Jonathan Swift, Master of Fake News

Hogarth’s Idle Apprentice in the cart on the way to the gallows


Fake news has been getting a lot of attention recently, and The New York Times recently had an article about a particularly effective instance. Apparently a report about thousands of fraudulent Hillary ballots in an Ohio warehouse was concocted by a young Davidson alum and Trump supporter. To add credibility, Cameron Harris included a fake photograph, and the story was was seen by six million people. Apparently a liberal arts education, while it’s great at turning out creative problem solvers, doesn’t automatically make one a moral person.

If further proof is needed, consider Charles Taylor, the genocidal dictator of Liberia who attended Grinnell College.

But back to fake news. All this talk about stories that helped sway the election has me thinking about Jonathan Swift, the greatest fake news writer in history. Everyone knows about “The Modest Proposal,” of course, but that masterful essay was far from his only trick. In his day, Swift was most famous for his “Predictions for the Year 1708,” by “Isaac Bickerstaff.” Swift so hated astrologers that he set himself up as a rival to the leading astrologer of his day, John Partridge. Bickerstaff said that Partridge was a fraud because he couldn’t predict his own death date, which Bickerstaff named. You can read the entire story here.

I want to look at another piece that Swift wrote, however, as it is more troubling. Whereas most people get that “Modest Proposal” and “Predictions” are jokes, apparently some thought that “The Last Speech and Dying Words of Ebenezer Elliston” was authentic and adjusted their behavior accordingly. When that happens, there is cause for concern.

Here’s the background. It was sometimes the practice, when criminals were on the way to being hanged, that penny publications of their last confession would be hawked along the parade route (see Hogarth’s picture above). Swift’s Ebenezer Elliston explains the practice:

I know it is the constant custom, that those who come to this place should have speeches made for them, and cried about in their own hearing, as they are carried to execution; and truly they are such speeches that although our fraternity be an ignorant illiterate people, they would make a man ashamed to have such nonsense and false English charged upon him even when he is going to the gallows:  They contain a pretended account of our birth and family; of the fact for which we are to die; of our sincere repentance; and a declaration of our religion.

Swift, ever suspicious of people claiming to be virtuous or penitent, found the practice to be bogus. In his parody, therefore, Elliston is not at all sorry for his crimes. He’s just sorry that he got caught:

And first, I cannot say from the bottom of my heart, that I am truly sorry for the offense I have given to God and the world; but I am very much so, for the bad success of my villainies in bringing me to this untimely end… [A]lthough in compliance with my friends, I resolve to go to the gallows after the usual manner, kneeling, with a book in my hand, and my eyes lift up; yet I shall feel no more devotion in my heart than I have observed in some of my comrades, who have been drunk among common whores the very night before their execution.  I can say further from my own knowledge, that two of my fraternity after they had been hanged, and wonderfully came to life, and made their escapes, as it sometimes happens, proved afterwards the wickedest rogues I ever knew, and so continued until they were hanged again for good and all; and yet they had the impudence at both times they went to the gallows, to smite their breasts, and lift up their eyes to Heaven all the way.

Now comes the disturbing part. In an attempt at social engineering, Swift has his speaker threaten to reveal the names of his accomplices if they don’t stop committing crimes:

Now, as I am a dying man, I have done something which may be of good use to the public.  I have left with an honest man (and indeed the only honest man I was ever acquainted with) the names of all my wicked brethren, the present places of their abode, with a short account of the chief crimes they have committed; in many of which I have been their accomplice, and heard the rest from their own mouths:  I have likewise set down the names of those we call our setters, of the wicked houses we frequent, and of those who receive and buy our stolen goods.  I have solemnly charged this honest man, and have received his promise upon oath, that whenever he hears of any rogue to be tried for robbing, or house-breaking, he will look into his list, and if he finds the name there of the thief concerned, to send the whole paper to the government.  Of this I here give my companions fair and public warning, and hope they will take it.

According to Swift’s friend and editor Thomas Sheridan, the threat had an impact:

Swift, in composing Elliston’s pretended dying speech, gave it the flavour and character of authenticity in order to impose on the members of other gangs, and so successful was he in his intention, that the speech was accepted as the real expression of their late companion by the rest and had a most salutary effect.  Scott says it was “received as genuine by the banditti who had been companions of his depredations, who were the more easily persuaded of its authenticity as it contained none of the cant usual in the dying speeches composed for malefactors by the Ordinary or the ballad-makers.  The threat which it held out of a list deposited with a secure hand, containing their names, crimes, and place of rendezvous, operated for a long time in preventing a repetition of their villanies, which had previously been so common.”

If the piece did indeed decrease the crime rate—and how can we know for sure?—then what’s wrong with the trick? Well, once starts, the process has no end and, furthermore, who is to determine what is a virtuous end? What one person sees as a good—a Trump’s victory—another will not.Then it’s just a matter of who can spin the most convincing story.

Swift should know this. After all, his satire only works by appealing to norms that everyone holds. When he depicts departures from this norm—for instance, a proposal to eat babies—he’s counting on us to recoil in horror. If the essay’s cold pragmatism seems compelling, then that’s a warning against cold pragmatism, which is as much a target of “Modest Proposal” as English exploitation of the Irish.

Now consider what happens if we become so disoriented that we no longer have a moral standard. The Nazis, while they did not eat babies, nevertheless treated Jews as  natural resources to be mined. There are instances of Jewish hair being used for mattress stuffing, Jewish fat for soap, and Jewish skin for lampshades. If one loses one’s moral compass, traditional satire no longer works.

I’m actually skeptical of claims that crime went down after the publication of “The Last Speech and Dying Words of Ebenezer Elliston.” There are enough clues in the work for a discriminating reader to recognize the satire. So we probably can give Swift a pass, just as we give The Onion or John Stewart a pass.

I no longer say this with confidence, however. After all, I once would have thought that everyone would see through reports of Hillary stashing thousands of fraudulent votes in an Ohio warehouse or of Hillary operating a child sex ring in a pizza parlor.

Satire is threatened when people fail to be discriminating, making it another potential victim—along with the mainstream press, science, and rational discourse—of politicians who make their own reality.

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