Sometime in the early 2000s, the retail chain Urban Outfitters began selling a board game based on a Hasbro classic, called Ghettopoly. The box cover, made to look like a hoodlum had graffiti-painted its title across an alley wall, also featured a black “gangsta” holding a bottle of ‘shine in one paw and a gun loaded with an extra magazine in the other. The butt of a half-smoked joint stuck out from between his gold and gritted teeth. Instead of wholesome tokens, like Scotty dogs, hats, shoes, thimbles, and racecars, Ghettopoly gave “playas” the choice between pimps, machine guns, weed leaves, and basketballs. EBT bills were mixed in with the money. No railroad lines dared pass through Ghettopoly, but liquor stores, Jewish pawnshops, and massage parlors abounded. Buying property made slumlords, rather than real estate magnates, out of competitors, who then invested in slip-shod Section 8 housing along Cheap Trick Avenue. The “chance” and “community chest” decks were more of a looter’s gamble or “ghetto stash.” If someone drew a card from that pile, he might read things like: “You got yo whole neighborhood addicted to crack — collect fifty dollars from every playa”; “you got hit in yo leg by a stray bullet during a drive-by — hospital bill, pay one-hundred dollars”; “you just did hard time fo yo’ boy Tiny — collect one-hundred dollars”; “this morning you found out that you knocked-up yo’ old lady — pay one-hundred and fifty dollars for her abortion”; and finally, “you robbed a stupid Japanese tourist — collect two-hundred dollars.”
Outfitters sold out their supply of Ghettopoly games faster than Popeyes ran out of chicken sandwiches in every barred-window zip code south of St. Louis. All the while, black voices in the NAACP affected their “official” outrage — a sign that Ghettopoly’s caricature had come uncomfortably close to portraiture. Such was the shrillness of the uproar, that the US “Justice Department [sought] judicial permission to destroy about 63,000 copies of the . . . game . . . Customs and Border Protection agents in Tacoma, Washington seized five separate containers filled with ‘Ghettopoly’” for the purported reason that it “violated a trademark held by Hasbro.”  
The idea that copyright concerns motivated agents of the US government to engage in a militant nationwide hunt for a board game was about as believable as Pennsylvania’s recent ballot returns.
If a spokesman in 2003 had simply stated facts on television, or presented publicly-available statistics such as: blacks commit a disproportionate amount of crime relative to their population; based on the anthropological data, it’s evident that blacks tend to enjoy shooting other blacks in parked cars; a sizable chunk of the Sub-Saharan male population has done serious time in the slammer — it might have induced some whining and finger-wagging. But it almost certainly would not have caused the kind of aggravation that Ghettopoly’s trenchant depictions of those facts, in full flush and Technicolor, provoked. Such is the power of satire to entertain and infuriate. But for a concept so well-used, “satire” has proven to be a slippery term and hard for experts to define. Is it a genre, or is it a technique; a literary device, or a political effect? Must it be humorous? Is it more persuasive messaging, or unproductive venting; sharp bite, or paper tiger? Where did satire originate?
All satires mean to criticize society and its belief systems, so it must involve elements of ridicule or censure. Its creators’ goals may or may not involve a call for reform, and its targets are groups and norms (unlike lampoons, which scorn specific things or persons). Few people appreciate being forced to look into a glass that refuses to flatter, but derides them instead.   Indeed, I have found no better definition of “satire” than that of a back-talking mirror whose reflections can simultaneously elicit amusement and the desire to smash it to pieces. For this reason, satire is a weapon (or weaponized laughter) most effectively wielded by those who are out-of-step with and marginalized by their societies’ orthodoxies. When used to express mainstream views, satire loses its sting, and the laugh-track it evokes sounds canned and hollow (how long has it been since the abundant and redundant late-night comedy shows produced funny or interesting material? Our enemies are profoundly boring adolescents who cosplay “revolution” in fake “autonomous zones,” all the while imagining themselves as members of La Résistance).  
Satire’s Western Exceptionalism
Peoples in other parts of the globe have produced works of satire, but the genre’s birthplace and home is the Western world. Europeans and European-descended peoples have throughout history shown robust streaks of irreverence and defiance. Skeptical Socrates (ca. 470-399 BC) turned these traits into an art form in golden-age Athens. Medieval “May Day” celebrations in Europe garnered popularity, and some participants seized upon the opportunity to “turn the world upside down” for a day. In a charivari burlesque, tenants and peasants ignored sumptuary laws and clad themselves in the raiments of their betters, then paraded about the town in as lordly a fashion as they could muster. As the ale continued to flow, villagers crowned their chosen kings and queens of May. Lords themselves, meanwhile, encouraged to be good sports, graciously played the roles of servant and lackey. Rules took flight, and some interpreted the seasonal ritual as carte blanche for all manner of misbehavior. A few even embraced May Day as permission to discard their marriage vows, and so exchanged them for one-night stands and afternoon delights.
Europeans have long been a creative people, and creativity has only thrived in (relatively) open societies. Originality and free-thinking have fueled the art of satire, for they instilled within European man the non-conformist belief that his “two cents” should matter. Above all this, is the millennia-long European love affair with the representative human image, which I am convinced has been satire’s secret ingredient. Those who have sculpted and painted the likenesses of man necessarily take as their subject matter the nature of man. As others have noticed before, the ancient Greeks and Romans worshipped gods created in their own image, thus ascribing to them human personalities, follies, and vices. Angry Pelopponesians could project their criticisms of the mortal realm onto the interfering Olympians. In a way, the entire ancient Greek god-saga was a satire of mythic proportions. It should surprise no one then that most scholars have traced satire’s origins to these early Mediterranean civilizations.
Indeed, ancient philosophers made careers out of social criticism. A walking guidebook on ethics and virtue, Aristotle (384-322 BC) postulated that “masculine republics give way to feminine democracies, which give way to tyrannies.” In turn, the “tyrant,” for the purpose of holding “his power, suppresses every superiority, does away with good men, forbids education and light . . . and spreads dissension and calumny among the citizens and impoverishes them.” He was then “obliged to make war in order to keep his subjects occupied and impose on them permanent need of a chief.”   An early dissenter of foreign entanglements was Aristotle of Athens.
Perhaps the only pastimes that rivaled the Greek indulgence in political philosophy were the Greek indulgences in oratory and theater. Few plays have lacked a strong element of satire, for satire’s chief characteristics have always been feigned ignorance for ironic effect, as well as exaggeration — a pretense both literally and metaphorically staged. “Satyr” plays in ancient Greece were essentially vice-voyeurisms that entertained audiences with “raucous, choral, tragicomic festival productions, often including drunkenness and overt sexuality.”   Their audiences could therefore enjoy or judge for themselves the Bacchanalian carnality on display. Later Roman authors such as Horace (65 BC-8 AD) and Juvenal wrote more complex versions of social raillery. In his Satires, the latter took aim at the institution of marriage, and one of his poetic verses asked, “I always hear the admonition of my friends: / ‘Bolt her in, constrain her! But who watches / the watchmen? The wife plans ahead and begins with them” (since Juvenal’s death in the second century, others have taken these lines out of their context and used them to express political warnings concerning state agents and corruption).  
Nevertheless, our mature understanding of satire only emerged during the eighteenth century, for the Enlightenment was a time of intense interest and public participation in politics. Notable works of satire had come before then, and after five hundred years, still we cannot decide whether Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (ca. 1513) was a guidebook about power or a cleverly disguised tract that ridiculed a batch of particularly nasty crooks at the helm of fifteenth and sixteenth-century Italy. But by the 1700s, a lively printing press paired with an unprecedented newspaper boom, whose messages reached larger and more literate audiences, gave rise to a Western coffee-shop culture. Pamphlets in their hands and opinions in their heads, men gathered with friends and friendly rivals at the local watering hole in order to debate social problems and political issues du jour. Jonathan Swift published Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, which satirized the English by its comparison of Britain to the fantastic societies of the Lilliputians and Houyhnhnms. The golden age of the “political cartoon” commenced, many of them shockingly crude and bawdy.
The cartoon above, illustrated by the so-called “father of political cartoons,” James Gillray, was entitled The Whore’s Last Shift — an oddly poignant piece of satire that managed to uncover the truth about the plight of eighteenth-century prostitutes. Though her face and hair had all the markings of a fashionable lady, the rest of her form and the contents of her room revealed a pitiful state. Her stockings were stained and torn. As she attempted to wash her shift (a word used for its double-meaning) in a small, cracked basin, a cat on her windowsill readied itself to pounce upon a rodent scurrying across the floorboards. On the wall hung a poster that read, “The comforts of a single life. An old song.” The satire of the image was communicated through ironic juxtaposition — a lonely, miserable existence celebrated as a “comfort”; a carefully coiffed appearance from the neck up, belied by the literal and symbolic barrenness of her nude body and rumpled apartment. Gillray’s cartoon was less an amusing form of satire than an unsettling exposé that satirized how we have hidden the dinginess and dark corners of reality behind our masks of makeup and delusion.
Satire as Tragicomedy
Since Gillray’s era, satires have developed further into two distinct branches: the kind that have “made [audiences] laugh, and the kind that [have] made [audiences] cringe.”  
Horatian Satire: Named for the Roman satirist Horace, this brand was mostly lighthearted fare, poking fun at human foibles, silly beliefs, or absurdities in a non-malicious manner. Horatian satire used comedy to convey its messages. Examples of this type included the novels of Jane Austen, for they gently mocked Regency-era conventions and relations between the sexes. Tongue in cheek, the narrator in Pride and Prejudice (1813) declared from the outset that “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”   Austen here used hyperbole and a teasing tone in order to comment on the obsession with social class and materialism, rather than prudence and genuine affection, which characterized the high-stakes competition of matrimony during the early nineteenth century. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) had satirical moments when the Shire “evoke[d] an Edwardian-like summer, [and] life seemed almost to stand still in an orderly ritual of comfortable, if somewhat stuffy, propriety. . . a pleasant, slow world . . . but also bourgeois and rather pointless” — at least before adventure in the form of wizards and dwarves appeared on Bag End’s freshly-painted doorstep.   More modern examples have included the journalistic spoof, The Onion, the Monty Python films, and the King of the Hill television series.
Juvenalian Satire: named for the other great Roman satirist Juvenal, this variant sought to expose evil and the darker side of human nature. Its ruthlessness expressed itself in barbed sarcasm and irony, both lacing a poorly-concealed contempt for its subject(s). Juvenalian satire often manifested in misanthropy through the devices of allegory and symbolism. It may have provoked a few rueful chuckles, but its underlying aim was to horrify or wound — the humorless laugh. Take, for instance, the narrator in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859) when he described the spoiled and woefully out-of-touch “Monseigneur” as the clock tolled five minutes to midnight on the French Ancien Régime:
Monseigneur was in his inner room, his sanctuary of sanctuaries, the Holiest of Holiests to the crowd of worshippers in the suite of rooms without. Monseigneur was about to take his chocolate. Monseigneur could swallow a great many things with ease, and was by some few sullen minds supposed to be rather rapidly swallowing France; but, his morning’s chocolate could not so much as get into the throat of Monseigneur, without the aid of four strong men besides the Cook. Yes. It took four men . . . and the Chief of them unable to exist with fewer than two gold watches in his pocket, emulative of the noble and chaste fashion set by Monseigneur . . . Deep would have been the blot upon [Monseigneur’s] escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men; he must have died of two . . . Monseigneur had one truly noble idea of general public business, which was, to let everything go on in its own way; of particular public business, Monseigneur had the other truly noble idea that it must all go his way — tend to his own power and pocket . . . “The earth and the fulness thereof are mine, saith Monseigneur.”  
After reading this over-the-top and sarcasm-sodden description, even I, no admirer of the blood-orgy known euphemistically as “the French Revolution,” could not help feeling that “Monseigneur” had a future rendezvous at the Place de la Concorde coming. Two levels of meaning emerged: the literal meaning of the words used, and the intentional meaning behind them. Dickens’s narrator created irony all the more biting by feigning an impressed, almost sing-song innocence as he waxed on about the plating of chocolate pudding as if it were an imperial coronation ceremony being blessed by the Pope. Other noteworthy examples of Juvenalian satire have included Willam Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). The subject matter satirized in each of these stories (the French Revolution, island barbarism, Soviet Communism, and military bureaucracy during World War II, respectively) centered around murder, the darkness in human nature, and a deep pessimism toward pretty, Leftist ideals.
Satire in Black and White
So far, this essay has discussed works of Western satire that have taken aim at the differences between the classes and the sexes; the civilized and the barbarous. In the New World, those issues, while extant, have paled in perceptions of importance next to the glaring and inescapable dilemma of race. Has American history anything more tragicomic than this country’s problem of racial discord? The presence of a large and servile population of African aliens within a white republic never failed to catch the attention of foreign visitors. In the year 1851, Alexis de Tocqueville foretold:
The most formidable of all the ills which threaten the future existence of the United States, arises from the presence of a black population upon its territory . . . For the moderns, the abstract and transient fact of slavery is fatally united to the physical and permanent fact of colour. . . Thus the negro transmits the eternal mark of his ignominy to all his descendants; and although the law may abolish slavery, God alone can obliterate the traces of its existence . . . You may set the negro free, but you cannot make him otherwise than an alien to the European. Nor is this all; we scarcely acknowledge the common features of mankind in this child of debasement whom slavery has brought among us. His physiognomy is to our eyes hideous, his understanding weak, his tastes low; and we are almost inclined to look upon him as a being intermediate between man and the brutes.  
By the 1850s, it did not require an especially insightful person to prophesy trouble, fomented by the “Black Question,” and looming ahead for an increasingly sectionalist United States. The Frenchman’s observations about “free-soil” territories were more interesting, for he determined that “the prejudice of the [white] race appears to be stronger in the states which have abolished slavery, than in those where it still exists . . . Thus it is, in the United States, that the prejudice which repels the negroes seems to increase in proportion as they are emancipated.”   The end of the War of Southern Secession paired with the subsequent end of legal slavery exacerbated, rather than solved, the Black Question in the American Union.
Before Congress declared black Emancipation the law of the land by its passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, racial satire had focused on white behavior and excoriated those whites who crossed the “color line,” or were otherwise thought to be too familiar or too debased because of their associations with the “sable sons of Ham.” The image of the indolent and morally relaxed white Southerner was a common trope in the antebellum period. The late eighteenth-century illustration above showed two barefoot and simian black slave wenches clearing land in preparation for the planting season. Above them and on top of a tree stump, a white overseer watched the two slaves scrape and hoe while he languidly smoked his tobacco pipe. Not even willing to stand on his own strength, the man had crossed his legs and leaned on a wooden switch. None of the characters were flattered in this sketch of a Virginia plantation scene, but the white overseer, the only subject referred to directly, was the most cringe-worthy personage of Latrobe’s piece. “Doing his duty” became ironic when viewers compared the phrase to the reality of the overseer’s “work”: something that involved no work or effort in the slightest.
It may interest readers to know that presidential elections in the early republic were also highly contested and bitter affairs. Opponents and their partisans rarely observed a gentleman’s agreement to strike their blows above the belt. The election of 1804, between the Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson and Federalist Charles Pinckney, took an ugly turn during the campaign. A former supporter of Jefferson, angry that the third president had not given him a coveted appointment within his administration, spread the rumor that the Virginia planter had been indulging in his taste for black women by carrying on an affair with his slave, Sally Hemings.Not only did the cartoon above lambaste Jefferson for “amalgamation,” but the artist also alluded to the president’s fondness for French Revolutionaries by reimagining Jefferson as “the cock,” a double-entendre meant not only to refer to Jefferson’s sexual proclivities but also to the rooster that symbolized the Republic of France. However readers feel about one of the longest-running controversies in American history, we can all agree that Jefferson liked the Jacobins a bit too enthusiastically. Its message could be condensed to: “Do you, sensible white citizen, want to jump in bed with a man already sleeping with the likes of black women and French radicals?” Indeed, one of the surest ways to impugn the character of a white personality or politician during the nineteenth century was to compare him to a Sub-Saharan. Scores of satirical examples such as those likening Abraham Lincoln to a “black Republican,” or that caricatured his singular features to an African ape in the months leading up to the election of 1860, were not attacks against blacks in America per se, but attacks against whites in America suspected of wanting to blur color barriers and to throw the country into racial anarchy and violence of the kind so narrowly averted in the episodes of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Gabriel Prosser.
Tocqueville’s premonition proved prescient. The Republic of American States fell before the challenge of Southern secession and cannonade. Its successor, enforced at the end of a federal bayonet, was the Reconstructed “United” States, less a union of equals and more a colonial system of peonage, humiliation, and revenge. Racial satire shifted from targeting whites (often elites) who resembled blacks in their affections and personal habits, to targeting blacks who tried (and usually failed) to resemble whites. With the institution of slavery no longer the formidable legal obstacle barring the congress between white and black mixture, the newly-freed and empowered Africans cast a more threatening shadow. They thus assumed the focus of American satirists, who along with the public, looked on in horror.
Thomas Nast’s 1874 lithograph for the Northern publication Harper’s Weekly depicted black members of the South Carolina legislature brawling on the floor of the House. At the top of the frame, Columbia rebuked them: “You are aping the lowest whites. If you disgrace your race in this way, you had better take the back seats.” White members of the House, meanwhile, looked on in weary frustration. Just another day for these overseers “doing their duty” for democracy. Where once the focus of racial satire had spotlighted the behavior of men like themselves — whites who had fallen in character and morality due to their fondness for “the lowest” negroes — now the focus turned to black misrule and black misbehavior that failed even to approximate that of the “lowest whites.” Though Nast’s black politicians wore the clothing and titles of white men, they retained the manners of black Africans lately arrived from the jungle — an ironic contrast meant to rouse disgust in Harper’s subscribers. This dismal state of affairs would presumably bring down not only the House of South Carolina, but the entire US House of State. By the mid-1870s, many privately agreed that the only way to keep it standing at all was to keep that house (racially) divided against itself.
Laugh while Swallowing the Bitter Pill
To say that race relations have undergone shifts since the end of Reconstruction would be an understatement. The innocuous caricatures in minstrelsy, Amos ‘n’ Andy radio sitcoms, and Heckle and Jeckle shorts have since acquired a sinister political stigma. Yet there are continuities. Whites (so-called “whiggers”) who associate with blacks or who indulge in black “culture,” festooning themselves in negro-worshipping sports apparel, listening to hip-hop music, and imitating the “lazy tongue” that afflicts black speech, remain subjects of disdain. The majority of blacks, meanwhile, have largely given up on “aping” whites. Those who try to dress and speak well; those who have ambition beyond the streets, the music industry, or the National Basketball League, have been “mascot-ed” by fawning whites in what must feel like an embarrassing form of theater; then, they are subjected to ridicule by other members of their race and called all sorts of predictable names. Cornel West used creative language to express an old-fashioned accusation when he charged Barack Obama of being a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface.”   This is why middle-class or affluent black men, in the vein of a Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jussie Smollett, Ibram X. Kendi, or Colson Whitehead, have taken the lead in wokefulness by protesting too much against “whiteness” and defending too strongly their “negritude” (though I could argue that Coates et al. are simply continuing the tradition of aping the “lowest whites” among us — in this case, white and Jewish academics).
The better black satirists, meanwhile, have sought to portray the absurdities and racial narcissism rampant in urban America. The television show The PJs , lately reviewed in Counter-Currents, did so with the playfulness and affection of Horatian satire. Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout, on the other hand, wielded a savage and Juvenalian tone. Sellout’s narrator, in order to save his black town from ruin, took on the historically white roles of slave master and pro-segregationist, which landed him in legal hot water. As he waited for his date with the Supreme Court, the narrator walked along Constitution Avenue and passed the Lincoln Memorial. “If Honest Abe,” he wondered, “came to life . . . what would he do? Would he breakdance . . . would he read the paper and see that the Union he saved was now a dysfunctional plutocracy, that the people he freed were now slaves to rhythm, rap, and predatory lending, and that today his skill set would be better suited to the basketball court than the White House? . . . the Great Emancipator, you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.”   Mr. Beatty took no prisoners.
If satire’s function is to explore paradoxes, often by using the literary technique of paradox itself, then the American conundrum of race will provide the wits among us with an eternal well from which to draw. It was the depiction of an absurdity — that a feral group of Sub-Saharans festered in American cities and within the heart of the civilized white world — that made Ghettopoly both successful and despised. How could one read “Let’s Roll! Steal two-hundred dollars,” without comparing it to the original (white) version: “Go! Collect two-hundred dollars?” Or, “Weinstein’s Gold and Platinum,” with “Oxford Street?” “Ling Ling’s Massage Parlor” with “Trafalgar Square?” Instead of taking a “chance” card, players got “carjacked.” In this way, Ghettopoly’s Africanized perversion of American capitalism mirrored Nast’s Reconstruction-era image of blacks wearing the suits and bearing the offices of white statesmen, even as they cavorted like orangutans. The common message was: Black congressmen could not maintain a functioning society, and should therefore have “take[n] a back seat,” just as the black welfare class today, nominally citizens of the United States, cannot for the sake of a safe country have free range, but must be contained within the several blocks of Ghettopoly’s city limits. As for the howling and squawking of the NAACP and its pet Justice Department — the cry of “racism!” is the cough made by a race-coward or colored dispossessor when he chokes on the truth.
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  “Feds Seek to Destroy ‘Ghettopoly,’ ” The Smoking Gun, December 22, 2004. The Smoking Gun has helpfully provided a link to a PDF of the original government document  detailing the complaint and order of seizure.
  Conal Condren, “Satire and Definition,” in Humor vol. 25, no. 4 (Winter 2012) pp. 375-399.
  As a note on what does and does not constitute “satire”: once a satirical piece’s purpose ventures beyond humor, entertainment, or moral lesson and becomes simply a medium by which to shock and scandalize the “bougies,” it can rightfully be called pornography.
  These quotes originate from Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics, both works written ca. 330 BC.
  Dakota Park-Ozee, “Satire: An Explication,” in Humor vol. 32, no. 4 (August 2019) pp. 585-604, 587.
  Juvenal, The Sixteen Satires, trans. Niall Rudd (Oxford University Press, 1992), 67. The lines come from Book II, Satire VI: “The Decay of Feminine Virtue,” and the original Latin text reads as follows:
. . . consilia et ueteres quaecumque monetis amici,
‘pone seram, cohibe’. sed quis custodiet ipsos
custodes, qui nunc lasciuae furta puellae
hac mercede silent? crimen commune tacetur.
prospicit hoc prudens et ab illis incipit uxor.
Not much is precisely known about the poet’s life, and he is thought to have lived and died in the first and second century as a Roman exile in North Africa.
  Quote taken from the online article, “An In-Depth Understanding of the Types of Satire ,” Penlighten & Buzzle. Although many experts consider “Menippean Satire” as constituting a third type, for the purposes of clarity (and the fact that no source could provide a satisfactory definition of Menippean Satire to justify its separate existence), I have ignored it.
  Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (New York: Penguin, 1996), 5.
  Jerome Donnelly, “Nazis in the Shire: Tolkien and Satire,” Mythlore, vol. 37, no. 1 (Fall-Winter 2018) pp. 81-102, 81.
  Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (Project Gutenberg, 2006), 91-92.
  Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. James T. Schliefer, ed. Eduardo Nolla (Chicago: Liberty Fund, 2010), 549.
  Tocqueville, 551.
  Akin’s cartoon featured the text (which is unreadable from the image) from the first scene of Act I of Joseph Addison’s drama, Cato: “Tis not a set of features or complexion or tincture of a skin that I admire.”
  Charing Ball, “Why Isn’t Dr. Cornel West Talking about the Presidential Election? ” in Madame Noire, November 1, 2016.
  Paul Beatty, The Sellout: A Novel (New York: Picador Books, 2015), 4-5.