What is Political Satire?

“Satire is a literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humor

and wit to the end that human institutions or humanity may be improved.

747The true satirist is conscious of the frailty of institutions of man’s

devising and attempts through laughter not so much to tear them down as to inspire a remodeling.”

Political satire is an important part of satire that focuses on gaining entertainment from politics and it is also used with the subversive intent in which political speech and political arguments are forbidden.

Political satire is usually discerned from political protest, because it does not influence the political process; it just offers entertainment. It also aims to establish the error of matters rather than find solutions.

gullivers-travels-ebookPart entertainment, part statement of beliefs, it emphasizes the wrongs of the government and it has been part of all manner of media across centuries, since Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Although it usually intends to be funny, satire’s main purpose is to launch attacks using one’s wit.

Political satire uses sarcasm and humor to point out the incompetence and the corruption of political leaders and government actions.

In the United States, animated caricatures and cartoons are quite popular tools used in advertisement and entertainment.

Political satire through caricature has grown extendedly in the US to share public aspiration and to focus on delicate political issues.

The existence of this political satire is influenced by its involvement in American Politics and political satire has always been a part of American society.

American popular culture is simply American culture that is well linked to many people.

kPopular culture is a mass-produced culture for mass consumption. Mass produced culture consists in all elements of life, which are transmitted by the printed press, the electronic media or by other forms of mass communication.

The elements of popular culture deal with the printed media such as newspapers, magazines, books, comics, caricatures, and the electronic media such as radio, television, movies and advertising.

Since political satire appears in the printed and electronic media, it has become popular; popular culture is heavily influenced by mass media. Popular culture and the mass media have a symbiotic relationship; they depend greatly on one another. As a matter of fact, mass media has included social culture into popular culture.

While in some countries, expressing your views through political satire can be dangerous, in the United States, it is considered free speech and it is protected under the First Amendment.

It is very likely that satire arrived in the United States on the Mayflower, but as colonies fought for independence, political satire became a form of commentary on British rule.

Franklin-Benjamin-LOC-headOne of the Founding Fathers of the United States was Benjamin Franklin, who was a printer, a politician, a political theorist, a scientist, a musician, an inventor, a statesman, a diplomat and a satirist. He earned the title of “The first American” for his early and indefatigable campaigning for colonial unity; as an author and a spokesman in London for several colonies, than as the first United States Ambassador to France, he exemplified the emerging American nation and was foundational in defining American values.

In the matter of satire, he created the first political cartoon “Join, or die”, published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754. It is the first case of editorial cartoon.Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_Die

The original publication by the Gazette is the earliest known pictorial representation of colonial union produced by a British colonist in America.

Ben_franklin_printer_600wFranklin’s cartoon depicts a snake cut in eight pieces, and each piece represents one of the colonies. New England was represented as a segment, while Georgia was completely omitted. It appeared along with Franklin’s editorial about the “disunited state” of the colonies and helped make his point about the importance of colonial unity. During that period, there was a superstition that a snake which had been cut into pieces would come back to life if the pieces were put together before sunset. This cartoon was used in the French and Indian war to symbolize that the colonies needed to unite with England to defeat the French and the Indians. The image of the snake became the symbol of political unification and was transferred to the colonial battle flag “Don’t Tread on Me” and became part of the American spirit.  The cartoon became a symbol of colonial freedom and resistance to what was seen as British oppression during the American Revolutionary War; it was published in every newspaper in America and had a strong impact on the American conscience. Franklin’s political cartoon took on different political meanings during the American Revolution, especially around 1765-1766, during the Stamp Act Congress: the Patriots, who associated the image with eternity, vigilance and prudence, were not the only ones who saw a new interpretation of the cartoon; the Loyalists saw the cartoon in a more biblical way.

200px-Seba_Smith_oakes-smith_orgIn the decades prior to the Civil War, the American humorist and writer Seba Smith was one of the most successful and popular satirists in the United States. After his graduation in 1818, Smith wrote a series of political articles in the New England dialect for the papers of Portland and Maine. Between 1830 and 1857, dozens of the Major Jack Downing letters circulated in newspapers throughout the country. Seba Smith’s figure of Major Jack Downing, an unlettered Yankee philosopher, enjoyed such success in the 1830s that he was openly imitated.

The creation of Downing originated the most effective pattern for American political satire. Beyond their literary meaning, the Downing letters were a commentary on American politics. By combining Yankee common sense with basic conservatism, Smith exposed what he considered to be the excess of popular American Democracy during the late 1840s and 1850s.

Twain-1867Another important writer, which had left the mark in American political satire, was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain.

He is considered one of the most important American celebrities of his time and the father of American literature; he was an American author, a humorist and a teacher.

He also achieved great success as a writer and as a public speaker.

His wit and satire were praised by critics and colleagues, and he befriended presidents, artists, industrialists and European royalty.

Twain’s major published work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, made him a remarkable American writer; some have called it the first Great American Novel and Ernest Hemingway commented on the work stating that: “All American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” In this novel, the author satirized much of the society mores of the pre-war of the South and it criticized the institution of formal religion; guns are seen being brought to the church during the feuding portion of the novel.

Twain uses satire to mock many different aspects of the modern world; it was written after the Civil War, in which slavery was one of the key issues.

imagesCANZD2XVThere are many examples of satire in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”; through satire, Mark Twain shares his beliefs about slavery, human nature, racism and discrimination towards other races and political news, which were among the many topics that plagued the country at that time. Despite its success, just a year after its publication, most schools banned the book because of the offensive language.

Huckleberry Finn is no doubt a piece of realism, and by using the dialect of the south, Twain realistically portrays the cruelty and dehumanization of African slaves in the south, and he attempts to make racist southern America aware of this reality.

After the overview of influential American satirists, it is worth mentioning the most important worldwide icon of the XX century, Charlie Chaplin. Even if he is British, he contributed greatly to political satire. He was a comic actor and a filmmaker who became famous in the silent era and he is considered one of the most important figures of the film industry.

Modern_Times_posterOn 5th February 1936, one of the masterpieces of the film industry was projected; it was a comedy film written and directed by Chaplin, in which the iconic Little Tramp character struggles to survive in the modern, industrialized world. The film is a comment on the desperate employment and critical conditions that many people faced during the Great Depression; according to Chaplin, this condition was created by the efficiency of modern industrialization. Modern Times was considered “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress in 1989 and it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. This movie portrays Chaplin, who plays a factory worker employed on the assembly line. He is the victim of the machines that help him eat without moving and let him go on the fritz. He loses his job, he goes to prison, he finds odd jobs and at the end he goes away with a girl. This movie focuses on the condition of the workers during the Second Industrial Revolution and the creation of a mass society with the deriving problems; it is based on the social protest about the exploitation of man when the assembly line was introduced in the factory production. It represents a political-humanist satire where at the center is a man who is opposed to the machines: the simple, romantic and passionate man, who is faced with the last chance to fight against total mechanization. The movie shows how workers live “outside the real world” and how they are strangers to certain events.  Unfortunately, the theme of the movie is very modern: it reminds us of the crisis we are experiencing which forces millions of workers to work long hours for low-paying jobs.

charlie_chaplin02Modern Times is also autobiographical because Charlie Chaplin was born in a poor family. He became successful due to his commitment and his passion for the cinema.


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