My title promises that this essay will discuss when it is proper to KISS in the workplace. Apologies if you are looking forward to a thoroughgoing discussion of the accusations against New York governor Andrew Cuomo and his alleged workplace behavior.* If the native of Queens is guilty, then he must face the music, and perhaps that music will be performed by another product of Queens, the rock group KISS. Unfortunately, if you were hoping for a paean to those spandex-clad, make-up-laden hard-rockers who dominated the 1970s airwaves, I am afraid this essay will still disappoint.
No, this essay is about the virtues and value of applying a well-known but frequently overlooked heuristic. If you are still with me, a heuristic is a fancy way of saying a problem-solving method.
Some time ago I wrote a piece extolling the efficacy of Occam’s razor, a superb tool for reaching conclusions with consistency and rationality. When analyzing conundrums, Occam’s razor cuts through the nonsense by eliminating all extraneous explanations in favor of known evidence. Often, Occam's heuristic is articulated as “the simplest explanation is the best one,” a reductive but acceptable interpretation of Occam’s razor.
Have you ever excitedly purchased a product that turned out to be so daunting to operate that you just wanted to chuck it out? Of course you have. In fact, the very device you are reading this piece on may fit that description. Do you click once or twice? Do you swipe up or down? Do you command the machine, or is the machine commanding you?
Perhaps you have owned an overly elaborate coffee maker that beeps every hour on the hour no matter what you do. Why would anyone want a coffee maker that beeps the hour? What kind of diabolical design is that? Or, do you ever wonder about that weird lever behind the rear seat of your SUV? You know, the one you are afraid to pull in case it releases the seat from the floor. How will you reinstall the seat? Best to just leave it be and admonish the kiddies to “never ever pull that lever!” See. It even rhymes.
Chances are, you possess many such devices and some you've even abandoned to moulder in a dank corner of your domicile because they are, well, just too much.
Don’t you wish that the engineers and designers behind these Rube Goldberg devices had stuck to the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid?
In one room, Gulliver finds “a most ingenious architect, who had contrived a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof, and working downward to the foundation." Another groundbreaking innovator uses hogs to plow and manure fields but only after he has planted acorns “at six inches distance and eight deep” to get the hogs to root.
One reformer authors an attempt to refine the art of conversation by requiring individuals to lug large sacks of objects. When they encounter another so-encumbered acquaintance, they communicate wordlessly by presenting items from their sacks “since words are only names for things.”
The most voluminous invention in Lagado is a large frame filled with words written on blocks. Three dozen boys spend six hours a day turning iron levers mounted to the frame. Each turn of the levers reveals random sets of words, and if any coherent phrases emerge, they are recorded. Later, these phrases will be assembled into sentences that will eventually form “a complete body of all arts and sciences.”
By describing all these crazy contrivances, Swift is spoofing the excesses of the Royal Society, England’s premier association for scientists and inventors, but there are lessons here for us.
Each of Lagado’s innovations takes a well-established but potentially involved task (building, plowing, speaking, and writing) and attempts to simplify it. The upshot is that the very cleverness of the new and supposedly improved processes renders them more laborious than the original processes. If the denizens of the Grand Academy of Lagado had instead applied the KISS principle, they would meet with much more success. To be fair, though, that outcome would make for a less entertaining book.
As Swift demonstrates, it is all-too tempting when trying to complete a complex task to get caught up in the procedure and lose touch with the most important elements. Decades ago, I used to build theatre sets for a living, and I could really drive my boss nuts. Sometimes when I had a difficult piece to work on, I would take time to concoct a custom tool or a jig to make my job easier, and my boss would hit the roof. Most often, he was right that my time would be better spent just getting to work on the project, but I was too enamored of my own cleverness to refrain from designing and creating these one-use tools. I was further encouraged by the fact that every now and then, a little gadget of my invention would turn out to be most advantageous.
Once, we had to build a set with eccentrically curved steps that diminished in size as they ascended. It was difficult to replicate the curve precisely for each step, so I created a device that would trace the curve of one step onto the next one no matter the size. My boss, as per usual, was seething as I crafted my novel tool, but it worked so efficiently that he eventually resorted to using it for this and other tasks. When I left that job, my curve-tracing tool hung on a pegboard next to the hammers. My boss and I never spoke of it.
I relate this saga to indicate how, regardless of the occasional success, I failed to engage in the art of KISSing. Whenever I was tempted to make another new tool, my choice should have been governed by a basic calculation balancing time spent making the tool against time saved by using the tool. Far too frequently, my self-regard overran my ability to make an honest assessment. Truth was, I just loved making those stupid tools. If I had instead applied the heuristic of Keep It Simple, Stupid, the calculation would become even clearer: Would making the tool save more time than it would waste, stupid? In most cases, the answer would have been "nope."
In our everyday, we face this dilemma time and again and make the wrong choices with alarming frequency. Some people, though, are masters of the art of KISSing.
Keeping it simple is a powerful antidote to inefficiency and waste. KISS is not a call to reduce every process to its most basic elements or to ignore necessary complexity, but it is a discipline that allows us to strip away excess from projects and processes. Whenever you start a complex project (and throughout the span of designing and executing that project) you may want to remind yourself that at times there is nothing wrong with KISSing some tasks to get things done.
*Since I first wrote and posted this piece, further allegations against Governor Cuomo have emerged. My irreverence on the subject is not intended to make light of or condone such behavior.
Bob Dylan, Train Tracks 2019--Dylan's numerous visual studies of train tracks disappearing to a vanishing point signify his intense interest in distance and perspective.
The mid-eighties production standards of Dylan’s song “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love)" muddies the recording and has limited its appeal, but the lyrics are superb. In the last verse before the final chorus, he tells us of the beating of a man in a “powder-blue wig” who is later “shot / For resisting arrest.” At the very end of the verse he states flatly,
This could strike you as a bland non sequitur or a cleverly inverted profundity since we usually perceive something at a distance, say a traffic tunnel, as far smaller than it is. (Yes, junior, our big car will fit through that little tunnel.) In truth, though, the lines are a commentary on the incidental nature of most outrages. Dylan’s trick is to reverse the chronological order of the episode by introducing the concept of distance before the “Close up” event that proceeds it.
You may quibble with Dylan here. I may quibble with him, for that matter. Perhaps an example is in order. We are all aware of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers and the fact that video of that slow-motion murder sparked or re-sparked a massive national uprising and shifted public opinion. Applying Dylan’s take demonstrates that while Floyd’s murder loomed large in the public eye, for those experiencing it at the time, perhaps even for Floyd himself, it was just a series of discrete moments and decisions that culminated in homicidal tragedy. Floyd certainly sensed he was dying, but his cries for help (including, movingly, to his late mother) suggest that he held out hope that the police would relent or that there would be an intervention. In other words, he did not accept the inevitability of his circumstances because they were not inevitable. Any number of things could have prevented his death, from the mundane to the sublime. That none of them did was unforeseeable in that present, and any inevitability we sense in such a drastic scene is only imposed in hindsight.
I cannot know for sure what the experience was like for Floyd, his murderers, or his witnesses on the scene, of course, but that is how I read the situation. To Dylan’s point, as horrible and huge as that incident--what a shockingly inadequate word--as that catastrophe must have been for those present, not one of them, not even Floyd himself, could ever know how immense it would become for our nation. His homicide, unlike the tunnel that the car (or train) approaches, as monumental as it is up close, is even larger in the distance. In the song, the man in the powder-blue wig dies, also at the hand of the police, but in that moment no one could predict how substantial the atrocity, real or imagined, would become by being enshrined in Dylan's song. In other words, the act of witnessing or participating in such an abomination cannot indicate with any precision how significant such an event might become to those who are removed in time or space from it.
To be clear, my intent is not to diminish the murder of George Floyd by comparison to the fate of a likely fictional Dylan character but to demonstrate how his death led to and became something beyond all expectation. Would Floyd have chosen to die if he could know of the movement his death would inspire? Would anyone? W.B. Yeats ponders a similar conundrum at the end of "Leda and the Swan," which describes another violent catastrophe with vast repercussions:
As I said, I have quibbles with Dylan's lyrical claim. Plenty of disasters take place in anonymity. If not for the viral video, Floyd’s murder would likely have faded from public consciousness if it ever even made it to public consciousness, and the impact of its aftermath may very well have shrunken over time and across distance as so often happens. Instead, now it is an important highlight of the historical record of our day at the very least.
For his part, Dylan's philosophy of time and perspective remains remarkably consistent across decades. Nearly twenty years after recording "Tight Connection," Dylan closed his movie Masked and Anonymous with a voice-over monologue in which he asserts,
As with the doctrine of perspective he sketches in “Tight Connection,” this statement seems to upend our normal point of view. Isn’t it usually that the forest looks chaotic and confusing when you are in its midst but calm and orderly from a mountaintop above? No, in this monologue and in keeping with the lines from his song from the eighties, Dylan again suggests that distance can lead to greater insight, context, and understanding. By the way, this the exact reverse of the more conventional philosophy of perspective that Jonathan Swift utilizes in Gulliver's first two voyages.
The January 6th insurrection at the Capitol offers a perfect example of Dylan's philosophy at work. Several who participated later claimed that they were just swept up with the crowd and had no intention of entering the building let alone rioting. They speak of their experience as though they regarded themselves as unwelcome visitors on an unofficial tour, nothing more. They imagined that they were there as much to see the sights as to shout slogans. Like the mere tourists they feigned to be, they even took selfies with police and stayed inside the guide ropes. Step back to a distance (physical or temporal), and we can see that their mere attendance, no matter their intent, ensures that they contributed to the havoc. Their profession of unawareness does not exculpate them from the charge that they willingly joined a mob that committed acts of destruction, injury, homicide, and sedition. For these folks, though, it may very well have seemed just a particularly rowdy tour group at the time. Nonetheless, consider that one of the people who died during that attack was trampled by the mob. Anyone who was part of that unlawful crowd, whether they were in attendance in that moment or not, is culpable for her death because their presence alone contributed to the overall size of the mob and subsequently the stampede. There can be no mob to trample her if there are no people to create a mob, so every member of that mob is complicit in her death as they are in all the day's consequent deaths, injuries, and terror.
Interestingly, both of Dylan’s examples—a killing by police and “plunder and murder”—feature violence and occur at the end of the two works in which they appear. As always, there is a consistent thread in Dylan's art. In the movie monologue, the “fair garden” evokes Eden, and even the adjective “fair” seems archaic and vaguely biblical. The vicious disorder he describes evokes end times, which has long been a Dylan preoccupation. Even his 1980ish deep dive into christianity centered on a church that promotes an "inaugurated eschatology" with an apocalyptic bent. It is not surprising, then that Dylan would expand his view from a narrow focus on Eden to a wide-angle on a world of brutality and mayhem as if to suggest that we exist in a bubble or garden of false security. Prepare for a decline, all ye who bask in contentment! In fact, the sentence before this passage in the movie monologue uses the phrase “things fall apart,” from Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” which itself is eschatological in theme:
I am not recommending that we stock up on bottled water, power bars, and duct tape to prepare for end times, no matter what Dylan’s view on the subject is. But there are useful lessons we can draw from Dylan’s insight into distance, perspective, and perception in these two quotes.
Down to the Brass Staples
This blog is supposed to be primarily about management and leadership, so let me roll it around to that domain. If you are a boss, or even if you are not, it is important to be aware that your day-to-day, moment-to-moment choices and actions potentially have a larger effect on the future than you may expect. It is not just the cumulative effect of such decisions, but each one, no matter how small, could itself become enormous in its implications and impact. Think about it. An overlooked staple can wreak havoc on the inner workings of an office copy machine just as an inappropriate or insensitive comment could blow up into legal action or even termination.
One may be tempted to affect an attitude of sustained hyper-vigilance to forestall unwanted consequences, but this approach is neither practical nor ultimately effective. A general awareness though that one’s small actions can loom large in the future is in order. I admit that my truism here should seem boringly obvious, and yet how often is its objective veracity still overlooked or downplayed?
The only readily workable solution to the dilemma of unintended consequences is to identify your core principles and, if they are sound, stick to them. Be decent whenever possible. There is that word again, decent. Simply assure that you consistently work with integrity, and you will be largely protected from negative ramifications or at least will be prepared to address and counter them. Stick to your principles, and at they end of the day the consequences will be yours to own honestly. And always remember, as the bard says,
What looks large from a distance
Close up ain’t never that big.
A brief photographic study of Dylan's philosophy of distance and perspective
Remember way back when, when you could reminisce about the good old days without some wise guy coming along and telling you that much of your memory is just a fantasy. Yeah, that way back when never existed.
Humans have a tendency to look on the past with warmth and even longing. This is true when reviewing history as well as when reviewing our individual experiences. You have probably heard someone say something like “My family had it rough when I was coming up, but we always had each other.” The person then goes on to wax wistfully about how they were desperately poor, surviving paycheck to paycheck and occasionally living in the car or a shallow ditch, and yet they were ever so much the richer for how their nightmarish existence drew them together.
I am indulging in hyperbole, of course, but you recognize the pattern. As we move away from the past, we tend to start smoothing the rough edges of memory. Sometimes, our new perspective allows us to see things we could not see before or recontextualize our experiences or recorded history to understand them better. But too often, we are just selectively editing the real picture. It is like observing a rock, first up close with all its coarseness and jaggedness and then at a distance as a smooth surface. I don’t know if it is because our memories are inherently faulty or we just have a desire to idealize the past, but having no training as a psychologist, I haven't the expertise to consider this phenomenon from a clinical standpoint. Instead, my approach will be more prosaic and pragmatic.
Nostalgia is a longing for a version of the past that is imbued with a great deal of sentimentality. Of course, there is much to admire and even desire about the past, but nostalgia erases the undesirable or clads it in a shiny new veneer. Certainly, we need to comprehend the past to better understand our present and even our future. The problem with nostalgia is that notion of sentimentality, though, which is like seeing that rock from across a field and admiring its flawlessness despite an awareness that up close we would easily recognize its coarseness, cracks, fissures, edges, and pockmarks.
Nostalgia works much the same way, and it is fraught for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is simply wrong. It is a distortion and misapprehension of our past, and if we cannot grasp the past, we certainly cannot fully grasp the present or anticipate the future.
Second, in eradicating or editing the reality of the past, nostalgia can lend itself to delaying or even denying righteousness and justice. Those who long for a greatness in America that allegedly marked the period of the 1950s and early 1960s peer through a narrow scope that eliminates the oppressive circumstances that minority populations of every type and women lived under. To pretend otherwise is just not factual.
Nostalgia, though, smooths all those sharp edges like a cultural opioid. Our nostalgic minds tell us that white men back then were all epitomes of masculinity, which they lorded over their paragons of femininity, who in turn enjoyed carefree lives. Blacks, in this fantasy, occupied some space in the background, but they put up a noble fight for justice, which everyone except really bad people supported. All this is absurd, but, worse still, it necessarily casts any present-day fight for justice as wrongheaded, counterproductive, and quixotic.
Third, nostalgia is inherently pessimistic. The hyper-nostalgic phrase “make America great again,” implies three falsehoods about time: that there is some sort of greatness endemic to the past, that we no longer can experience greatness, and that we are on a path that leads us even further from the achievement of greatness. This last falsehood is the nature of nostalgia, to idealize the past while implying that the future is bound to be bleaker. The “again” in “make America great again” may promise some ability to recapture past greatness in the future but only by fabricating a past that never existed outside of febrile minds. Left to its current path, the “carnage” that the proponents of making America great again claim marks the present can only culminate in a dismal future. The phrase itself offers not hope but a sense of a lost cause, a noble defeat that must be revenged.
In reality the past is, like the present, neither all or largely good nor all or largely bad. It is a mix. People love depictions of, say, eighteenth-century Europe as a world of fancy clothes and beautiful people, but whatever beauty and nobility existed then was offset by the reality of the age. The massive issue of class and the disregard for most life aside, even the upper crust had no running water. Until you are willing to conquer the matter of the close stool, spare me your desire to live in the past. If you doubt me, read Jonathan Swift’s satiric poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (1732) for a fine example of the difference between illusion and reality, and remember, “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia, shits!” And if you are up for even more fun read Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s rejoinder “The Reasons that Induced Dr. S. to write a Poem called ‘The Lady's Dressing Room’” (1734), which offers an alternative perspective: "You'll furnish paper when I shite." To be transported to that time, as one romantic television portrayal fantasizes, and to thrive, you would have to start by radically adjusting your attitude about basic hygiene.
My apologies if my tiny foray into eighteenth-century hygiene left you a little nauseous, but any queasiness you may experience reminds me that nostalgia itself was first identified as a disorder among soldiers who were suffering a sort of amped up homesickness. Nostalgia is a malady.
Nostalgia, because it erroneously rewrites the past, leaves us wallowing in error, injustice, and pessimism. Nostalgia is a stew of retrograde fecklessness. Although we are all prone to nostalgia to varying degrees, those who wallow in a fanciful past in lieu of facing current realities and their consequences undermine society’s ability to forge a new and bold future. Our current lot will not improve, howsoever fleetingly, unless we squarely and honestly face the past and present in order to foresee or even forge the future. Learning the past, the true past, stripped of fantasy and undo sentiment can help us see through the romance of lost causes and such. Only then can we achieve true unity in our future.
A paper delivered at Jonathan Swift in the 21st Century, 2018 Jay I. Kislak Symposium, The University of Pennsylvania, 23 February 2017.
Consider such works as A Tale of a Tub, A Modest Proposal, or the materials associated with the Bickerstaff hoax. In addition to their artistic, cultural, and historical value, each constitutes first-rate trolling from the 21st-century perspective. Swift was, in fact, a troll of the highest order, working within the most technologically advanced social medium of his day—printed prose and poetry.
While terming such works "trolling" risks trivializing them, what is trenchant satire if not trolling of a kind? Indeed, the best of 21st-century trolling is satiric performance across media and genres, and not just social media. It seeks to expose, subvert, and vex, thus provoking a response that further lays bare the subject, an objective matched by much of Swift's satiric output.
For readers, the venom of Swift's satire, having traveled across three centuries, tends to grow inert, even fatuous, but viewing Swift through the lens of contemporary trolling can re-intensify the perceived acrimony that pervades his satiric work. It also provides insight into the purposes and methodologies of better present-day trolling. Could some troll, perhaps more literary and less ephemeral than typical, soon emerge as a latter-day Swift? Most pertinently, though, perceiving the troll at the core of Jonathan Swift offers insight into his contemporary impact and his preferred insider audience.
First let’s examine the phenomenon of trolling. Often, trolling is associated with social media, but its scope is far more expansive. For instance, a common observation is that the president of these United States sometimes uses his Twitter account to troll the press, the public, or other enemies. But, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that his trolling activities extend far beyond the Twitter platform. In fact, some of his most troll-like behavior has occurred during public appearances —press conferences, meetings, signing ceremonies, speeches, and the like. Whatever your politics, it is impossible to disassociate President Trump’s more outlandish statements and performances from trolling.
At their worst, trolls are associated with narcissism and sadism. As Jennifer Golbeck writes in Psychology Today, “An Internet troll is someone who comes into a discussion and posts comments designed to upset or disrupt the conversation. Often, in fact, it seems like there is no real purpose behind their comments except to upset everyone else involved. Trolls will lie, exaggerate, and offend to get a response.” (Jennifer Golbeck. “Internet Trolls Are Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Sadists.” Psychology Today. September 18, 2014.)
While trolling is most often deeply negative, it is not always so. More broadly, it involves deploying some degree of anonymity or a persona to disrupt or subvert one’s perceived ideological enemies. It can be playful, cruel, or simply manipulative. Judith Donath, in a paper from 1999, observes that “Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players.” The troll deceives in the service of the truth or a truth or some extremely localized version of truth. Trolls could be primarily satirist, parodists, ironists, propagandists, or mere hoaxers. Trolling is, usually, a commentary intended to critique or expose some perceived flaw, challenge a position or assumption, and/or advance a corrective. Trolls utilize humor, irony, parody, hyperbole, etc., and are most happy when they have been most vexing to most of the audience or to a target audience.
In short, trolls have a whole lot in common with satirists, including the frequent use of irony. In fact, irony in both trolling and satirizing are used as covers for all manner of excess and insult. If one were to conceive a Venn diagram of trolling in juxtaposition with satire, the overlap would be significant.
So, was Jonathan Swift a troll in his time?
Swift’s poetry would be a rich source, too rich to be adequately addressed here. In terms of Swift’s prose, among his trolliest works are A Tale of a Tub, A Modest Proposal, and, undoubtedly the pieces known collectively as The Bickerstaff Papers, which we should address at some length.
In A Tale of a Tub, Swift adopts the persona of the modern enthusiast bent on transmitting his extended religious allegory while digressing lengthily on various topics of grave concern. He then added the apparatus of footnotes, his own and others’ commentaries, as well as Edmund Curll’s dubious Notes on the Tale, which lend the work a scholarly air and which is offset by the overcooked allegory and the ostensibly superfluous digressions. The punchline in this wonderfully sophisticated lark is set up in the conclusion with the grave observation that it is the same with “profound writers” as with a well, which is presumed “wondrous Deep, upon no wiser a Reason than because it is wondrous Dark.” Immediately thereafter we learn that the author has all along sought to “write upon Nothing; When the Subject is utterly exhausted, to let the Pen still move on; by some called, the Ghost of Wit, delighting to walk after the Death of the Body.”
To reduce A Tale of a Tub to this elaborately protracted joke—that the Tale itself is meaningless and that the reader has wasted time and brainpower reading it—is not supportable, but the exasperation the joke evokes anticipates the reactions present-day trolls relish. Similarly, the prolix digressions, the overwrought allegory, the pseudo-scholarly apparatus, and even the tenebrous title all contribute to the reader’s building vexation. Any of us who have presented A Tale of a Tub in the typical undergraduate classroom knows that today’s readers struggle mightily with the discursive prose. It is, in fact, a work only a literature nerd could love. One may long to identify as its preferred audience, but that audience is paradoxically the butt of the very joke that only that audience gets. The work is at once discursive, recursive, and subversive. Through intentional evasiveness, misdirection, and obfuscation, it resists, eschews, and denies meaning. For today’s readers to encounter a venerable author’s earliest great work only to learn that they have been set up all along is nettlesome, indeed. For they have been trolled.
Swift’s trolling also significantly manifests in A Modest Proposal some two decades later. While it may escape the notice of the casual reader, Swift’s Modest Proposer famously starts with what can fairly be described as a humblebrag: “whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.” This seemingly generous observation is, in fact, as self-serving as the title of the work itself. The humblebrag is practiced far and wide, but it is often a troll’s move, dripping with intentional or unintentional irony. Witness Donald Trump’s infamous tweet after the Orlando nightclub massacre: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!” (June 12, 2016). As many others have observed, Donald Trump may be the most accomplished troll in existence.
The Proposer trolls the hapless reader by launching with an ostensible reasonableness before slipping subtly into increasingly outlandish claims and suggestions and culminating in a lengthy list of apparently serious-minded schemes. In this way, satire meets trolling, and a tone of bullying, cast ironically, pervades the Proposal, which is more than “a little bordering upon cruelty.” Whatever the Proposer’s scruples concerning the consumption of children as old as twelve, his gastronomical indulgence in the delights of dressing infant flesh “to perfection” is bizarre and mean-spirited. Furthermore, his frequent digs against the Irish Catholic poor ring out like so many nasty tweets, whether it be the potential competition of Irish “breeders” to “bring the fattest child to the market,” the inducement to men no longer “to beat or kick [their wives] (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage,” or his observation that his plan will suffice “for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland, and for no other that ever was, is, or, I think, ever can be upon Earth.”
But the poor Irish do not face the Proposer’s opprobrium alone. The list of reasonable solutions, among other passages, inherently indicts Swift’s fellow Anglicans in power in Dublin. More famously, the very English themselves—often erroneously presumed the only or primary target of Swift’s satire—are, indeed, the inhabitants of that “country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without” salt. More subtly, the very structure and tone of the “Proposal” itself parodies the technocratic projects of Protestant Dissenters. In short, A Modest Proposal assaults all, with its author masked by a parodic persona, bitter irony, and satire to avoid blame and shame for his conceptual and verbal excesses. In other words, he is a troll.
As with A Tale of a Tub, the insider audience has a role here. To read A Modest Proposal well and in the spirit of the work is to be complicit in its excesses—however ironic. Again, this complicity correlates with the present-day troll’s insider audience.
Obviously, other Swift satires represent degrees of trolling, but I want to focus the rest of my time on an early and exuberant example of trolling: Swift’s invention of Isaac Bickerstaff in 1708 and his relentless assault on John Partridge, the almanac maker.
To rehearse the events, Swift devised the persona Isaac Bickerstaff to ridicule Partridge through a canny application of what can be identified as early eighteenth-century fake news. Instead of Twitter or Facebook, Swift used a popular medium of his day—the almanac—and led his mock prognostications with “but a Trifle”: Partridge’s death on March 29th, just in time for some April 1st high jinks.
The historical record regarding Swift’s hoax, Partridge’s response, the consequences, and subsequent companion publications is rife with rumor, misdirection, and wishful conjecture—the troll’s tools of the trade. Some juicy items are extant on the internet but have origins far older. For instance, you can look to the prolific William Eddy in 1932 to learn—right or wrong—that the name “John Partridge” was itself a nom de plume for cobbler “John Hewson.” The Dictionary of National Biography famously claims that the Company of Stationers owned the right to the Partridge name and stripped John Partridge or Hewson or whatever his name of his privilege to publish almanacs with the pseudonym upon—among other authorities—the notion that he was dead. The DNB also repeats the claim that the Portuguese Inquisition, upon learning that the first Bickerstaffian prediction came true, burned the pamphlet.
More luridly, there is the claim that Partridge was gay, which is not to say that Partridge was really John Gay, but that John Partridge was himself gay. I admit I have not researched this possibility more than to follow the internet lead. You can see him listed on a UK wiki called LGBT Archive, which cites Ranker.com’s list of Famous Gay Men. Ranker, for its part, cites an authority it no doubt finds unimpeachable . . . Ranker.com. And so the eternal circle of internet authority remains unbroken.
The Bickerstaff brand, if you will, gained its own notoriety, being adopted by a series of tongue-in-cheek authors, Swift’s clearest insider audience. Of course, Richard Steele used the name Isaac Bickerstaff in The Tatler, either as a homage to his then-friend Swift and/or as an exploitation of the joke. Thus, “Isaac Bickerstaff” was reused, recycled, and refurbished in his day. Each iteration was a poke at Partridge, a reference back to the Partridge death hoax, and a signal that here be an attempt at wit. In other words, the name “Isaac Bickerstaff” operated as a meme, which means that the Predictions and its companion pieces were one of the most enduring trollings in history, with their subject rendered a fool for all time. And it was a right-good All Fools Day hoax.
To recap: Swift invented Isaac Bickerstaff to mock John Partridge—via fake news!—and incite him to injudicious reaction. Partridge—a fake name!—obliged and became even more ridiculous for the exchange. Not Swift’s greatest literary contribution, but a fine example of Swiftian trolling: skill level - expert.
Aside from the medium and the literary value, it takes some effort to discern a fundamental difference between the operation of some of Swift’s work and much present-day trolling. This is particularly true with regard to the Bickerstaff hoax, which engendered the sort of frenzied piling-on trolls try to incite and seem to delight in. To this day the hoax and its consequences are subject to misinformation and exaggeration. How many of us in this room have heard at some point—sometimes even from an authoritative source—that a court declared John Partridge officially dead even after he testified to his ongoing existence? As a famous politician says a lot, “Fake news, folks! Fake news!”
So, if much of Swift’s satiric output bears a resemblance to present-day trolling, what does that tell us about Swift? Perhaps nothing particularly new, but it can foreground the more execrable side of Swift. Jennifer Golbeck’s Psychology Today piece describes a Canadian study that strongly correlates internet trolls with what psychologists call the “Dark Tetrad” of narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism, which is, of course, one pathology worse than the more famous “Dark Triad.” I would not suggest that Swift manifested the Dark Tetrad or the Dark Triad any more than I would all internet trolls, and I have no interest or training in psychoanalyzing him or them. But he certainly displayed some of these traits at various times in his life and in his satire.
To be sure, there is a degree of cruelty underlying some of his satires, including the ones I explored here. Whether it be cruelty toward his various satiric targets or even against his audience, there is a sadistic delight one can sense. Swift was a troll, plainly put, but not like a Russian operative sowing dissent and confusion to subvert an election. His trolling is more akin to the alt-right—not in content, but somewhat in style. The alt-right fires its volleys at perceived enemies and then, often, hides behind claims of irony to evade responsibility. President Trump has relied on a similar ploy. How many times have we been told that some of his more outlandish claims were actually jokes, which implies that those who don’t get the jokes are somehow remiss? In reality, though, these jokes—even if they are not entirely serious statements—send messages to an insider audience. At their worst, they are sometimes “dog whistles” to an extremist base.
Swift, similarly, speaks to an insider audience. Sometimes it is his friends, and often it is just those who get his message. No one wants to be the outsider, then or now. This insight can tell us something about how we read Swift’s work, particularly his most cutting satire. We chuckle at his nasty swipes against the Irish poor in A Modest Proposal or against the hapless John Partridge and thus become the insider audience. As such, we become complicit in the cruelty, imagining that the clever irony vindicates the viciousness. I am not taking a moral stance here, but I am trying to show that this is exactly how trolling works: it exposes its targets to thrill its insider audience. We can also see that, like present-day trolling, whatever its literary or historical value, Swift’s satire sought to disrupt, subvert, and vex. His satiric goal sowed disorder to interrupt the normal flow and—one imagines he hoped—to reset the cultural-political order. In this way, we can see that there is nothing new about trolling. So long as there have been satirists, like Swift, there have probably been trolls.
So, in the Bickerstaff spirit, I will make a prediction. In the first week of April in this year 2018, a most famous personage in the United States will tweet a tweet that will bewilder everyone. Covfefe.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.