Saturday 3 May 2014

Satire--the Democratic Duty

Seriously funny pillar of democracy

Recording a radio documentary on Alexander Pope's debt to Roman satire yesterday with Ian Hislop, the under-celebrated editor of Private Eye, reinforced my determination to write a book about the symbiosis between comedy and democracy. Subjecting people who want power or privilege to routine no-holds-barred ridicule is not just a right but a collective duty.

Don't Mention the Emperor!
The Roman satirists are not themselves the best examples of democratic comedians. Horace never risked offending his bankroller Maecenas, let alone Augustus. Although Juvenal criticises the ostentatiously rich and their parasites, he says nothing  which might get him arrested by the illiberal  emperors around in his lifetime (especially Domitian), who executed their critics. 

The Greeks knew better. Comedy was invented in tandem with democracy. Democratic Athenian citizens required that comedies featuring scathing attacks on officials and other influential people were financed by the rich at public festivals twice a year.  The accountability of leaders to comic appraisal was an inbuilt instrument of citizens’ sovereignty.

The comic poet Aristophanes disliked the policies of the eloquent and successful politician Cleon.  So he repeatedly staged plays in which Cleon was hilariously portrayed as a dementedly corrupt bully, tyrant and extortionist.  The actors playing Cleon impersonated him screaming his head off, clutching his wilting ithyphallus, dressed as a dog, and being beaten with sausages.

Cleon barks his ludicrous way through Aristophanes' Wasps
Cleon did prosecute Aristophanes, as was his right as fellow-citizen. But he certainly did not succeed in silencing the comedian. The freedom of opinion and its expression, moreover, worked both ways. If Aristophanes had managed to persuade the majority of the Athenians that his portrait of Cleon was accurate, then they would not have voted for him again. Cleon triumphantly survived scrutiny by democratic satire until he died.

Cleon attacked by sausage-seller in Knights
So where today is the brilliant comedy, funded by the rich, designed to subject everyone with privilege or power—elected or unelected—to uncompromising scrutiny?  Where are the obscene farces exposing Offshore Financial Centres, the Rich/Poor divide, helicopters falling apart in Kandahar province and the appalling state of public "care" of the elderly?  I suspect that in the UK the legal rights of professional satirists are greater than in many other places. Yet our so-called free society has forgotten that laughter can be a political instrument of unparalleled society-building power.

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