Political satire  

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Thérèse Philosophe (1748) by Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d'Argens
Thérèse Philosophe (1748) by Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d'Argens

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Political satire is a significant part of satire that specializes in gaining entertainment from politics; it has also been used with subversive intent where political speech and dissent are forbidden by a regime, as a method of advancing political arguments where such arguments are expressly forbidden.

Political satire is usually distinguished from political protest or political dissent, as it does not necessarily carry an agenda nor seek to influence the political process. While occasionally it may, it more commonly aims simply to provide entertainment. By its very nature, it rarely offers a constructive view in itself; when it is used as part of protest or dissent, it tends to simply establish the error of matters rather than provide solutions.


Origins and genres

Satire can be traced back throughout history; wherever organized government, or social categories, has existed, so has satire.

The oldest example that has survived till today is Aristophanes. In his time satire targeted top politicians, like Cleon, and religion, at the time headed by Zeus. "Satire and derision progressively attacked even the fundamental and most sacred facts of faith," leading to an increased doubt towards religion by the general population. The Roman period, for example, gives us the satirical poems and epigrams of Martial while some social satire exists in the writings of Paul of Tarsus in the New Testament of the Bible. Cynic philosophers often engaged in political satire.

Due to lack of political freedom of speech in many ancient civilizations, covert satire is more usual than overt satire in ancient literatures of political liberalism. Historically, the public opinion in the Athenian democracy was remarkably influenced by the political satire performed by the comic poets at the theatres. Watching or reading satire has since ancient time been considered one of the best ways to understand a culture and a society.

Ancient Hellenic

The authors of the Iliad, in providing extremely gory details of butchery of humans in battle, may have intended a covert satirical effect on the audience. Surely, the ascription of the authorship of the mock-heroic Batrakho-muo-makhia ('Battle between the Frogs and the Mice') (a writing generally recognized in antiquity as of pacifist intent) to the same person (Homēros) as the Iliad, was an indication of widespread regard in antiquity of the Iliad as having been composed by pacifists.

Ancient Hebrew

The accounts of wholesale massacre of the indigenous population of Knaʕan (Canaan) by invaders under the command of Yhôšuwaʕ (Joshua) may have been intended to produce an internal revulsion in its readers.

Ancient Christian

Likewise, the Christian Gospels (based on novelistic accounts of a caricature-character, Yēšuwaʕ / Iēsous / Jesus, allusively named for the same Yhôšuwaʕ) are so filled with extreme descriptions (of torture, etc.) as to appear to have been intended as covert satire. John Dominic Crossan has suggested various passages in the Gospels as likely instances of political satire. His and the views of F. Gerald Downing and of Burton Mack to this effect have often been discussed. (The humorous and ironic content of the New Testament has sometimes been broadly described. Because the Septuagint (version of the Tnak used by Christians) agrees by far more closely with the Ŝamaritan than with the Yhūdî (Jewish) text of the scriptures, it is abundantly evidently that the New Testament is of Ŝamaritan provenience : the original political context for the writing of the Synoptic Gospels would seem to be a Ŝamaritan intent (as of 70 Chr.E.) to satirize the decision by politicians in Galīl (Galilaia / Galilee) to join themselves with Yhūdāh (Ioudaia / Judea) in violently combating the Hellenes and the Roman government (army of Vespasiānus). The format of these Gospels is to indicate that despite such alliance, the differences in detail between the religious practices in Galīl and Yhūdāh were so great that the religious officials (known to be sticklers for details in rituals) in Yhūdāh would actually be eager to condemn to death any religious official (the part played by Yēšuwaʕ / Iēsous) sent from Galīl to Yhūdāh (even if these Yhūdî religious officials had to use Roman civil officials at carry out the execution!). Whereas the Cynic content of expressions in the Euaŋgelion kata Iōannēs (Gospel according to John) is manifest in such passages as "my kingdom is not of this world" (18:36); yet nevertheless the political context of this Gospel would have been different and later (than that of the Synoptics) -- the passage in which "the coat was without seam" (19:23) is an allusion to the one-piece body-fitting garment (so sewn that unused cloth is gathered within) worn by Zaraθustrian priests, so that the occasion of composition of this Gospel will have the widespread revolt brought about (120 Chr.E.) by sympathizers with the Persian government at the apex of the invasion of Mesopotamia by the army of Traiānus.

Ancient Hindu

The pacifist inclination of Hindu religious scriptures generally is quite widely accepted within India. Wherever warfare is mentioned in purportedly historical scriptures (Itihāsa) with specious praise, one can expect to find much elaborate covert satire in such narratives. An example would be the description in the Mahābhārata of Acyuta Kṛṣṇa as having, after affiliating his own army with that of the Kaurava-s, he became personal attendant to the Pāṇḍava (the Pāṇḍava-s were the adversaries of the Kaurava-s) military commander Arjuna : this description would be intended as a satire of the obtuse stupidity of military commanders who cannot recognize a spy among their personal confidantes. When, in the story, Arjuna rouses himself to the slight degree of intent to test the loyalty of Acyuta Kṛṣṇa by claiming a wish to retire from the military as a conscientious objector (so that if Acyuta Kṛṣṇa should fall for this bait by encouraging such retirement, Acyuta Kṛṣṇa could be recognized as a disloyal spy), this intent to so test loyalty is extremely easily dissipated by Acyuta Kṛṣṇa's cunning peroration to Arjuna to continue participating in the war (such peroration being the craftily-constructed mock-religious Bhagavat-Gītā, wherein Acyuta Kṛṣṇa easily dupes Arjuna by the disingenous ruse of pretending -- on the spur of the moment -- to be the Supreme Deity who cannot tell an untruth). (Also, "satire" has been suspected in other passages of the Mahābhārata.

19th century


One example is Maurice Joly's 1864 pamphlet entitled The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu (Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu), which attacks the political ambitions of Napoleon III. It was first published in Brussels in 1864. The piece used the literary device of a dialogue between two diabolical plotters in Hell, the historical characters of Machiavelli and Montesquieu, to cover up a direct, and illegal, attack on Napoleon's rule. The noble baron Montesquieu made the case for liberalism; the Florentine political writer Machiavelli presented the case for cynical despotism. In this manner, Joly communicated the secret ways in which liberalism might spawn a despot like Napoleon III. However, The Prince itself has also been sometimes understood as political satire.


According to Santayana, Nietzsche was actually "a keen satirist". "Nietzsche's satire" was aimed at Lutheranism.

20th and 21st centuries

Adolf, the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk

During the 20th and 21st centuries satire is found in an increasing number of media (in cartoons as political cartoons with heavy caricature and exaggeration, and in political magazines) and the parallel exposure of political scandals to performances (including television shows). Examples include musicians such as Tom Lehrer, live performance groups like the Capitol Steps and the Montana Logging and Ballet Co., and public television and live performer Mark Russell. Additional subgenres include such literary classics as Gulliver's Travels and Animal Farm, and more recently, internet Ezine and website sources such as The Onion, TheWashingtonFancy.com, the Humor Times, ArnoldSpeaks.com and the Happening Happy Hippy Party. Some websites exist solely to poke fun at politicians, per the examples below.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Political satire" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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