Desperate times call for desperate measures. In a world where resources are becoming increasingly scarce, the climate has become our enemy, and global competition threatens formerly strong economies, tough decisions have to be made. Resources have to be deployed to assist those who can do most to get the nation out of this mess: that is, those with the money and influence to serve the public good as active citizens. Those who cannot are an unacceptable drain on resources. They are a problem and we shouldn’t be afraid to find a solution to the problem their existence creates for the rest of us. Children need to be destroyed.
These are the sentiments of the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, or more accurately, they’re the arguments of the viciously ironic persona he adopts as the author of his famous satire A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden on their Parents or Country, and For Making them Beneficial to the Public. You know? the one where he famously shocked the British reading masses into compassion towards the poor of Ireland by persuading them to cannibalise their babies? The grotesque humour of the Proposal gripped readers from its publication in 1729 and the essay is still taught widely at schools and universities around the world as a fine example of literary irony and satire.
It’s an essay I’ve taught many times before and the humour of it savages me with its brilliance every time I go back to it. But lately Swift’s words have ceased to be so funny and not just because it’s tedious for the tenth year in a row to be confronted with the one poor student who can’t even be bothered to go onto Wikipedia (the refuge of hungover undergraduates the world over) to find out that Swift is NOT BEING SERIOUS. No: it’s ceased to be funny to me because the sentiments have been unironically resurrected by Collin Brewer, an independent councillor for Wadebridge East, Cornwall, who, after being forced to resign once for his discriminatory comments against disabled people, has since been improbably reelected.
Even Swift, with his wild and extraordinary imagination, could not have made this up. Although I wonder if somewhere in the back of his mind, Mr Brewer was recalling Swift’s proposal when he likened disabled children to deformed lambs who should be aborted or smashed to death after birth because of the cost of their lives to the economy. I would go into the ins and outs of his remarks (I can’t call them arguments as that would credit them with underlying reason), but to be honest, they’ve had more than enough air time.
Instead, I just want to say a few things about my little lamb, Mr Boo, and how he has changed our lives. For as Swift implicitly points out in A Modest Proposal, it’s much easier to write off people if you refuse to see them as individuals and dehumanise them as a group: the poor, the disabled, animals.
My son has disabilities, but is not his disabilities. He was born prematurely, but sadly we had no inkling of what was to face him and us, despite having 4 ultrasound scans during pregnancy. So we missed the abortion window, Mr Brewer, darn it. (Oh, I’m being Swiftian, didn’t you realise?) No: my son contracted meningitis at 3 days old. It is most likely because of that, not some pre-birth condition or event, that he has epilepsy, developmental delay and likely cerebral palsy. He was struck down, you might say, like people can be at any age. Like men in their 20s or 60s, say, can be hit by a stroke, for example, another potentially devastated neurological problem that can leave lives marked. Oh sorry, I forgot you know about that. So should we withdraw aftercare from stroke victims? No? Oh I see … (Actually, I don’t see, where’s Wikipedia when you need it?)
Hang on. You were being Swiftian weren’t you? You didn’t mean it, did you? You were ironically trying to draw our attention to the myriad ways children and adults with disabilities contribute to the families and communities they live in. How they contribute through their ‘ABILities’, the word Mr Boo’s 5-year-old healthy sister (oh, good we get to keep her!) uses to describe the cognitive and physical challenges faced by those she has come to know and love in the last year. (‘Why do people call them “DISabilties”, Mummy, when these people can do loads of things?’… Out of the mouths of babes, as they say.)
Who knows where Mr Boo’s abilities will take him. But wherever that may be he has touched so many already in his short life. He has made me a better person and a more compassionate person, a campaigner, an advocate, a volunteer. And if it’s hard, for you to see the value of the love and compassion he inspires, let me tell you he has generated some real notes too, encouraging others to give up their hard-earned money when I ran a half marathon on his honour. It’s the first of many such ventures I’m undertaking, but I’m sure you’re not interested in that.
Let me just say I’ve tried to give something back. For him and for my gratitude that we have him. But not because I am persuaded by the spurious economic valuation of human life to which you subscribe and that Swift’s essay shows us was already outdated by the early eighteenth century.
I do this because I am grateful, I am compassionate and I love and am loved more than I ever knew was possible and fear you may ever understand. And all of this contrives to make me a better citizen than you will ever be.
This post was inspired not just by my indigination but by a call for a peaceful blog protest by the wonderful Hayley on her blog Downs Side Up. Please take the time to read all of the fabulous posts on this page. More are being added over the coming two weeks, so keep popping back.