful counterparts simply by asserting, “Pacifism is fallaciously unsustainable, just think what would have happened if we listened to these guys back in 1939.  If everyone had been a pacifist at that point, Hitler would surely have taken over all of Europe.”  Of course, pacifists–not knowing how to argue–never bother to point out that had everyone been a pacifist in 1939 (or 1934, or 1756, or 1198), the likes of Hitler would have never existed to begin with.  No, to make such an argument would be unreasonable (for some obvious reason or another).

The instinct to fight, it is argued, is a part of human behavior, thus war is simply an unfortunate extension of a basic function of our species; it is unnatural to try and restrain a phenomenon that is so deeply ingrained in our evolutionary psychology.  No arguing against that, just as the instinct to have sex and procreate is a part of human behavior, thus rape is simply an unfortunate extension of…what?  This is an unfair analogy?  Well, I’ll have to take your word for it, just as soon as I tell the next airplane pilot I see that gravity entails how it is unnatural for things to go up instead of down (this is deeply ingrained in our physics, after all).

It is unavoidable for pacifists to live in a fantasy world; their utopian vision of humanity demands it.  They can’t understand that because people are violent, it is only reasonable that they should be violent.  The don’t get how their blind belief in “the greater good,” is childish in the face of reality, which demands for us to war against those who wish us harm for the sake of…the greater good?  Also, they make really stupid arguments, too.

I don’t believe that people are naturally peaceful; I think our violent inclinations are more than self-evident.  Thus, my argument is clear and simple:  I don’t want people killing each other, not because I have some grandiose view of human virtue or because I’m looking to uphold to the values of some greater spirit of man, but because I don’t want to be killed myself.  It is self-preserving and self-centered, and unashamedly so!  Therefore, by definition I cannot be a pacifist, who only know how to make shameful arguments.  QED

Not that any of it matters, since pacifists don’t exist (at least not any sober ones).  To be anti-specific war is reasonable, but to be anti-war war is absolute absurdity.  “How will you defend yourself against those who wage war on you?  Will you smother them with modesty until they surrender?  What a cowardly position!  You know damn well, Mr. Pacifist, that your safety depends on the fact that others are fighting wars to protect you!”–Damn straight, you tell ‘em Mr. Brave War Proponent.  You tell that coward all about the need for others to die to protect us.  About the need to go to war, so that we can preserve peace.  About how their flimsy idealism in a better world is nothing but fanciful trite, in comparison to your realistic understand of the need to annihilate evildoers so that we can have a better world.  About how if it wasn’t for war, pacifism wouldn’t even exist.  You see!  You see!  They need war just as much as we do, and we only do it because it is natural to do so; so we win by default.  Go war.

The pacifist will have no argument against any of this, because the pacifist never has an argument for anything.  But what do you expect, when s/he is forced to argue the position that killing other is somehow morally reprehensible.  Who could ever hope to win that argument?!  The self-proclaimed pacifists (and they would have to proclaim it themselves, otherwise hell if I knew which side they were on from the crappy arguments they resort to), is eager to point out how they are anti-war, but not anti-military:  “We are against war, but not the armed forces.  We love the brave men and women in the military.”  But how could you have a war, without the military?  To oppose one, don’t you have to oppose the other on principle?  “No, no, no, no, no, you see, I’m opposed to the abstract concept of war, not those who actually take part in it.  Everyone who fights in the military is brave and noble beyond any reasonable doubt.”  I suppose I will have to jot that down as another reason why I can never be a pacifist–when I disapprove of an act, I understand how by necessity I also disapprove of those who partake in it.  And I don’t apologize for it.  I don’t assign nobility or bravery based on the vocation someone chose, but based on her/his individual actions, and I expect nothing else in return.  But, then again, my innately ignoble immoralist inclinations are probably just blinding me from seeing the great honor in fighting for principles that are not my own, at times I do not choose, for reasons I have no say in, in countries I cannot locate on a blank map.

No pacifist would ever dare say this, because no such thing as a pacifist exists anymore.

Maintaining Modesty

I awake yesterday morning with the startling resolution that my life has been a long dogmatic list of uncompromising stubbornness, and it could easily be improved through a healthy does of inoffensive moderation.  Which I immediately set out to follow, but then stopped myself just in time to wait a good 15 minutes; just for modest measure.

As I boarded the bus to work, I decided that since both the 6:24 am & the 6:31 am bus can get me to work on time, a healthy compromise would be to walk to the next bus stop down from where I usually wait, for a refreshing walk and to catch the later of the two.  The 6:31 am bus was running 15 minutes behind schedule, and I was 10 minutes late to work.

At lunch I decided instead of having my usual combination of donuts, fries, and soda, I would substitute it with a moderately healthy diet of apple, mashed potatoes, and green beans (note to self, fruits and vegetables make for powerful laxatives).  After lunch, two coworkers asked me to settle an issue of the utmost importance:  Who would win in a fight between adult Simba from the Lion King and adult Baloo from The Jungle Book?  Although I am convinced that Simba would shred Baloo to pieces (he took down Scar for goodness sake), I instead opted to spare both person’s feelings with a humble, “I don’t know.”  A compromise that satisfied no one.

On the way back home from work (taking the earliest bus I could catch this time), a man told me that he desperately needs money to buy himself new pants for work.  I humbly gave him $40, and advised him to get a new shirt too, so he can also cover up the needle marks on his arms.  Then I slapped his face as compensation (it was the modest thing to do) and got off the bus.

Once home, I informed my spouse about my new found insight and suggested we appreciate it through a moderate dose of coitus.  Since it would be unfair for both of us to expect an equally thorough performance, I suggested that we compromise by deciding on who would be climaxing tonight, and then we’ll rotate on a weekly basis; so as not to exhaust ourselves with too much wasted energy.  We mutually decided that the most modest compromise would be for me to sleep on the couch tonight.