After lunch yesterday I was watching a debate held at UCSB on the legality of prosecuting those responsible for torture (via Andrew Sullivan):

In his introductory remarks, Horton says (with a link to the text in Harper’s):

This is my second trip to Santa Barbara to speak at your university and the journey itself provides inspiration. I made the drive up this morning from Los Angeles, and coming on the highway to one breath-taking vista of the Channel Islands, I thought about Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a book that I loved as a child, and then in my college years, I read it again and discovered something entirely different and more subtle. If you strain back to remember it, you’ll recall that Swift’s hero follows a curious geography—a combination of the real world and the fantastic. But one of the most amazing passages of the book must, I think, involve the hills, fields and coastline right around us. Lemuel Gulliver travels in part II to the kingdom of Brobdingnag, which Swift tells us with some precision is an island off the coast of California and its adjacent mainland: I make it out to be Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. The voyage provides Gulliver with a number of adventures, but the high point comes when he is introduced to the king and strikes up a conversation with him about Brobdingnag’s society and culture. At one point the king of Brobdingnag and his visitor discuss lawyers and their usefulness. The best lawyers are those who can show that black is white as, he says, “laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied, by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them.” Such a ruler places stock in such lawyers because they allow him to rule above the law; he can use it as a tool to achieve his will. But this kingdom is ruled by man not by law. Swift’s book isn’t just for children of course; it is a bitter political satire, and in it he’s pointing to just the problem we face today. What do we do when a government twists the words and purposes of the law beyond recognition, establishing the principle that it is a government of men, not of laws? For Swift this wasn’t a laughing matter. From his whiggish perspective, all of history has been a struggle for the rule of law and for government of principle. It has been a struggle to hold the high and mighty to account before the law.

Wow. It should be illegal to make such nonsense out of the King of Brobdingnag’s words. Where to begin?

1. Brobdingnag isn’t a paradise, but it’s better governed than Swift’s England.

2. The King does NOT “value lawyers based on their usefulness” in helping him to subvert the law for his own purposes. In fact, as Swift makes clear, Brobdingnag’s laws are deliberately kept simple so that corrupt lawyers don’t have a chance to pervert them:

No Law of that Country must exceed in Words the Number of Letters in their Alphabet, which consists only of two and twenty. But, indeed, few of them extend even to that Length. They are expressed in the most plain and simple Terms, wherein those People are not mercurial enough to discover above one Interpretation: And to write a Comment upon any Law is a capital Crime. As to the Decision of civil Causes, or Proceedings against Criminals, their Precedents are so few, that they have little Reason to boast of any extraordinary Skill in either.

3. When the King says that “laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied, by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them,” he is describing how lawyers act in England, not in Brobdingnag. The sentence is part of the famous diatribe that concludes Book II, ch. 6. Gulliver has spent many hours in the King’s company, not just explaining England and its history to the King but, as we discover in the next chapter, actively sugar-coating the entire description so that he can conceal the most shameful and disgraceful parts from him. But the King pays attention to Gulliver’s account and sees through the white-washing to the rot beneath:

He was perfectly astonished with the historical Account I gave him of our Affairs during the last Century, protesting it was only a Heap of Conspiracies, Rebellions, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments, the very worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, or Ambition could produce.

His Majesty in another Audience was at the Pains to recapitulate the Sum of all I had spoken, compared the Questions he made with the Answers I had given; then taking me into his Hands, and stroaking me gently, delivered himself in these Words, which I shall never forget nor the Manner he spoke them in: My little Friend Grildrig, you have made a most admirable Panegyric upon your Country: You have clearly proved that Ignorance, Idleness, and Vice may be sometimes the only Ingredients for qualifying a Legislator: That Laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose Interest and Abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them. I observe among you some Lines of an Institution, which in its Original might have been tolerable, but these half erazed, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by Corruptions. It doth not appear from all you have said, how any one Virtue is required towards the Procurement of any one Station among you, much less that Men are ennobled on Account of their Virtue, that Priests are advanced for their Piety or Learning, Soldiers for their Conduct or Valour, Judges for their Integrity, Senators for the Love of their Country, or Counsellors for their Wisdom. As for yourself, (continued the King,) who have spent the greatest Part of your Life in Travelling, I am well disposed to hope you may hitherto have escaped many Vices of your Country. But by what I have gathered from your own Relation, and the Answers I have with much Pain wringed and extorted from you, I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.

As any of my students can tell you, every time I teach this book I read this passage aloud with great relish. It’s one of those moments where Swift pulls out all the rhetorical stops. But it’s also a great dilemma for the reader: should we defend the violence and depravity of seventeenth-century Britain, or agree that human beings are for the most part vermin?

It’s important to note, as I also explain to my students, that this is how Swiftian irony works. It’s sneaky, and it often leaves you with nothing but distasteful alternatives. Swift is satirizing England, but also drawing our attention to how difficult it is to articulate a genuinely humane response. The history of seventeenth-century England, according to Swift, is the history of man’s inhumanity to man, and that inhumanity is predicated on treating other human beings as somehow less than human. Once they’ve been judged not fully human–not one of the elect, not of one’s party, not part of the master race, or what have you–then you have sufficient reason to take advantage of them, cheat them, steal from them, murder and mass murder them, without troubling your conscience about it. And we, as readers, can’t defend that history without becoming complicit in it, but–and here’s the rub–we also have a hard time condemning it without also ostracizing all the conspirators, murders, genocidal maniacs, rebels, thieves, cheats, &c., as also inhuman.

In other words, we are compelled either to defend barbarism, or commit it (ideologically, if not directly). In a sense, as Claude Rawson has shown, this is still a dilemma felt very sharply today as we look back on the twentieth century, and we’re no closer to solving it than Swift was.

4. Swift was a Tory, and though I’m no expert on his views about history, the passage quoted above out of Gulliver’s Travels is far from “whiggish.”

Swift offers us no simple answers. His irony is so delicate, so complex in its relationship to the past, and the questions he raises are so insoluble, that I was seriously pissed off to hear Horton mangle him. It’s like watching him try to play Chopin with boards tied to his hands.

Ironic, that a call for investigation into torture–which I think is essential–cannot proceed without mangling Swift’s text beyond recognition. This isn’t an “advanced interrogation” of the work, but a brutal misreading. This speech isn’t Gitmo but an iron maiden, and by the time its work is done Gulliver’s Travels is a bloody mess. (Hence the need to quote so heavily from the book itself, above, to restore the proper context.)