In Defense Of Satire

October 9, 2019 Category: History

A sense of humor is integral to appreciating the warp and woof of human life.  It is for this reason that satire can have tremendous didactic value.  It exposes human folly via a tongue-in-cheek emulation of that folly.  As it turns out, the fatuousness of fatuous things can be elucidated via a judicious deployment of exaggeration.  As Thomas Jefferson once noted: “Ridicule is the only weapon that can be used against unintelligible propositions.”  Done well, satire serves as an epistemic jolt.  It forces us to reassess that to which we have become overly-accustomed; and it invites us to notice things that we may not have otherwise noticed.  The key is to do so without being gratuitously sententious.

There is a long history of using satire to highlight the absurdities of society.  We might start by going back to the 6th century B.C., when the Ionian social critic, Xenophanes of Colophon composed his “silloi”.  In these sarcastic critiques, widely-accepted ideas were satirized using fabulism.  Interestingly, the object of Xenophanes’ satire was often religion.  After all, what better object of critical scrutiny than that which is deemed sacrosanct…yet turns out to be deleterious to the weal of society?

The tradition of satirizing the sacred gathered steam in Athens during the 5th century B.C.  The Athenian poet, Cratinus may well have been performing a public service when he parodied the most vaunted Greek oracles (ref. his “Drapetides”).  Naturally, he was assailed for “offending” those who took oracles seriously.  Even as he was forced to contend with the ornery pearl-clutchers of Classical Antiquity, Cratinus demonstrated that worthwhile critique often requires an ample dose of temerity.

Further ground was broken by Aristophanes of Kydathenaion.  In his renown play, “The Clouds”, he explored the comedy of ideas that circulated in the agora amongst its gaggle of preening apparatchiks.  “The Acharnians” was a parody of the foibles that defined Athenian politics–bringing to light things that everyone knew about, yet was reticent to comment on in polite society.  Aristophanes was eventually persecuted for his insolence.  By whom?  By those who found him to be too offensive, of course.  (Finger-wagging, it turns out, has a long history.) 

Tellingly, the playwright’s persecutors happened to be those with the most clout.  Consequently, THEIR offense was taken as an indication of HIS depravity.  The satirist’s impertinence is typically seen as a kind of sin whenever gilded toes are stepped on.  If the socio-economic elite don’t like it, the thinking went, then it must be ignoble.  Alas.  Power–be it affluence or social status–has been mistaken as a sign of virtue since time immemorial.  Even way back then, it was a sign of privilege to decree what is and isn’t socially acceptable; so the self-professed victims were often the real culprits.

As we will see, the reaction of socio-economic elites to being made fun of is typically manufactured ire.  But as has always been the case, the haughty impresarios of propriety are not trying to help anyone; they are merely ensuring nobody else has a chance to make them look foolish.  It’s one thing for their iniquities to be exposed; but it has much more of a sting when this is done in a comedic way.  Indeed, a wink and a nudge can be more chafing than a punch.

In the early 4th century B.C., the Athenian playwright, Menanros of Dionysia / Lenaia (a.k.a. “Menander”) satirized the panoply of common misconceptions in Greek folklore (ref. his “Dyskolos”). 

In the early 3rd century B.C., the Pyrrhonist philosopher, Timon of Phlius carried on the tradition of “silloi”.  Timon demonstrated that satire was about eschewing sycophancy in favor of a healthy skepticism (esp. of conventional wisdom).  Those who were taken in by the superstitions that he mocked were, of course, “offended” by his comedy.  However their grievance did nothing to show the credibility of their position.  If anything, it is they who were guilty of the mendacity that they scoffingly ascribed to HIM.  Later in the 3rd century B.C., Old Latin writer, Gnaeus Naevius of Campania pioneered “Palliata [Greek-style] Comoedia”…and, sure enough, was persecuted by the powers that be for making fun of them.

Over and over, the world learned that thoughtful parody is a surefire way to bring human folly to the fore.  Hilarity is effective because it does this in a way that is relatable to the masses.  That’s why parody is a vital instrument of critique.  The Cynic, Menippus of Gadara recognized this.  Though his works have been lost, Menippus was renown for using satirical takes to expose the weaknesses his interlocutors’ positions.  While we cannot read his text, it seems that he set an important precedent.  The canny rhetorician avoided ad hominem attacks, addressing the merit of the ideas themselves.

Menippus’ aim was to make the discussion about the ideology rather than about the ideologue; and to skirt the pitfall of misconstruing the PRESTIGE OF an ideologue for the merit of his position.  High socio-economic status has too often been associated with credibility.  Thus the main point of a Menippean satire was to expose charlatanry rather than besmirch the charlatan personally.

For the rest of Classical Antiquity, satire became a prodigious force across the Roman Empire.  This was demonstrated by luminaries like:

  • Quintus Horatius Flaccus (a.k.a. “Horace”)
  • Gaius Petronius (a.k.a. “Arbiter Elegantiarum”)
  • Gaius Julius Phaedrus of Macedonia
  • Lucius Annaeus Seneca of Cordoba (a.k.a. “Seneca the Younger”)
  • Aulus Persius Flaccus
  • Marcus Valerius Martialis (a.k.a. “Martial”)
  • Decimus Junius Juvenalis (a.k.a. “Juvenal”)

Such men made waves with their canny impertinence.  Juvenal’s “Vanity of Human Wishes” and “Satires” are likely the most renown satirical works of that era.  Petronius was famed for his “Satyricon”, which ridiculed the conceit and decadence of the Roman aristocracy.

Predictably, some satirists met their fate when their material displeased the authorities (in Petronius’ case: Emperor Nero).  Those in power do not like their cupidity and excesses brought to everyone’s attention.  Avarice typically loves to be dressed in the garb of virtue.  (This is why plutocrats tend to fashion themselves as “captains of industry” rather than as affluent knaves.)

Seneca’s “Apocolocyntosis Divi Claudii” (Gourdification of the Divine Claudius) mocked the deification of Roman Emperors.  This was an indiscretion that was what we would now refer to as “politically incorrect”.  It is easy to laud Seneca’s brazen irreverence NOW; but at the time he was doing precisely the sort of thing that p.c.-mongers forbid in our own day: offending the sensibilities of those who relish exalted conventions.  Those who were loyal to Rome’s imperium surely found Seneca’s material “insulting” and “disrespectful”.  Of course, that was the POINT.

So it went with the great Syriac writer, Lucian of Samosata.  In the 2nd century, Lucian mocked cult activity with “On the Syrian Goddess”.  Meanwhile, he assailed embellished historiography with a sardonic work that he cheekily entitled “True History”.  In this classic work (alternately known as “A True Story”), the Syrian writer used outrageous caricatures to mock the risible apocrypha found in the sacred histories of his time…which were all-to-often passed off as “true” (and rendered sacrosanct by the authorities).  The use of hyperbole to parody the fantastical events so often recounted in “received wisdom” demonstrated how utterly daft people could be when dealing with sanctified tall-tales.

And so it went that Lucian became renowned for mocking those who are credulous and superstitious with his “Philo-pseudes” [“Lover of Falsehoods”].  He even directed his opprobrium at the early Christians: “The Passing of Peregrinus”.  Such work was a reminder that there is a difference between being sardonic (which can serve a didactic purposes) and being perfidious (simply scoffing at anything that one finds objectionable, as if ethical standards could be culled from a given party’s sensibilities).

As it turns out, what is often esteemed “decorum” is nothing more than an excuse to enforce conformity.  Prizing decorum above all else is the best way to ensure the status quo remains undisturbed; as it vilifies those with a penchant for heterodoxy.  Decorum is a way to exalt whatever has been decreed to be “good form” by those who benefit from the established order.  It is dictated by those in power; yet is a flattering way to mask their own moral dubiousness.  (Oftentimes, what is considered “decorum” is just iniquity in regal vestments.)  Those who covet the establish order don’t want their memetic homeostasis disrupted; and so will resent anyone who introduced perturbations in the status quo (the regime of conventions on which they’ve come to depend).  This is why totalitarian States prohibit dissension…or even just a modicum of impertinence.  The sacred applecart must NEVER be upset…lest the house of cards come tumbling down.

Admittedly, during the Dark Ages, the incidence of satire become rather sparse–a dearth in material that speaks to the intellectual blight of the era.  Even so, there were a few notable instances of well-crafted critiques that used humor to make their point.

In the 8th century, the commentaries of Du Fu abjured people to revisit conventional wisdom in medieval (Tang) China.  In the 12th century, Nivardus of Ghent penned a satirical fable about Roman Catholic clerics in medieval Europe: the “Ysengrimus”.  And a satirical poem criticizing the Catholic Church became a big hit: the “Apocalypse of Golias” [Latin: Apocalypsis Goliae] by an unknown author.  The lack of such material spoke not only to the intellectual impoverishment throughout Christendom, but to the stifling climate created by a domineering magisterium.  What with Inquisitions and severe punishments for heresy, even the most talented writers likely balked at ruffling feathers.

During the Renaissance, satire emerged as a crucial art-form–a development that, in turn, fueled the Renaissance.  In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer ridiculed the hypocrisies of the Roman Catholic Church through partially-veiled satire–a necessary measure, as having explicitly lampooned the clergy would have landed him in hot water.  (Kings Richard II and Edward III, who appreciated his insights, were patrons of his work.)  The epic French poem, “Aucassin et Nicolete” satirized people’s obsession with piety.  Petrarch mocked Augustine’s obtuse conception of Faith in his “Secretum”.  And Catalan satirist (and apostate from Judaism), Isaac ben Moses ha-Levi of Perpignan (a.k.a. “Profiat Duran”; “Efodi”) composed “Al-Tehi Ka-Aboteka” [Be Not Like Thy Fathers] and “Kelimmat ha-Goyim” [Dismay of the (Christian) Gentiles].  The best way to expose blinkered thinking, it turned out, was to FLAUNT it.

When the German humanist, Sebastian Brandt composed “Ship of Fools” in the late 15th century, he broke new ground in criticizing the Roman Catholic Church.  It is likely that he was able to get away with such an audacious project by couching it as parody.  “I’m just kidding around” tends to defuse acrimony–reminding us of the power of jest.  (The ol’ “Don’t worry; I’m just joking” excuse is a timeless one.)

The Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam composed his cheekily-entitled, “Stultitiae Laus” (a.k.a. “Moriae Encomium”) c. 1509.  Rendered “In Praise of Folly” in English, the work mocked superstition–especially the consecrated dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church.  (The ultra-Reactionary Thomas More served as inspiration for the tale’s main target.)  The work also lampooned ivory-tower charlatans (mostly Roman Catholic clerics) for their hot air and ideological obduracy.  In doing so, Erasmus helped set the tone for the Reformation…which, we might note, would not have occurred BUT FOR irreverence.

During the 16th century, the castigation of institutionalized dogmatism in general–and Roman Catholicism in particular–proved crucial in paving the way for Enlightenment thought.  François Rabelais did so with his sardonic “Gargantua” c. 1534; while William Baldwin did so with his sardonic “Beware the Cat” c. 1553 (“Cat” standing for “Catholic”).  Meanwhile, uber-pragmatist Niccolo Machiavelli penned “La Mandragola” [“The Mandrake”] c. 1524, in which he satirized Florentine politics (with special emphasis on the avarice of the Medici).

In the late 16th / early 17th century, Ben Johnson made fun of the norms of English society.  Once again, satire proved to be the best way to shed light on human folly.  In works like “Valpone” and “The Alchemist”, Johnson satirized greed and gullibility.

Even as the Enlightenment was gathering steam, key figures reminded us that, when it comes to debunking errant thinking, eliciting a chuckle is preferable to drumming up acrimony with overt attacks.  When it comes to sending a message that many people might be reluctant to heed, history has shown that humor is more effective than hate.  Time and time again, we’ve seen that the best way to expose absurdity is not with hostility, but with mockery.  Angst begets angst; so fighting fire with fire often augments the conflagration.  (Laughter, on the other hand, tends to extinguish the flames of enmity.)

We often forget the degree to which free speech is symbiotic with free thought; yet the Enlightenment provided a deafening reminder starting in the 17th century.  The importance of free speech was articulated by John Milton in his disquisition, “Areopagitica” (c. 1644).  Milton pointed out that conformity–and the mental laziness germane thereto–was antithetical to deliberative democracy.  He recognized that the urge to silence others (because one is bothered by what they say) is incommensurate with an open society.  “Let Truth and Falsehood grapple; whoever knew Truth [knew it by it having been put in combat] in a free and open encounter.”  He added: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”  And here’s the kicker: Milton was adamantly against blasphemy.  The point here: EVEN SOMEONE OPPOSED TO BLASPHEMY recognized the importance of allowing everyone to express themselves in the public square.  The decision to stifle expression is inextricable with the stifling of critical thinking.

Molière’s classic characters, Tartuffe and Harpagon made points which were sufficiently irreverent to get his books banned by Church authorities.  Nevertheless, he was also able to make important points with “The Misanthrope” (1666), in which he satirized the hypocrisies of aristocratic society.  In England, John Oldham critiqued the lowly image of the working class in the eyes of the affluent, and even railed against the daftness of the Roman Catholic Church.  His “A Satire against Virtue” (1679) was extolled by none other than John Dryden.

Though not a satirist, Michel de Montaigne’s (brutally-frank) critical reflections in his “Essays” were groundbreaking in their unabashed irreverence.  (Irreverence, we should be reminded, typically entails heterodoxy: two things that p.c. aficionados refuse to abide.)  To reiterate: It was such audacity that helped usher in the Enlightenment.

Throughout the 18th century, satire was employed to argue against the enslavement of Africans–as with the tongue-in-cheek work: “The Petition of the Sharks of Africa”.  When it came to the issue of slavery, Montesquieu was a (tentative) abolitionist.  In “The Spirit of the Laws”, he offered a hypothetical list of arguments for slavery to demonstrate how preposterous a defense of the practice really was.  Hence he exposed absurdities by presenting an overwrought version of them.  Again, we see that satire forces us to look askance at how we are used to thinking about things.  Advocates of slavery were offended by Montesquieu’s list of wacky rationalizations.  This was a reminder that if a groundbreaking insight is NOT offending a lot of people, it is probably not offering anything of import.

Looking at things in a new (unflattering) light is usually something we won’t enjoy; but it’s oftentimes something we need.  Edification often requires being coaxed outside of our comfort zones.  It is inevitable that those who have the audacity to push against boundaries will be rebuffed by those who COVET those very boundaries.

It is no news to anyone that when something nudges us out of habits of thought, it will tend to not be welcomed with open arms.  As adults, we have learned that this is not a warrant to rebuke something; it is part of GROWING.  Maturity is about being able to deal with discomfiture…and adapt to new insights, even if it means jettisoning that which had theretofore been considered sacrosanct.

In his “The True-Born Englishman” (1701), Daniel Defoe lampooned the notion (taken as conventional wisdom at the time) that bloodlines were a pertinent way to determine the merit of a ruler.  Defoe did NOT make his point by using dry, turgid disquisition (that is: explicitly proclaiming racial purity to be specious).  Rather, he did so by simply being ridiculous–reflecting the absurdity of the spurious convention back in the faces of those who countenanced it.  This, of course, offended the monarchists.  But that was not an argument AGAINST Defoe; it only further made his point.

Like his heterodox forebears, Defoe demonstrated that the optimal way to expose fatuity is by over-indulging that which is fatuous, bringing things to people’s attention simply by holding a mirror up to them.  Satire coaxes us into looking at ourselves…and laughing at how daft we humans can truly be.

Meanwhile, Denis Diderot mocked religiosity in “Rameau’s Nephew” (1762)…though the work was not released until Goethe did a German translation of it in 1805.  Why?  The highly-esteemed Diderot refrained from publishing the work for fear of being imprisoned by irate Reactionaries who enjoyed positions of authority (as they so often do).  Goethe finally published it 43 years after it was written, 21 years after the author’s death.

In England,  famed Irish playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan mocked propriety his satirical “The School For Scandal” (1777).

The point cannot be emphasized enough: The satirist seeks to instigate conversation, not to terminate it.  For GENUINE satire has a didactic purpose.  It exposes absurdity by countenancing it.  This is done by presenting embellished manifestations of the object-in-question.  A parody of X involves a caricature of X that resembles the real version just enough to be plausible…while highlighting faults by exaggerating them to a degree that elicits a chuckle.

Satire seeks to agitate, not to aggravate; to rouse, not to harass; to bring things to light rather than exhorting people to thoughtlessly dispatch.  Political correctness conflates these starkly different exercises–subsuming them under the catch-all epithet “offensive” / “insulting”.  It proceeds from the maxim: If it disquiets anyone, it must be pernicious.  And so it must be verboten. {1}

Well-crafted satire is done with a wink and a nudge, not with a sneer.  Think of Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters” (1721) or Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (1729) or Voltaire’s “Candide” (1759).  In most of the cases enumerated here, parody proved to be far more potent than some turgid academic disquisition.

But there’s a catch: Parody is INEVITABLY offensive to those who would prefer not to be made fun of.  Consequently, it is often SATIRE, not the overt casting of aspersions, that those in power most fear.  Their only recourse is to denigrate those who are insolent–not for lack of merit, but for lack of decorum.  It’s not that satirical commentary has no credence, it’s that it’s INAPPROPRIATE…and might actually succeed in its mission.

In its churlish attempt to rectify wrongs, political correctness only succeeds in being boorish.  Rather than being incisive, it comes off as petty and officious, like an fusty schoolmarm–persnickety BY CONSTITUTION.  Usually, rebuking an obdurate ideologue will only succeed in exacerbating his zealotry.  He will respond to every critique with augmented defiance, digging in his heals as a counter-measure.  Satire does not leave this option open to him; for in making him look like a fool, he will only look more foolish by doubling down on his ideology.  As Theodore Adorno once wryly put it: “He who has laughter on his side has no need for proof.”  A censorious attitude is the only recourse for those without sound argumentation on their side.

The fact remains: In order to challenge established social norms, commentary NEEDS to be impertinent.  This is the opposite of being officious–which often backfires.  Intelligent satire is revelatory; not just a jeer.  (One cannot debunk specious thinking simply by scoffing at it.)  But it needs to elicit a snicker if it is to resonate with a wide audience.  Comedy only works when it is relatable. 

It might be noted that in order to recognize the virtues of even the most impertinent satire, it is not enough to look at those who DID it; we must look at the kinds of people who were AGAINST it.  In virtually every case, it was the authoritarians who were obsessed with some vision of puritanism.  Today, the puritanical, authoritarian mindset exists as political correctness (though its Reactionary practitioners now masquerade as “Progressive”).

Such humorlessness has a long history amongst hyper-traditionalism.  The puritans of yesteryear and of today use fear and intimidation to enforce compliance with their sacred codes.  They stoke neuroses by wielding shame as a cudgel.  This orientation all but precludes a good-humored nature.  The 4th-century bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom might be considered the father of puritanism.  He warned against that sinister thing known as laughter.  Why?  Humor, he averred, “often gives birth to foul discourse.”  What he decried as foul discourse was simply UNSANCTIONED discourse, something that he considered “the root of subsequent evils.”

In the 19th century, the foibles of British Parliament, the inanity of British aristocracy, the hypocrisy of Victorian propriety, and the perfidy of British corporations were there to be exposed–and such things were exposed in a way that resonated with wide audiences.  So that is where Gilbert excelled.  Other satirical works that chastised the hypocrisy of Victorian England included William Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” (1848), Samuel Butler’s utopian “Erewhon” (1872), Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now” (1875), and Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” (1895).  Unsurprisingly, these broadsides did not sit well with England’s aristocracy.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, Kalman Mikszath’s composed his classic satire, “New Zrinyiad” (1898).

Satire is often warranted; but not always.  Take, for example, the British librettist for comic opera, William Schwenck Gilbert. {3}  Gilbert aptly poked fun at dunderheaded government (“The Mikado”), at pompous aristocracy (“The Sorcerer”), at the fatuity of Victorian mores (“Charity”), and at the hubris of corporate power (“Utopia Unlimited”); and he did so with staggering efficacy.  However, when he attempted to poke fun at feminism and Darwin (“Princess Ida”), it backfired.  The joke was on him.  Female empowerment remains an estimable enterprise and Darwinian Evolution has been shown to be incontrovertible.  But here’s the thing: Each prevailed NOT because they were insulated from stultification.  The fact that these positions have withstood mockery reveals them to still be worthy of endorsement.  (More on that point later.)

In the early 20th century, the pro-labor, anti-war “Wobblies” used cheeky protest songs to mock the established order–demonstrating that satire is one of the most potent tools for dissidence.  In the 1960’s, the British stage-comedy “Beyond the Fringe” broke important new ground by showing that it was okay–even necessary–to make fun of the Queen (and the Church) of England.  Chastising such inane institutions reminded everyone that certain things NEED to be made fun of…especially when they had traditionally been thought of as sacred.

ALL cultures have SOME satirists.  As we’ve seen, satire has been vital in exposing absurdity since time immemorial; and has always been resisted by those who have a vested interested in maintaining the established order.  The craft continued around the world.  Some of the modern era’s most estimable satirists often contended with censure–as with:

  • Kedar Nath Gurung of Sikkim (Nepalese)
  • Sarat Chandra Pandit (Bengal)
  • Gopala Chandra Praharaj of Odisha (Odia; Indian) {12}
  • Albert Pieter Hahn (Dutch)
  • Sebastian Brandt (German)
  • Wilhelm Busch (German)
  • Karl Kraus (Austrian)
  • Ignacy Krasicki (Polish)
  • Jaroslav Hasek (Czech)
  • Vaclav Havel (Czech)
  • Alexander Griboyedov (Russian)
  • Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (Russian)
  • Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (Russian)
  • Mikhail Bulgakov (Russian)
  • Tudor Arghezi (Romanian)
  • Henry Fielding (British)
  • Samuel Butler (British)
  • William M. Thackeray (British)
  • Gilbert Abbott à Beckett (British)
  • John Arbuthnot (Scottish)
  • Stephen Leacock (Canadian)

…to mention some of the most notable. {12}  None of these firebrands were anything that even remotely resembled “politically correct”.  All were unabashedly iconoclastic; and thus could not help but be extremely “offensive” to many.  They would have most likely agreed: If one was not offending SOMEONE, then one was probably not doing anything valiant with one’s commentary…and certainly not saying anything that might threaten the established order.  These men had the gall to make what was normally seen as august look foolish–which is often a perilous venture.

And so we see that the virtues of satire transcend culture.  From “L’Esquella de la Torratxa” and “El Be Negre” in Catalonia to “De Roode Duivel” in Netherlands to “L’Asino” in Italy to “Szpilki” in Poland to “Awadh Punch” in India to “Charlie Hebdo” in France {4}, politically incorrect “takes” on the world have been an integral part of any intellectually-vibrant society.  (And so it has gone with “Spy” and “The Onion” in America.)

Reactionaries know that being laughed at does far more damage than being criticized head-on.  Often a point is best made not by a direct assault, but by taking the object of criticism to its logical conclusion.  Nikolai Gogol’s political satire, “The Government Inspector” (1836) parodied the incompetence and avarice in Imperial Russia.  (His mockery of the Czarist bureaucracy elicited widespread vexation amongst Russia’s Reactionaries.)  Vaclav Havel’s clever use of parody in his “The Memorandum” (1965) exposed the absurdities of communist bureaucracy (and demands for conformity)–making use of a fictional language, “Ptydepe”.  And Karl Kraus made a similar point with “The Last Days of Mankind”.  Such parodies conveyed their message far more poignantly than would have a more conventional critical analysis. 

The works enumerated here illustrate something very important: Satire only has a point when its object of criticism is that which is held sacred.  (To repeat the point: If one isn’t offending people, one isn’t doing it right.)  Admittedly, the line between a good-natured ribbing and hectoring is blurry.  Where does “just poking fun” end and traducement begin?  At what point does harsh critique become pointless slander?  How is one to ascertain if it is more productive or more counter-productive, all things considered?  These are all pertinent questions; yet posing them only serves to underscore the virtues of satire.

In every case, impropriety–nay, irreverence–was THE POINT.  Be that as it may, we might still ask: In countenancing trenchant satire, allowing for even the most abrasive impertinence, might we sometimes being in danger of making light of grave matters?  Perhaps.  But the risk is worth it…if it meaning SHEDDING LIGHT ON grave matters.  Even the untenability of history’s worst abominations can be illustrated via dark humor–as with Armando Ianucci’s hyper-sardonic “The Death of Stalin”.

The key to satire is bringing oft-elided things to light in jarring ways–as so many have done with the audacity to question the established order (and challenge authority).  This involved having the gall to unabashedly repudiate what was considered “appropriate” in the event that repudiation was warranted.

We might also note the role of cartoons.  Honoré Daumier once portrayed King Louis Philippe of France as an engorged monarch excreting political favors.  (He was imprisoned for the indiscretion.)  English caricaturist James Gillray chastised Napoleon with irreverent cartoons.  George Cruikshank chastised aristocrats.  Such heterodox commentators were TRYING to offend.  After all, iconoclasm was the point.

Ambrose Bierce pioneered the art in America.  In his irreverent commentary, he inveighed against militarism and war using biting satire.  Such brazen gestures often got him into hot water–as with his “A Horseman in the Sky” (1889).  Knocking the audience off-kilter proved to be an effective way to make a point.  Alas, Bierce eventually discovered that satire is not well-received by Reactionaries when the targets are sacred cows.  (His disappearance remains a mystery.)

Mordant parody, though discomfiting, is often salubrious.  Eliciting a chuckle is a great way to grab people’s attention.  More to the point, it is a very effective way to get people to relate to the point you’re trying to make.  Laughter is not only part of our humanity; it brings out our humanity.  We must bear in mind that to be impertinent is not necessarily to be hubristic.  Insofar as the satirist considers himself part of humanity, making fun of human folly is a kind of self-effacement.  It says not “Look how stupid YOU are” but “Look how stupid WE HUMANS can be.”

Only the most unctuous Reactionaries can’t abide irreverence.  Freethinkers realize that propriety is not probity.   So they are undeterred by the prospect of causing offense.

By highlighting our foibles, satire reminds us of our fallibility–keeping us humble even as it asks us to be impertinent.  Radicals aren’t priggish.  Being puritanical never helped one be a humanitarian.

Behold the satirists enumerated in the present essay.  It is not enough to say that such figures contributed to society EVEN THOUGH they said things that certain people found “offensive”.  It is more accurate to say that they contributed to society BECAUSE they were willing to give voice to things that offended so many people.  Indeed, satire that is not subversive is somewhat of an oxymoron.  Each of these men demonstrated the vital role that “poking fun” at the status quo can play.  This was demonstrated by the English social reformer, Henry Mayhew–co-founder of the satirical magazine, “Punch”.

The fetishization of “propriety” in certain circles often manifests as the inability to–or, as the case may be, the unwillingness to–take a joke.  Such a mindset proscribes satire because satires tends to ruffle well-groomed feathers; and feather-ruffling is impermissible in a p.c. world.  After all, political correctness is about what is seen as socially acceptable by the tetchiest denizens of the public square; and satire is based on impertinence.  And so the cancellation of Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” for being politically incorrect was not an aberration.  Reactionaries have been excoriating sardonic commentary since time immemorial.

The most important thing to be able to laugh at is, arguably, oneself.  After all, each of us is PART OF the bewildering world in which we find ourselves.  More importantly: Each of us is a part of humanity itself; and so obliged to express–and appreciate others’ expression of–our humanity.  Crucial to realizing one’s humanity is being able to snicker at the human condition–that is: at the more absurd quirks and foibles of our shared human nature.  Failure to find the humor in simply BEING HUMAN entails failing to fully understand what it is to be human.

To the extent that one defaults on the opportunity to laugh at oneself, one loses touch with a crucial part of one’s humanity.  The same might be said of artistic expression.  By its very nature, iconoclastic art is offensive; yet to censure art due to the fact that it might offend certain people is to drastically undermine much of what artistic expression is about.  Just as art can inspire by being consoling, it can do so by being jarring.

Satire works ESPECIALLY when it is politically incorrect; and often works BECAUSE it is politically incorrect.  Indicting a satirist for countenancing a taboo is like dismissing an iconoclast because he failed to countenance the status quo.  Recall that Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel, “Elmer Gantry” was banned in the United States because its irreverence offended Evangelical Christians across the country.  The ecclesiastical set despised it precisely because it brought to light the hypocrisies endemic to the clerisy.  So it needed to be sacrilegious in order to makes its point.

That the point Lewis made was both valid and–as it turns out–vitally important was entirely beside the point for the obstreperous censors, who denounced it as “offensive”.  According to p.c. protocols: Because it upset the sensibilities of an entire religious community, such material should be forbidden.  Yet those who prize rectitude are not deterred by attempts to shame them into dissimulation.

We soon find that the protocols of p.c. are invariably selective.  When Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett composed a satire of the Abrahamic End Times, “Good Omens”, in 1990, very few complained…even as it effectively undercut the credence of the eschatological flights of fancy found in the Book of Revelation (and in the Koran).  However, overt mockery of these same ideas is often met with a paroxysm of pearl-clutching.  People push back when a point is SPELLED OUT for them.  They’d much rather the point be made in the subtext so that they can come to their own conclusions.

When it comes to satire, though, being impertinent is THE POINT.  Americans were reminded of this in the new Republic’s earliest days when Benjamin Franklin penned “Rules By Which A Great Empire May Be Reduced To A Small One” (1773).  We could go on and on.  Ten other notable examples:

  • Washington Irving’s “Salmagundi” (1807) and “Tales of a Traveler” (1824) lampooned political culture in the new American Republic. {5}
  • Charles Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby” was a scathing critique of the socio-economic inequality of 1830’s Britain; as well as a rebuke of puritanical Victorian sensibilities.
  • Mendele Mocher Sforim’s (Yiddish) “Masa’ot Binjamin Ha-Shelishi” [“Travels of Benjamin III”] (1878) was a satire of the Jewish diaspora.
  • Saltykov-Shchedrin’s “Modern Idyll” mocked sycophants who posed as intrepid scholars (1883).
  • Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) derided the fixation on glory in war.  Meanwhile, his cheekily entitled “Devil’s Dictionary” (1906) lampooned Orwellian doublespeak before Orwell coined the term “doublespeak”.
  • Mark Twain’s “To The Person Sitting In Darkness” (1901) was a parody of the self-righteousness of imperialism.  He did this by showing the condescending paternalistic mindset of the colonialist.  Twain reminds us that ALL empires claim to be bringing light to the savages…even as they oppress them.  Meanwhile, his “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” (1907) parodied the Christian conception of salvation in the advent of America’s Third Great Awakening.
  • P.G. Wodehouse’s “Psmith, Journalist” (1909-10) satirized racketeers, and his famous character, Jeeves (an intellectually astute valet for a ne’er-do-well aristocrat) illustrated how anti-meritocratic socio-economic hierarchies can be.  Meanwhile, his “The Code of the Woosters” (1938) parodied fascism.
  • Nathanael West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” (1933) addressed existential beleaguerment in an impoverished American city.
  • Isaac Asimov’s “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline” (1948) and “Pâté de Foie Gras” (1956) mocked anti-scientific thinking in the decade following World War II.
  • Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “The Emperor” (1978) parodied the cult of personality that surrounds autocratic regimes.

We can also look at satire in film–as with Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”, which parodied Nazism (1940) and Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Stranglove”, which parodied Cold War hysteria (1964).  Such material was considered politically incorrect at the time.  And thank heavens it was! 

More recently, Robert Heinlein’s “Job: A Comedy of Justice” (1984) parodied the daffiest elements of Abrahamic religion.  And Steven Lukes’ “The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat” (1995) used hyperbole to chastise right-wing ideology (super-patriotism, militarism, free-market fundamentalism, etc.)

So what about the Muslim world?  Satire (commonly known as “hija” in Arabic) has been–to put it mildly–rather limited in Dar al-Islam.  From the Middle Ages, only three names stand out:

  • The 9th-century Mu’tazili writer, Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr of Basra (a.k.a. “Al-Jahiz”), who’s “Kitab al-Bukhala” [Book on Miserliness] was a sardonic take on greed.
  • The 13th-century (Seljuk) Sufi satirist, Nasir ud-Din of Khoy (a.k.a. “Nasreddin Hodja”), renown for telling cheeky morality tales.
  • The 14th-century (Safavid) Persian satirist, Nizam Ubayd-i Zakani of Qazvin (a.k.a. “Nizam al-Din Ubayd’ullah Zakani”).

All three seem to have been at least partly apocryphal.  Nasreddin ended up becoming somewhat of a folkloric figure himself; and so was commonly used as a character in various folk-tales.  While these writers seem to have been rather sardonic in their commentaries, none of them ever actually (seriously) challenged the powers that be; or sought to instigate any notable changes of major societal significance.  Rather, they limited their material to a just-for-the-fun-of it mockery of the quotidian…so as not to displease the authorities. {2}

It has not been easy for heterodox writers to succeed in the Muslim world.  It was not until the late 19th / early 20th century that we encounter radical poets like Ma’ruf ibn Abdul Ghani al-Rusafi, Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi, and Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri–who were brazen enough to stultify the backwardness of social norms encountered throughout the Muslim world.  Such writers were stalwarts of irreverence–which is to say that impertinence was their virtue, not their vice.

Ten of the most notable instances of Muslim satirists in the modern era:

  • Azeri thinkers, Al-Akbar Zeynalabdin oglu Tahirzadeh (a.k.a. “Mirza Alakbar Sabir”) and Jalil Huseyn-gulu oglu Mammad-Guluzadeh mocked the clergy while championing women’s rights in the late 19th / early 20th century.
  • Syrian cartoonist, Ali Farzat used illustrations to mock political corruption…until his work was outlawed by the Assad regime.  His hands were broken for his insolence.
  • Palestinian author, Emile Habibi composed “The Secret Life of Said, The Pessoptimist” in 1972.  It was a satire about the LACK OF satire in the Arab world.
  • Palestinian political cartoonist, Naji Salim Al-Ali was murdered for his sacrilege.
  • Egyptian TV host, Bassem Youssef hosted a television show, “Al-Bernameg”.  It was banned by the Morsi regime in early 2014. {6}
  • Egyptian v-logger, Shadi Abu-Zeid was arrested in 2018 for subversive material (promoting civil rights).
  • Iraqi freethinker, Faisal Saeed al-Mutar was a human rights activist who was eventually forced to seek refuge in the U.S.
  • Persian author, Reza Khoshbin-i Khoshnazar was forced to work in exile when he started offending Iran’s ayatollahs.
  • Waleed Wain (a.k.a. “Veedu Vidz”) was banned from Youtube for being politically incorrect.

These men all realized a simple fact: It is difficult for those in power to control you when you are allowed to openly laugh at them.  It was not as much the 2012 voting that enabled Egyptians to begin to understand democracy as it was Bassem Youssef’s satire that gave them a taste of what democracy could be like; meanwhile exposing the flaws in their society.  That Youssef did so via parody made his voice even more galling to the authorities. {7}

Reza Khoshbin-i Khoshnazar offers an illustration of prevailing attitudes.  He was banished from Iran after he penned his sardonic “The Gods Laugh on Mondays”.  Meanwhile, his publisher’s building was burned down.  Khoshnazar has since published “The Prophet With The Head Like A Squash In The Shadow Of A Dead Clock”.  Religious zealots invariably find such material offensive.  According to the Shia theocracy’s hyper-Reactionary cabal of ayatollahs, such material is “politically incorrect”; and so should not be allowed.  (Some people might find that offensive; therefore you must not be allowed to say it.)  This should sound eerily familiar to p.c.-mongers in the Occident.  (After all, p.c. is puritanical and authoritarian in nature.)

This is nothing new.  Alexander Griboyedov’s classic “Woe From Wit” (1823) got him lynched by a Muslim mob in Persia.  And Persian cartoonist, Ardeshir Mohasses was a liberal satirist who remains exiled in New York City to the present day.

A more recent example of the fate of satire under Islamic regimes was the treatment of the famous Turkish satirical magazine, “Penguen” pursuant to the ascension of the theocratic dictator, Recep Erdogan.  In 2015, its editors were imprisoned; and the magazine was shuddered two years later.  Alas, this opprobrious treatment was in keeping with other famous Turkish satirists like Nazim Hikmet Ran.

All of the works enumerated here remind us that, in order to be incisive, social / political / cultural criticism often needs to be irreverent.  At its best, satire disrupts our habitual perceptions of the world.  It unsettles us just enough–that is: enough to cajole us into revisiting what has become the all-too-conventional manner of thinking.  It forces us to look at things from a new vantage, thereby revealing things we may not have noticed before.

The next time one is inclined to condemn biting satire (simply due to the fact that it happened to offend the sensibilities of a certain constituency), one is best advised to think of the crucial role that irreverence has played in the progress of human civilization.  One might ask oneself: What kind of world would we live in if satire were forbidden?  It’s safe to say: It would be not nearly as evolved as the one we now have.

As we have seen, satirists were almost always secular (nay, anti-religious); and thus invariably Progressive.  This is no coincidence.  For satire has typically been the handmaiden of dissent.  It has proven to be a surefire way to bring the folly of human activity to the attention of those who would otherwise not notice. {8}  Its irreverence has always been its virtue.  Indeed, satire works largely because it is provocative.  It agitates in a way that straight disquisition–tedious and academic as is so often is–never could.  Critical thinkers with a good sense of humor (and a bit of courage) have understood this since time immemorial.

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