Bush, Obama, and Gulliver’s Travels


I return for one last time to Swift, who provides invaluable perspectives for understanding contemporary politics. Swift was a shrewd student of political dynamics. His satire is often an allegorical depiction of real life people and incidents, and if one knows one’s history, one can read parts of Gulliver’s Travels as a roman à clé, or story with a key.

The Lilliputian politician who is so nimble on the tightrope, for instance, is the powerful and unscrupulous prime minister Robert Walpole, and the king’s cushion that saves him when he falls is a mistress of George I, who helped restore him to power when he fell out of favor. Meanwhile, the high heel and low heel parties in Lilliput (so-called because of the height of their heels) are the Tories and the Whigs, and while the king prefers the low heels, his son the crown prince (the future George II) totters between the two, wearing one high heel and one low heel. If one knows these things, one’s appreciation of Gulliver’s Travels is enhanced. Readers of the time eagerly combed through Gulliver’s Travels to ferret out the references, and Princess Caroline, the crown prince’s wife, reportedly laughed out loud at the description of her husband tottering between the two parties. Of course, Swift was often treading on dangerous ground with his allegory and the bookpublisher and friends removed some of the passages for his safety. (They were later restored.)

But one doesn’t have to know British history to appreciate Swift’s satire. After all, it is not only 18th century politicians who perform elaborate acrobatics on metaphorical tightropes or totter between the right and left wings of the electorate. Swift’s allegory has a universal as well as a specific application. So let me apply it to modern day America.

The Gulliver of Book I can be seen as a good intentioned but naïve United States, an “innocent abroad” (to use Mark Twain’s memorable phrase). So we think we can bring democracy to the rest of the world? Were George Bush and the neocons high-minded and idealistic or dangerously foolish? (For the moment I do not search for other motives for the invasion of Iraq.) Is Barack Obama a gullible fool (as former Vice President Dick Cheney is currently claiming) for thinking that American values in themselves, without torture and other strong measures, are the best counters to terrorism? For that matter, does America, like Gulliver, think that it can stride above the factional infighting of Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing people in their best light.  And will it then run away when tribalism and other apparently intractable problems threaten to drag it down? In Book I, Swift lays out the promise and pitfalls of naïve idealism.

In Book II he explores the patriot or true believer. His depiction rings true whether this belief is in a country (America, love it or leave it) or a cause. Gulliver is convinced that his country is superior to all others, in spite of towering evidence to the contrary. He refuses to see any flaws and sings only the virtues. And then, when the Brobdingnag King pokes holes in his belief, he begins singing the praises of gunpowder. Which is another way of saying, “I’ve got the most morally superior country and, to prove that we are superior, we also have the strongest military.” This believer believes, in part, because his cause makes him feel big. If he attaches himself to a great cause, then he doesn’t have to think of himself as a tiny man simply trying to survive in a giant world.

And what about the cynicism of Book IV? In some ways, Gulliver’s Travels captures a back and forth that has defined the American experiment from the beginning. Since the first English colonists, America has swung back and forth between idealism and pessimism, between John Winthrop’s vision of a city on a hill and Jonathan Edwards’ sinners in the hands of an angry God. Our greatest works of literature capture the tension between beautiful dreaming and shattered disillusion, works such as The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Grapes of Wrath, The Sound and the Fury, All the King’s Men, Beloved, and so on.

And last but not least, Swift explores pragmatism, which is a quintessential American value and which President Obama is invoking to counter what he sees as the ideological excesses of the previous administration. And pragmatism is a good thing—if it is guided by vision. But pragmatism, like idealism, can veer wildly off course, as it does in “A Modest Proposal.” There Swift provides the ultimate critique of pure “the ends justify the means” pragmatism. In this famous essay one follows as a social engineer logically, reasonably, and with the best of intentions proposes a horrific (but pragmatic) solution to an intolerable problem.

Each of these approaches to life starts well and then goes horribly wrong. The innocent idealist becomes a gullible fool in Book I, the patriot or high-minded believer becomes a fanatic in Book II, the realist becomes a hardened cynic in Book IV, and the pragmatist becomes a monster in “A Modest Proposal.” What goes wrong? For Swift, the answer is always human pride.

Each idealist has his or her own kind of pride. The innocent idealist thinks he can stay removed from reality, keeping his hands clean. The true believer wants to believe herself big. The realist thinks he has taken an accurate pulse of reality, but rather than this being a rational assessment, it is driven by disgust. It is a blow to his pride to think of himself as a yahoo. The pragmatist, meanwhile, thinks that her reason puts her above all human concerns.

Swift would  say that we can’t avoid pride. It’s part of who we are. But what we can do is work to counter its effects, and one of our best tools as doing so is humor. When we find ourselves becoming too full of ourselves, that’s when we need to laugh at ourselves. Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal” are both comic works that will help us regain a human perspective.

By these Swiftian standards, what are Barack Obama’s chances for maintaining perspective? Can he hold on to his innocent ideals without becoming a gullible fool? Can he be pragmatic without losing vision? Can he continue to believe in what he’s fighting for without his ego becoming excessively involved? Can he remain realistic without yielding to cynicism?

His innocent idealism, which he got from his mother, looks as though it was successfully tested and hardened by his Chicago community organizing. While there are causes that he passionately believes in (especially health care and good education for all), he doesn’t appear fanatical but seems willing to listen to people who don’t agree with him. He somehow, so far, seems able to be both realistic and optimistic. And his pragmatism is not without vision. So the early signs are promising, at least in the eyes of this ardent supporter.

Will he be seduced by power? Will ego enter into his decision-making? Yes and yes. He is human, after all. He also appears to have a streak of arrogance, an impatience with fools, and a confidence that he can handle any problem. These traits may be necessary in a leader, but they will also get him into trouble. What I hope for him, and for us all, is that when he does get caught up in his ego, he will reflect, laugh at himself, and return to humility. And while we’re at it, I hope for the same qualities for ourselves, the citizens of this country, without whom Obama cannot be successful.

This entry was posted in Swift (Jonathan) and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Comment

  1. Barbara
    Posted June 4, 2009 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    One thing that I think is interesting about Obama is that both (some) supporters as well as opponents get upset when he tempers his ideals with pragmatism. They both talk about “betrayal”: the supporters because they seem to think pragmatism is “unworthy” and the opponents, disingenuously, because it’s effective. I really need to read all of G.T. soon. Again, thank you for this!

One Trackback

  1. By Obama, Idealist or Realist? (and which is better?) on December 28, 2010 at 1:00 am

    […] is an extended excerpt from that post, which appeared on June 3, 2009. (The entire post can be read here) In your opinion how well (with the help of Swift) do you think I called it and where does Obama […]


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete