Political satire uses sarcasm and or humor to point out the foibles, incompetence, or corruption of political leaders and government actions. One of the earliest political satirists known to history is Aristophanes, who wrote many theatrical comedies that satirized ancient Athenian politics.
Political satire has become much more common in modern civilization, because of literacy growth; technological advances in forms of entertainment like television, film, and the Internet; and expansion of free speech and free press rights in many countries. Such forms of satire can flourish under governments that tolerate freedom of expression, while under authoritarian regimes, poking fun at political leaders and their policies can result in imprisonment or even death.
In the United States, the federal Supreme Court upheld constitutional protections for political satire in the somewhat unusual case of Flynt v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988). Pornography publisher Larry Flynt printed a parody in his magazine that created a fictional and crude account of the first sexual experience of Jerry Falwell, a well-known conservative political activist and evangelist preacher on American television. Falwell sued Flynt for libel and was awarded $150,000 by a jury for emotional distress, but the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the jury decision by stating that no one would believe the parody was true and that public figures must get used to the possibility of ridicule.
Cartoons, Essays, Literature
Jonathan Swift became a well-known English-language political satirist in the eighteenth century for his works like Gulliver’s Travels, while Voltaire’s Candide gained great popularity and controversy in mid-eighteenth century France. Political satire also became a form of commentary on British rule in colonial America, one of the most prominent authors being Benjamin Franklin for works like “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One.”
Political satire became more popular among the majority of people, many who were illiterate in the nineteenth century, through political cartoons. The term gerrymander became famous when a political cartoonist in Boston added a salamander’s feet and head to a map of an oddly shaped legislative district in Massachusetts drawn to benefit the party of Governor Elbridge Gerry in 1812. Thomas Nast became famous in the second half of the ninth century for his political cartoons in Harper’s Weekly, in which he created the symbols of the elephant for Republicans and the donkey for Democrats. Nast also published a series of cartoons critical of New York City’s Boss Tweed, head of the Tammany Hall political machine, who eventually went to prison.
In nineteenth-century France, Honoré Daumier’s caricatures of King Louis-Philippe at one point led to the artist’s imprisonment, and Victor Hugo published Les Châtiments, a collection of poetry that contained strident satire of the reign of Napoleon III. In the twentieth century, novels like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, as well as H. L. Mencken’s newspaper columns, continued a rich English-language tradition of political satire. Political cartoons remain common in newspapers, while Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury became a well-known satire of contemporary American politics in comic strip form. The magazines Private Eye and Le Canard enchaîné, from the United Kingdom and France, respectively, remain known for their satirical articles and cartoons.
Television, Film, Internet
One of the twentieth century’s most famous and politically significant political satires was presented on film in 1940, with Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a critique on the rise of Hitler in Germany. Later, 1964’s Dr. Strangelove satirized the cold war, while Woody Allen’s 1971 film Bananas satirized Latin American dictatorships. In 1997, Wag the Dog was released, a dark comedy about the creation of a fake war to distract the public from an American president’s sex scandal. Michael Moore has made a series of documentaries in which he satirizes American political policies on gun control, health care, and the 2003 war in Iraq.
Television also has become a very popular medium for political satire in American shows such as The Simpsons, which includes a buffoonish Mayor Quimby character and frequently pokes fun at mass public ignorance on political issues, and South Park, which has satirized American views on immigration, abortion, censorship, and environmentalism. The weekly program Saturday Night Live frequently contains satirical skits and impressions of political leaders that can have an impact on public attitudes, such as skits poking fun at 2008’s Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, both political satire programs, became especially popular among American young adults.
British television programs also poke fun at politicians, perhaps most memorably in the Spitting Image puppet show of the 1980s and 1990s, whose portrayals of Ronald and Nancy Reagan were used in a music video of the song “Land of Confusion” by the band Genesis in 1986. In Canada, the CBC network has, for many years, presented political satire shows like Royal Canadian Air Farce, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and The Rick Mercer Report, with each of the shows featuring frequent appearances by leading national politicians of the day. Le Bébête Show and Les Guignols de l’info, similar to Spitting Image, have used puppets to satirize French political leaders. Japanese comedian Hikari Ota began a weekly program in 2005 in which he pretends to be a Japanese prime minister who proposes preposterous policies.
Widespread Internet access, starting in the late twentieth century, also led to an exponential increase in political satire, as websites such as YouTube make themselves available to anyone in many countries, though most of the satire produced in this way has not attracted much attention. Organized political satire websites, though, have had more of a following and occasionally gained attention from other media. The Onion website contains a large number of humorous fictional news articles and videos about politics. JibJab.com gained a lot of attention for the satirical video it posted during the 2004 American presidential election, in which George W. Bush and John Kerry sing along together to the folk song “This Land Is Your Land.”
If Internet access continues to spread, if electricity reaches more communities around the world, and if more countries adopt policies that tolerate the freedom to criticize political leaders, then the amount of satirical content produced about politics is likely to grow in the twenty-first century.
- Bakalar, Nick, ed. American Satire: An Anthology of Writings from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Meridian, 1997.
- Freedman, Leonard. The Offensive Art: Political Satire and Its Censorship around the World from Beerbohm to Borat. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2009.
- Gray, Jonathan, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson, eds. Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-network Era. New York: NYU Press, 2009.
- Jones, Jeffrey P. Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010.
- Justman, Stewart. The Springs of Liberty: The Satiric Tradition and Freedom of Speech. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1999.
- Kerr, David S. Caricature and French Political Culture, 1830–1848: Charles Philipon and the Illustrated Press. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Knowles, Ronald. Gulliver’s Travels: The Politics of Satire. New York: Twayne, 1996.
- Lerner, Ralph. Playing the Fool: Subversive Laughter in Troubled Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
- Sidwell, Keith C. Aristophanes the Democrat: The Politics of Satirical Comedy during the Peloponnesian War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
- Soper, Kerry. Garry Trudeau: Doonesbury and the Aesthetics of Satire. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008.
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POLITICAL jokes travel farther than ever before. Last year the Onion, a satirical magazine in America, declared Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s round-faced leader, the “sexiest man alive”. The People’s Daily newspaper in China took the nomination seriously and ran a 55-photo spread to celebrate the honour. When the Onion published a fake poll announcing that rural white Americans had a more favourable opinion of Iran’s then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, than of Barack Obama, an Iranian state news-agency covered this as real news. Lots of people are less ingenuously looking at the Onion to entertain themselves. In the past year its web traffic has grown by around 70%.
Political satire used to be the preserve of artists and writers like Honoré Daumier, who caricatured King Louis Philippe in 19th-century France, and George Orwell, the author of “Animal Farm”. It has existed at least since Aristophanes took aim at the Greek elite in his plays, but thanks to modern technology and a changing political climate it is almost everywhere today. The internet has made it easier for the masses to join in the fun. Cartoons and lampoons can be posted online, no longer needing a print publication to host them. Social media have helped political sideswipes to spread as contagiously as laughter, and have fostered a “remix culture” in which internet-users share memes and post spoofs with abandon.
The internet has also made it easier for satirists to bypass censors and stay anonymous. The Pan-Arabia Enquirer, a Middle Eastern satirical news site, is run by a nameless editor. Satirists enjoy a global reach they never would have had otherwise. Jon Stewart, an American who hosts “The Daily Show”, a humorous news programme on the Comedy Central channel (pictured above), has inspired copycat shows abroad, including one by Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian heart surgeon, who started posting videos on YouTube; they became so popular that he was given a slot on an Egyptian television channel.
Satire is still flourishing where it was born: in theatres. “The Book of Mormon”, a musical making fun of Mormonism, has broken box-office records in America and Britain. But innovation mainly happens online. When Wendy Davis, a Texas state senator, spent 10 hours on her feet filibustering a bill that aimed to restrict abortion, her supporters turned to Amazon, the online retailer, to skewer opponents. One product review of the Mizuno running footwear worn by Ms Davis that day says it “fits perfectly up a Republican’s rear end”. KermlinRussia, a Twitter account, mocks Russian government news releases.
Once such pronouncements were honed in satirical essays. Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, gave humorous advice to the British government in 1773 when he penned “Rules by which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One”. Such essays are experiencing a resurgence of sorts. A recent cartoon essay hosted on CNN’s website by Matt Bors about youths facing discrimination from their elders was shared avidly across social media.
In authoritarian countries coded images, rather than words, are a common form of satirical dissidence, not least because they have a greater chance of evading censors. On the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June, Weibo, China’s microblogging site, was filled with photos of yellow plastic ducks in an empty square in Beijing. They went viral before censors intervened, blocking the phrase “big yellow duck” from search results. When CNN’s Turkish channel decided to show a documentary about penguins that month rather than cover big protests in Istanbul’s Gezi park, penguins shuffled across social media sites.
New technology is not the only explanation for today’s satire boom. Political change, including a worldwide move towards democracy, is helping too. Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, thinks satire is doing particularly well in the “middle ground”—in countries where freedom of expression is constrained enough to outrage people but where political repression is not so severe as to crush people’s ability to communicate relatively freely. Regime change brought about by the Arab spring has sparked a new season of creative and daring cartooning (see article). According to Andrei Richter of the Moscow Media Law and Policy Institute, a think-tank, the internet may also have made politicians more accustomed to ridicule and less likely to bring charges against satirists, since they can see their competitors are being pilloried too.
Still, many satirists in countries with humourless governments, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, struggle to express themselves. They are routinely jailed, kidnapped and threatened, says Bro Russell of Cartoonist Rights International, an advocacy group. Some countries are trying to rewrite laws to make it easier to crack down online.
And while the internet may have boosted satire in general, it has also made it harder for practitioners to make a living from it. This is particularly true for professional cartoonists. Their numbers have dwindled as newspapers have gone under or cut staff. American papers employed around 2,000 full-time editorial cartoonists a century ago. By 2010 only 40 were left; most work is done by freelancers. Their best (and often only) paycheques come from cartoons that sell nationally. Thus local politics now rarely attracts their attention. The most successful cartoonists run their own websites and sell merchandise such as mugs and T-shirts. But that is rarely lucrative. Tjeerd Royaards of the Cartoon Movement, an online publisher, says, “There are more cartoonists in the world, but more part-time cartoonists.”
It is not just politicians who find aspects of the explosion in satire unwelcome. Thanks to the internet, professional purveyors of the stuff face a lot more competition. For once, the joke is at their expense. A niche craft practised by a talented few has turned into a globally popular hobby, and what was once considered audacious commentary is now mainstream. Satirists used to shock people, says Charlie Beckett, a media professor at the London School of Economics. But they have lost impact, no matter how vicious or personal. “Everyone is rude on the internet.”
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