… the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat ready for a good table. –Jonathan Swift “A Modest Proposal”
Goes back along way
By Roger Childs
Satirical writing probably goes back to the dawn of the written word. No doubt some cave drawings before that took the Mickey out of someone. Satire has always been designed to amuse, entertain, lampoon and offend. There were some wonderfully clever satirists in the ancient world such as the Greek Aristophanes, and the Romans Horace, Juvenal and Gaius Lucilius. Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece refused sexual favours until the men stopped fighting, was first performed in 411 BC.
However, probably the most famous piece of satire ever written was Irishman Jonathan Swift’s idea for relieving the burden of too many children in his homeland and providing more meat for England. No doubt the church and many other people were highly offended by his “modest proposal”.
New Zealand cartoonist David Low produced one of the most famous visual satires in 1939. The occasion was the unexpected announcement of the Russo-German Non-Aggression Pact. Hitler was highly offended by Low’s superb cartoons in the 1930s and 1940s, and the latter was on the list of people the Nazis wanted to eliminate when they took over England.
Fortunately in New Zealand today most of our MPs and local councilors accept that as leaders in the frontline they are fair game for the journalists, bloggers, cartoonists and satirists. It goes with the territory. Cartoonists usually latch on to some physical characteristic such as Muldoon’s scar and Ardern’s teeth to identify their targets.
The politicians usually laugh with the rest of us and often want to buy the cartoon originals. Those of you who have visited The Backbencher – “The pub with no peers” – opposite Parliament in Wellington, will have enjoyed the political classics that adorn the walls.
However, there have been cases where leaders have got very upset with their critics and taken action against them. A classic example was Robert Muldoon preventing political commentator and cartoonist, Tom Scott, from attending press conferences and trying to stop him going to India for a Commonwealth Heads of State meeting. (He went anyway.)
Critics and cartoonists in the Fourth Estate are a vital part of a working democracy, and their use of the right to free speech and expression is greatly appreciated by the public. There are plenty of examples of newspaper owners employing cartoonists who strongly disagreed with their own political views. A case in point was Lord Beaverbrook who in the mid 20th century had David Low on the payroll, because he knew that Low’s cartoons sold papers.
Cartoonists can be merciless, and sometimes with their pictorial genre are more perceptive than those using the written word. The late Australian cartoonists, Bill Leak, often held prime ministers up to relentless ridicule, but most of then rolled with the visual and literary punches. After he passed away, one of his favourite victims who Leak had lampooned repeatedly, Malcolm Turnbull, observed: Who had more life, more energy than him? So many more cartoons to draw; painting to paint, politicians to satirise… so many more lives to enhance with his wit, his brilliance, his good friendship.
There is a line in the sand, however, and it’s crossed when critics make personal attacks utterly unrelated to what the individual has said, drawn or done. Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, accepted being a target for the media, but some of the tactics were misogynistically sexist.
Her hair colour, clothes, accent, backside and, even breasts, occasionally featured in the news. She had to put with gender insults in the press that reporters and columnists would never have dreamed of using on a male Prime Minister.
Most satirists know where the line is and stop short of the edge. In reacting to critics and satirists, insulting and derogatory personal comments have no place, and those who make them lose all credibility.
Fundamentally, satire, while usually being based on specific events, is fantasy. It is not designed to be nice, kind and complimentary, and needs to be accepted as critical and humorous entertainment for the public. Many of the attacks on Gillard were for real, however, the recent satire by Thomasina Wolfe in Waikanae Watch, which related to the proposed Gateway to Kapiti Island, was a piece of creative writing. It’s an important distinction.