A Modest Proposal: Mowbray Allan edition

Dr. Mowbray Allan

Dr. Mowbray Allan

Dr. Mowbray Allan was one of my English professors in college. My brother and I were among his biggest fans. I think we might have been alone among his biggest fans. He had a rumbly voice that was hard for many people to follow. He’d start a thought, and then begin laughing, and it was hard to tell which part of the rumbling was his laugh and which part was him continuing to talk.  I think he’d probably have been a pretty good choice for the voice of Treebeard in Lord of the Rings. Some people thought he smelled a little funny but that was probably just the smoking. He had a habit of randomly and in mid-sentence rushing over to a random student, putting his foot on their desk, resting his elbow on his knee and his head on his hand, leaning in reeeeeeeeeeeally close and asking the student what he or she thought of whatever he’d just said. He had kind of a perverse sense of humor I guess you’d say. Which we loved, but freaked some people out.

One of the best ways that perverse sense of humor manifested itself was when he was teaching Swift‘s A Modest Proposal. It’s hard sometimes to get a good discussion going in an undergraduate lit class, especially a 100- or 200- level class. Even with a subject like A Modest Proposal, in which Swift proposes that by selling their children for food, the Irish can solve both famine and poverty in one stroke. For some reason, possibly the old-fashioned language, possibly the irony, possibly sheer apathy (probably), very few people had anything to say about the work, and even the looming rumbling cigarette breath of the prof couldn’t startle anyone into a discussion.

Dr. Allan, however, was a diabolical genius. In this situation, he’d ramble off on a tangent in which–and I don’t remember how he got there since so many of his segues consisted of disconnected phrases strung together with his rumbly laughter–he’d propose a new medical system in which the poor could sell their organs for profit.

This, now this would get the class started. Maybe the idea of Irish babies on the dinner table wasn’t immediate enough to inspire revulsion in the college students of the early-to-mid-90s, but the idea of monetizing organ donations would horrify them. And Dr. Allan had been doing this for a while. Every objection, moral, ethical, economic, legal–he had an answer. He was masterful. As much as I enjoyed his rambling rumbling lectures and the little jokes that few understood but rendered him incomprehensible for a sentence or two, this was his moment, when his brilliance truly shone through.  And all in the service of a lesson on literary irony.

Irony imploded last weekend. The idea that so horrified us as college students 15-20 years ago has been put forward seriously by a conservative blogger, republished in the Chicago Tribune, and defended by members of the cult of the free market.


The choicest quote: “The sick need organs.  The poor need money.  A simple organ clearinghouse would solve the problem.”

We now live in a world where people seriously think that the free market should determine the value of your organs, and that government has no business regulating the organ trade.

This is a world in which I sincerely hope my value as a person is greater than that of the sum of my parts, as I have no desire to be parted out to give some rich asshole a few more months of life.

As far as I know, Dr. Allan is still kicking around, professor emeritus at the university from which I never quite managed to graduate. Dr. Allan, I hope you have as many good arguments against this idea as you used to have for it. Irony alone doesn’t cut it anymore apparently.

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