Is political satire more than a pleasant, therapeutic, form of entertainment?
By itself political satire doesn’t topple thrones, overthrow tyrants, prevent wars, or decide elections. The vast amount of ridicule heaped on Hitler during the Weimar Republic didn’t stop him from coming to power. George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 in face of a prodigious outpouring of anti-Bush satire. Anti-war satire didn’t prevent the invasion of Iraq.
It’s even been suggested that political satire discourages political action. According to Freud, satire serves as a safety valve, venting tensions that might otherwise be expressed in the political arena. Some authoritarian regimes have tolerated a certain amount of satire as an alternative to more dangerous dissent. In America critics have argued that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, with their late night shows and their rallies to mock right wing anger, make ironic detachment the substitute for political involvement.
And yet, if satire alone is unlikely to change the course of history, it often accompanies and reinforces political action. And though its impact can never be measured precisely, it seems likely that, together with other forces of dissent, political satire can make a difference. The cartoons and lascivious jokes leveled at the royal family helped to create the atmosphere of derision and fury that culminated in the French Revolution. The satirists’ rage against the Vietnam war played its part in the shift of public sentiment that at last forced its end. Colbert and Stewart make politics amusing and interesting to youthful audiences who otherwise tend to be politically uninvolved.
Moreover, if some authoritarian regimes have contemptuously tolerated a limited amount of satire, most have not. And here we come to the most important argument for why political satire matters – its role as a bulwark against political oppression.
Political satire, after all, is by definition aggressive, hostile, offensive. Political leaders generally don’t like being offended, and especially they don’t enjoy being made to look ridiculous.
In authoritarian systems they often retaliate with deletions, confiscations, fines, imprisonment, exile, even execution. Daumier was thrown into jail for a savage , scatalogical caricature of King Louis Phillippe. Telling anti-Hitler jokes during the Nazi regime was a capital crime. Sardonic depictions of Stalin could lead to the gulag. Today political satire in Cuba and Iran comes mostly from exiles. In China it flourishes in Hong Kong and Taiwan but not on the mainland. In Zimbabwe satirists are beaten up by thugs. In Myanmar they face long jail terms.
Democracies, by definition, are much more tolerant of political satire. But even there dissent is discouraged during war-time (most satire simply stopped for a few weeks after 9/11), and satirists sometimes meet hostile reactions when they challenge the taboos surrounding sex, religion, and race. The international uproar over the publication of the Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed in 2003 is still reverberating.
In fact, most of us are inclined to draw the line somewhere, to decide that our own particular belief should not be ridiculed. Yet I would argue that, in almost all circumstances we should support the satirists who, often at great risk, continue to look for ways around the censorship and deride their oppressors.
As I suggested at the beginning of my book, The Offensive Art:
Political satire to be most effective
Is caustic, unfair, and never objective.
With all this in mind, you may ask why I’m for it.
The answer is simple: Tyrants abhor it.