In 1729, Jonathan Swift published an essay titled "A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick."
The essay suggested that Irish parents could alleviate their poverty by selling their children to be eaten by the wealthy.
"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," Swift wrote.
He was kidding. But a lot of people got upset anyway.
This is what satire does. It upsets people by being outrageous, over-the-top and inappropriate.
That is why satire works. Swift wasn't really advocating the eating of Irish children; he was attacking the indifference of wealthy British landlords, who owned much of Ireland, to the fate of such children.
This week, the New Yorker magazine published a cover depicting Barack and Michelle Obama as dangerous radicals. In the cover illustration, they are standing in the Oval Office giving each other a fist bump. He is wearing a turban and she is wearing an Afro and has an AK-47 slung over her shoulder. They are burning an American flag in the fireplace, and a picture of Osama bin Laden is hanging on the wall.
The New Yorker was kidding. It was satirizing people who hold stupid misconceptions about the Obamas.
A lot of people got upset anyway.
The Obama campaign, through a spokesman, immediately denounced the cover as "tasteless and offensive."
John McCain said the cover was "totally inappropriate."
Yesterday, Obama himself weighed in, saying: "I know it was the New Yorker's attempt at satire. I don't think they were entirely successful with it. But you know what? It's a cartoon, and that's why we've got the First Amendment."
But Obama also said: "In attempting to satirize something, they probably fueled some misconceptions about me instead."
And this was the main line of attack that critics of the magazine took. Sure, the ultra-sophisticated readers of the New Yorker will understand that the cover is a satire, the critics said, but many people will not. Many people, they argue, will take the cover seriously and believe that the Obamas revere Osama bin Laden, hate the American flag, carry assault rifles and are dangerous Islamic radicals.
And, the argument goes, the New Yorker should not have run the cover for that reason.
But this is what is called the Idiot's Veto: If a single person might not get a joke, then you should not tell the joke. All humor (and everything else) should be reduced to the lowest common denominator just to make sure nobody misunderstands anything.
This would, of course, remove a lot of the humor from life. Shows like "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report," both of which are almost pure satire, would have to go off the air. And the late-night comics would have to shut up. And many writers would have to stop writing. All in order to have an idiot-proof society.
Even if this were possible, however, would it be worth it?
There was a movie made in 2006 called "Idiocracy." It was about an America in which people just get stupider and stupider until, 500 years in the future, all they do is sit around and drink and watch really dumb reality shows on TV.
It was a satire. I think.