Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Size of Self-Importance: Gulliver as Agent of Identity Politics

In the realm of nonsense political psychobabble we already have the ichorous depths of sexual-politics and race-politics; leave it to master satirist Jonathan Swift to invent and castrate the identity-politics movement four hundred years before its invention--in his immortal classic, Gulliver's Travels. Swift’s own periodic addition may be best termed Size-Politics.

When Lemuel Gulliver crashed upon the shores of the nation of Lilliput, he was a giant among tiny men—or like Godzilla among Japanese—and treated with awe and terror. In an effort to regain their self-importance, the Lilliputians attempt to teach this “Englishman” the greatness and ultimate superiority of their race and beliefs (they are especially fond of showing the extranational traveler the proper end of an egg to break—the only thing separating them from savages). Here the Lilliputians fall into the classic mindset of minority politics; Gulliver makes them feel the tang of nihilism, that their race is small and useless—thus they must strike back at him through legislation. The council demands that Gulliver’s eyes be struck from his face with the nation’s toothpick sized swords—all done in the name of fairness (and to a lesser extent, national security) to the little people. Gulliver escapes onto his next adventure.

Gulliver proves his ill-luck by getting abandoned on the shore of yet another island nation (Brobdingnagian) not long after the Lilliput fiasco—this island however, was filled with men proportionally the size he was to the Lilliputians. Here Gulliver, rather than being the person of strength he was in the nation of Lilliput, he reverts to attempting to prove the greatness to any Brobdingnagian that will give him their ear for a moment. Here the extra-national traveler plays the other part of identity politics, trying to be accepted as better than all majorities. Unlike those who play identity politics in America, Gulliver’s rantings about the glory of England are treated as an after-dinner joke.

Swift’s work exposes the idea of identity politics as little people trying to convince their betters (usually in truth, though sometimes betters by cultural luck) that their Lilliputian souls and ideas are better than the Brobdingnags themselves.

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