August 9, 2022 Reading Time: 4 minutes

Someone should tell Washington’s elite that Gulliver’s Travels is a satire, not a handbook. 

Yes, in Part III of Jonathan Swift’s tale, Laputa sounds a lot like Washington, D.C. It also sounds a lot like the Spanish word for “whore,” about which the late P. J. O’Rourke is surely laughing from Heaven. 

The island of Laputa floats miles above Balnibarbi, allowing the King and his court to focus on their interests without seeing, much less hearing, the ordinary citizens beneath them. The latter are, in current parlance, the Deplorables.

For Laputa’s denizens, the people fall as far below them in intelligence as in altitude, particularly in understanding higher math. The court Ministers consider taking measurements or adding numbers beneath them. As a result, on Laputa “their Houses are ill built, the Walls bevil, without one right Angle in any Apartment; and this Defect ariseth from the Contempt they bear for practical Geometry.” The elite explanation, of course, is that their “Instructions” are “too refined for the Intellectuals of their Workmen.” 

Likewise, the Biden Administration denied the reality of inflation for months, because they understood economics better than the rest of us. Their about-face, evident in the name of the Inflation Reduction Act, offers little comfort to those of us unable to bring home the bacon (now 18 percent more expensive than last year). The White House might be structurally sound, but its resident’s economic policies are as askew as any building on Laputa.

But in Swift’s satire, such practical matters are less alarming than astronomical concerns. Laputa’s elite are so worried about the demise of the planet that they hardly sleep: “When they meet an Acquaintance in the Morning, the first Question is about the Sun’s Health.” They even conduct conversations “with the same Temper that Boys discover, in delighting to hear terrible Stories of Sprites and Hobgoblins, which they greedily listen to, and dare not go to Bed for fear.” 

One senses a similar delicious anxiety in D.C., where the elite have devised an Inflation Reduction Act with $369 billion to combat climate change. Only those with their heads in the clouds could understand the relationship between those issues. 

Meanwhile, citizens cope with the threats and destruction wrought by the elite. On Balnibarbi, citizens watch the movements of Laputa warily. If they “refuse to pay the usual tribute,” the King has “two Methods of reducing them to Obedience.” One is to position his island over their land in such a way as to deprive them of sun and rain. In some cases, they are even “pelted from above with great Stones, against which they have no Defence.”

Unfortunately, in the absence of great stones to throw at citizens, the IRS has for years been stockpiling guns and ammunition, and they seek to hire more IRS agents to improve their rate of collection (or assault). 

The more drastic alternative for the King of Laputa is to drop the island on citizens’ heads, a solution avoided due to the risk of damaging the island itself. Fortunately, our leaders cannot crush citizens with a floating island, though their politicized approach to laws unravels the fabric of our country. Just ask the parents targeted by the FBI or the Supreme Court Justices threatened not simply by citizens but a leader of the United States Senate. 

Even Swift’s gullible protagonist senses something is wrong. On Laputa, the courtiers neglect Gulliver because he is their inferior in math and music, so he descends to the land of Balnibarbi. What he finds is a land in disorder: people with wild eyes, fields badly cultivated, houses collapsing. What, he asks his host, has happened? 

It is not only his question about ours. Why has the rate of homicides spiked, particularly in large cities? Why is there a literacy crisis? Why are we paying so much for basics like eggs and oranges?

Swift’s wise Lord Munodi explains that decades earlier: Some individuals visited Laputa and returned to Balnibarbi with “schemes for putting all Arts, Sciences, Languages, and Mechanicks upon a new Foot.” They erected an Academy of Projectors, who had been projecting away for decades. The result was “Houses in Ruins, and the People without Food or Cloaths.”

Rather than admit error, however, the Projectors doubled down on their schemes and shamed those who followed established systems. Such rational people were “Enemies to Art, ignorant, and ill Commonswealth-men, preferring their own Ease and Sloth before the general Improvement of their Country.” 

Those who resisted faced Cancellation. Even Lord Munodi, “being then not very well at Court,” was pressured to agree to one scheme, which wrecked his mill. 

Despite such failures, however, all cities in Balnibarbi have Academies of Projectors. Gulliver visits one, where he sees such useful experiments as a man trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, and another trying to reduce excrement to its original food. Such projectors are constantly in need of funding, just like many of our current scientists. It is why NASA awarded Princeton a grant to study how humans would react to aliens

Likewise, the ill success on Balnibarbi warns us of the failure of many new schemes for teaching, among other things, math. Reducing standards or calling math “racist” will not help students or build a better society.

Nor will it work to force new language on people. At the Academy of Lagado, one failed scheme was to replace words with things: One would simply cart around everything necessary for a conversation. Fortunately, women along with “the Vulgar and Illiterate” threatened to rebel “unless they might be allowed the Liberty to speak with their Tongues, after the Manner of their Forefathers: Such constant irreconcileable Enemies to Science are the common People.” 

And such were the “common People” who rebelled this year against the threat to free speech presented by Biden’s Disinformation Board. 

Perhaps, like the professors at the school of political projectors, we are also “out of [our] Senses” in suggesting that our leaders reward merit and work with the wise. Perhaps we are doomed to live under the shadow of a government that, like Laputa, hovers over us with extraordinary power. 

Or perhaps, like the King on the Island of Laputa, our elite need a reminder of the danger of wielding such power. Unlike Swift’s protagonist, we are not gullible. 

Caroline Breashears

Caroline Breashears

Dr. Caroline Breashears is a Professor of English at St. Lawrence University. Caroline received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and specializes in eighteenth-century British literature. Recent publications include Eighteenth-Century Women’s Writing and the “Scandalous Memoir” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and articles in Aphra Behn Online and the International Journal of Pluralistic and Economics Education.

She was recently an Adam Smith Scholar at Liberty Fund, and her current research focuses on Adam Smith and literature. She teaches courses on fairy tales, eighteenth-century British Literature, and Jane Austen.

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