Internet, Meet Cultural Illiteracy

I think I can identify with Jonathan Swift to some extent now.

More than two years ago, my blog post titled “The Cult of Childlessness in America” defended people who choose to have more than two children and criticized the motives of “childless by choice” married couples who avoid having kids so that they can enjoy a more affluent lifestyle. I pointed out that in the long term a society with a large contingent of “childfree” couples is in trouble because of, among other things, the structurally unsound nature of Social Security and Medicare, which most people still believe is going to be a primary financial support of their golden years.

I wound up the post with what was (to me) an obviously satirical “modest proposal” for Congress to impose legislative penalties on the “childfree”:

Here’s my modest proposal to solve the country’s budget and demographic problems: Congress should pass legislation stating that if you are “childless by choice,” you must choose one of the following options:

  1. Forego Social Security and Medicare until you are 80 years old.
  2. Pay the college tuition of two children from families with more than three children.
  3. Provide ten hours per week of free babysitting for families with more than three children.

Now, anyone who knows anything about my political leanings would immediately recognize that I was not being serious with this call for self-evidently ridiculous legislation. For everyone else, I inserted the explicit reference to Swift’s famous essay so that there would be no misunderstanding. I saw myself as doing the same thing Swift had done: point out a very real problem, and then propose a ludicrous “solution” to it in order to provoke thought (and maybe a little laughter). I figured, “Hey, this is a website called The Western Tradition. People who read it are interested in, well, the Western tradition, and they’ll get the joke.”

I could not have been more wrong!

By an extremely wide margin, “The Cult of Childlessness in America” has attracted more negative feedback than all the other posts on this blog put together. A few of the negative comments have been substantive and reasoned. Other comments display a confusion about how our social welfare programs really work and thus end up missing the mark.

How very dare you Badge - 1 Catherine Tate pin dvdHowever, the vast majority (more than 90%) of the negative feedback has been from people who were simply outraged that I wanted to RAISE THEIR TAXES AND FORCE THEM TO BABYSIT OTHER PEOPLE’S KIDS!!!!!!!!!! Many of their comments contained extremely vile language and made very personal attacks on me. I exercised my moderator’s prerogative not to approve those comments.

The problem I had failed to anticipate, of course, was that the people who freaked out about the post were NOT regular readers of the blog and apparently were NOT interested in the Western tradition. They had seen a link to the post on social media somewhere, had landed on the site, and had failed to recognize what I was doing. Lesson learned!

For about the first year the post was up, I’d reply to indignant commenters that they needed to familiarize themselves with the phrase “modest proposal” so they’d realize what I had done. I eventually tired of doing that; every few months the post seemed to circulate on a new “childfree” message board, and I’d get a new batch of “HOW DARE YOU” comments. I just started deleting the comments if it was obvious they were uncomprehending.

The last two days have taken the cake, though. The post got linked on another forum for childless people, and I’ve received a flood of angry (and profane) comments. I took a look at the linking forum, and it seemed like the people there were worked up into a frenzy. All of the comments focused on my “modest proposal.” A grand total of ONE participant recognized what I was doing and told the others, “Guys, he referenced Swift. I’m pretty sure this is satirical.” That voice of reason didn’t even slow the pace of outbursts from the other people on the forum.

I’ve finally surrendered to the reality that all subtlety is lost on some people. However, in my neverending quest to find “teachable moments,” I have posted an update linking to Swift and saying, “Read this before you post an angry comment.”

Will anyone actually read it before breaking out a rhetorical flamethrower? I don’t know; the essay is at least five pages long, after all. And just a few hours after posting the link, I received a comment informing me that I “couldn’t pay a child free woman enough money to watch [?] that tripe.”

So let’s make sure we understand what just happened: this commenter has trumpeted her immovable resolution NOT to read what may very well be the greatest essay in the English language. At the same time, she has effectively declared, “I don’t need to understand what you mean before I criticize you.”

One can only hope that this person is not representative of the “childfree.” If she is, I suppose the silver lining is that a generation or two from now, my uncomprehending critics will not have transmitted their willful ignorance to any descendants. Meanwhile, my descendants will, Lord willing, all be familiar with writers like Swift and have the intellectual honesty to do their best to understand other people before criticizing them. Cultural literacy may come back in the end!

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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3 Responses to Internet, Meet Cultural Illiteracy

  1. giuntacartoons says:

    You have my sympathies. I admire what you are doing. Unfortunately, many people who read blogs lack a subtle mind let alone any knowledge of Swift. Keep up the good work. By the way, I also believe a childless culture is something that cannot bring us better future.

    Thanks for your contribution to the blogosphere.

  2. pdefor says:

    Good grief. I’m a little surprised that knowledge of Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ is that little known. But I guess not that surprised. Ignorance and outrage often go hand in hand.

  3. John Ward says:

    Dr. J:

    It is great that you have hit a nerve. Since the vast majority of people have no interest in The Great Books, or Great Ideas, it is always useful to find an area that causes strong emotion, and perhaps engage them in what great thinkers have had to say, or parlay. We appreciate your ongoing work, teaching, coaching, and as Voltaire said (ok I am not sure this is an accurate paraphrase), The pen is mightier than the sword.

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