Jonathan Swift’s books would be banned in Florida and Arkansas if he were Black

People carry a sign in reference to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the “Teach No Lies” march to the School Board of Miami-Dade County to protest Florida’s new standards for teaching Black history, which have come under intense criticism for what they say about slavery, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Miami.

Lynne Sladky/AP

Being something of a smart aleck, I’ve sometimes joked that while I may look white, actually I’m Irish. All eight of my great-grandparents were born there. Indeed, there was a time during the Great Potato Famine of 1845-’52 when my ancestors endured conditions similar to Black enslaved people in America. Millions of Irish peasants starved even as the country exported plentiful foodstuffs guarded by British soldiers. Had they been enslaved, they might have been fed.

So, the Irish fled to America in “coffin ships,” so-called because many thousands failed to survive the journey. The best way I know to understand this historical tragedy is to read Joseph O’Connor’s terrific novel “Star of the Sea.”

(Joseph is the older brother of Sinead O’Connor, the singer whose recent death was mourned all over Ireland. A talented family, the O’Connors of Glenageary.)

Nor were the Irish, being Catholic, particularly welcome in America. But so what? None of that has affected my own life in any practical way. Nor have I noticed that Irish Americans behave better than anybody else when it comes to race.

(In the old country, of course, they’ve only recently quit murdering each other over what’s basically a 17th century religious quarrel. I once asked a correspondent in Belfast how they could tell each other apart, as on TV they all looked like my uncles and cousins. The shoes, she responded. The shoes!)

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My first great literary hero was the immortal Irish satirist Jonathan Swift. The first time my wife saw tears in my eyes was visiting his tomb in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. He’d died in 1745, author of perhaps the most penetrating antiracist essay in the English language. An Anglican clergyman marooned for life in his native Ireland, Swift thought of himself as an Englishman.

But the appalling poverty of the native Irish troubled him, so he wrote “A Modest Proposal,” a pseudonymous essay proposing a useful reform: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”

The author expressed confidence that his proposal would be well received by absentee English “landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”

The 1729 pamphlet was published anonymously, because had its authorship been proven — although pretty much everybody in Ireland could guess who’d written it — Swift could have been imprisoned, or worse.

Anyway, here’s where I’m going with all this: Because I am, in fact, white, and because Irish history threatens no vested American interests, nobody has ever suggested that my studying it is in any way improper. Nor, certainly, tried to ban it. Had Swift been a Black man, I’m sure his works would be illegal in Florida. Arkansas too.

Consider the scene in “Gulliver’s Travels” where the gigantic hero extinguishes a fire in the Lilliputian queen’s chambers by pissing on it (the author’s response to Queen Anne’s ingratitude for services done the crown). Not to mention the scene where enormous teenaged Brobdingnagian girls perch tiny Gulliver on their nipples. Whoa, Nelly!

Moms for Liberty, which is what they’re calling the United Daughters of the Confederacy these days, would banish the novel from every library in the land.

I think my favorite moment during the absurd controversy over Florida’s and Arkansas’ efforts to ban Advanced Placement African American history classes from being taught in public schools was when Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Department of Education published a letter claiming, “The content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law” (my emphasis).

Meaning they can’t explain it. Not what they intended to say, I suspect. This is what happens when you enlist semiliterate ideologues to defend us white folks from …

Well, from what?

As near as I can tell, from history itself, and from the idea that Black citizens of a state — where chattel slavery was legal until 1865 and Jim Crow segregation laws replaced it right up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and where race riots and lynchings were not uncommon — just might have a perspective on its history different from the white majority’s.

DeSantis’ slogan is literally “Florida is where woke goes to die.”

In Arkansas, Gov. Sarah Sanders, too, derides the very idea of an African American perspective as “critical race theory” and “indoctrination.” Black people have no legitimate point of view, and it’s literally illegal to say otherwise in a public school classroom. Here in the United States of America.

So where does that leave somebody like me, an aging white man whose education in these matters has been sadly neglected?

Thinking maybe I need to take that African American history course.

Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”

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