Was Charlie Hebdo ‘Mocking’ The Death Of Alan Kurdi?

Charlie Hebdo has offended again. A recently published cartoon titled “So Close to His Goal”, shows Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose tragic drowning death sharply focused the world’s attention on the desperation of the migrant crisis in Europe, lying face down on the sand near a billboard featuring Ronald McDonald and advertising a 2-for-1 McDonald’s Happy Meal with the legend: ‘Two children’s’ meals for the price of one.” The caption reads, ‘So close to his goal.’ And above it all, reads “Welcome to migrants.’ A second cartoon titled “The Proof that Europe is Christian” shows a toddler drowning in the ocean. waters. Next to him a Christ-like figure walks on water. The caption reads, “Christians walk on waters… Muslims kids sink.”

Here is how I ‘read’ the cartoon, roughly: The West and Europe imagines itself the haven of liberal, secular ideals; it imagines itself the bastion of democracy, republicanism, and the social welfare state. In point of fact, it is as much in thrall to old-fashioned notions of Christian triumphalism and the blurring of the church and state as those regimes that it disdains. The West and Europe still fight holy wars; they still imagine itself under attack from the ‘Huns’ and the ‘Goths’ and the ‘barbarians’ and the ‘Moors.’ The migrants might have thought they were escaping to this promised land where they would be welcomed with open arms and invited to make a new life. Little do they know that they were only heading for a vapid, shallow, xenophobic, insular, Islamophobic, consumerist culture, one whose patron saint is Ronald McDonald, and whose guiding slogans are not the call to arms of the great revolutions, but rather, sales pitches for cheap goods.

That’s how I read it. I did not take these cartoons to be ‘mocking’ a dead child.  I do not claim to know the ‘intent’ of the cartoonist, but given Charlie Hebdo’s history, and the current context, my interpretation strikes me as at least halfway plausible.

I am not going to offer a systematic defense here of Charlie Hebdo, but want to make note of a couple of what I think are relevant points:

  1. The famous cartoon of Barack and Michelle Obama exchanging fist-bumps in the Oval Office, while wearing ‘Arab dresses’ and carrying guns, appeared on the cover of the New Yorker. Had it appeared on the cover of the National Review Online, complete with a comments section of gibbering right-wingers rubbing their hands in glee, reactions to it would have been considerably sharper. (I thank Justin E. H. Smith for this example.)
  2. The Onion once ran an article titled ‘Redskins Kike Owner Refuses To Change Team’s Offensive Name.’ I did not think the article or its headline was anti-Semitic. Some Jewish friends of mine were certainly offended.

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are bound to offend many and their choice of vehicle for making their political points might be questioned. But they have ample material to choose from and ample opportunity to offend; this world and its dominant species’ arrogance and continuing self-destructive behavior will ensure that. Satirists exist and find work because we are worthy targets of satire.

8 thoughts on “Was Charlie Hebdo ‘Mocking’ The Death Of Alan Kurdi?

  1. There are perhaps other explanations, given that the cartoon is susceptible to diametrically opposite interpretations: 1. It was a particularly unsuccessful attempt at satire. I for one don’t “get” what is being satirized under your interpretation. The EU’s failure to provide ferry service? “Hard-hearted” Europeans? (The photo did more to undermine that than the “satire.”) What? 2. The scene was something not particularly susceptible to point-making by cartoon. 3. Given than opposite interpretations was plainly apparent even to the creator, maybe it was designed so that both those with a “charitable” and those who used the cartoon to slime immigrants. If both sides can use it, then there are more sales.

    I realize that “liberal” intellectuals are supposed to reflexively support “free expression.” And I would not shut down Carlie Hebdo by government fiat any more than I would prohibit standup comedians from making anti-gay jokes or promoting racial stereotypes, however offensive I find them. (Stand-up comedians are the latest group who claim victimhood for their insensitivity.) But I certainly don’t think anyone needs to patronize them, or even attempt to put a happy face on their work.

    Especially Charlie Hebdo’s. That magazine has a history of “satirizing” refugee deaths in ways that really can’t easily be explained as an exercise in empathy.

  2. The cartoons seem directed squarely at western hypocrisy and with sympathy toward refugees, putting it rather more pro-refugee than the general French consensus. I don’t see much ambiguity there. Message: The west doesn’t care about refugees. The sinking cartoon is titled “Proof that Christianity is superior.” There’s no way that’s meant sincerely–just as with the Onion headline.

    But as a friend pointed out, there’s also a pun. “2 menus enfant” is a pun, meaning both “2 child menus” and “2 skinny children.” My friends debated the meaning of this, and we weren’t sure. My best guess: it’s an homage to Swift, suggesting that McDonald’s takes dead refugees and serves them up as food, offering 2-for-1 because they’re so skinny. Bad taste, sure, but it’s still a satire on western hypocrisy–in part that people get more exercised about a cartoon than about dead refugees.

    That some people don’t get the joke…well, I think Charlie Hebdo is fine with that too.

  3. mrwaggish: My link to an offensive cartoon with similarities in subject matter and treatment was offered as additional evidence of Charlie Hebdo’s treatment of refugees. It is not “moving the goalposts” to ask the David respond to my full argument. “I’m not going to spend time …” is a response, but it’s not an argument.

    My point is this: Bad taste is apparent (David admits as much). The purpose is not readily apparent. The two interpretations, one offered by Chopra and the other by David, ignore the “his goal” of the caption. It is that title which suggests that the refugee is not fleeing war but looking for the cheap benefits of Western lowbrow culture. Perhaps you could explain that as a meta-commentary on the Western mind. If that’s the case, then no matter what the cartoon said–it could be a pictorial representation of rightwing talking points–it can be “explained” as a “satire” on those very points. That is “moving the goalposts.”

    About 20 years ago I was invited to a comedy club in Austin, Texas. This was a place frequented by U of Tex students so I didn’t expect it a rightwing harangue that I otherwise wouldn’t have shocked me in most places in Texas. What ensued was a shocking display of homophobic vile. (I say this not as someone who was particularly enlightened on LGBT issues at the time and by the then standards, which “permitted” stereotyping of gay men.) It was gruesome and detailed depictions of gay sex in all its varieties with mean-spirited portrayals of the supposed characters of homosexual men. And it end in a “climax” of a brutal anal rape “joke.” The student crowd howled with delight. Even my friend thought that it was quite funny. I asked him afterwards why this wasn’t just pure bigotry. He said, Everyone knows he’s just sending up the prevailing view.

    I infer from Chopra’s and David’s explanation that an “acceptable” satire is one that punches up rather than down. If the cartoonist came out and said “I drew it to show that the child got what he deserved,” neither would defend it. My point is simply this. You can say that and then claim that you are sending up prevailing attitudes. Otherwise you could put on Amos and Andy and claim you were sending up the bigoted views of the writers. I think Charlie Hebdo far too often loses sight of the difference between punching up and punching down, especially when it comes to treatment of non-Westerners (given it’s history of racist portrayals). If you find these cartoons delightful or somehow enlightening, then more power to you. I don’t think, however, that the critiques are off base. I can imagine a cartoon about 9/11–the “falling man” for instance–that would send up one of our pretensions or another. I don’t think, however, that anyone would put up with it, even 14 years later.

    Using the dead boy to make a satiric point is not the working of a Swiftian mind. It’s the trick of someone who wants to inflict shock. I really don’t see how whatever point the cartoonist was trying to make, that it was worth the disgust that would obviously ensue.

    1. Charlie Hebdo prints cartoons by different cartoonists. The two in question are by the same artist, Riss. The one you linked to is by a different artist. The magazine does not have a single attitude toward refugees. Their contributors may share a certain sensibility, but hardly the same views. The other cartoon is irrelevant.

      Weak satire is that which doesn’t cause any controversy at all. By your standard, the pedophilia episode of Brass Eye certainly wouldn’t be justified. By mine it is. Okay, we disagree. As long as you don’t believe in government censorship of such content and don’t sign on to boycotts of such content, I’m fine with your disagreement.

      ps–have you ever actually seen the tv show Amos and Andy?

      1. David: I see now that you and mrwaggish are one. My mistake.

        AS for your reply: 1. Thank you for granting me (however reluctantly and under your conditions) the same right to express an opinion that you give a French cartoonist.

        2. It is wise of you to again avoid discussing the linked cartoon in my original comment. Your latest comment suggests to me that time was not really the concern. But that aside, the reason for including it was that Prof. Chopra in the original post noted that context (as in the source of the cartoon) was an important consideration for understanding its imputed intent. I provided another cartoon from the same source, on the same subject–drowned refugees–which doesn’t seem to me to have any beneficial purpose. I didn’t even have to cite any of the numerous cases in which Charlie Hebdo cartoons rely on gross racial stereotyping to show why people of good faith are skeptical of interpretations of Swiftian literary merits.

        3. It is also wise of you to avoid explaining how the caption fits into your version of the intent. As I recall in “A Modest Proposal …” Swift doesn’t suggest that the destruction of the poor children has anything to do with their goals.

        4. Yes, indeed, I saw Amos and Andy, not when it originally aired, but when shown in syndication in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Now let me ask you something David: Were you around at that time (at the time the civil rights movement was beginning to gain traction) and heard whites mock African-American aspirations by mimicking Kingfish? I bring this up because it relates to another of my original points: that satire is not well intentioned when it can knowingly be used by the targets of the satire for their own purposes. I have suggested that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons can be used in exactly that way, and if so, at best it’s not effective satire and at worst it’s cynical pandering for sales.

        But let’s step back a minute. The reason, I think, this is important is that satire (and perhaps other types of humor) work on a level unlike other forms of literature. It’s designed to de-legitimize the object of the satire and invites the audience to suspend analysis and join in the general ridicule. When the object of the barb is not readily apparent, it’s just an exercise in reflexive scorn. Looking at the three Charlie Hebdo cartoons (including the one I pointed out), I find it hard to believe that the audience would naturally agree that it is “Western Europe” (or some other abstraction) that is the target of scorn and not the refugees.

        I suppose I owe you the same courtesy as you granted me: If you disagree, and think this is good satire, as long as you don’t go off laughing at refugees and their quaint problems, I’m fine with your disagreement.

  4. From many years , western comics , or cartoons without censorship , satire everything they put eyes own .
    If you are from some kind of generation , or had knowledge about that , wiil know that , for sure .
    A ancient western or human costume to mock on social , or morals , the powerfull , or the church .
    Is embeded on western culture and values .For free of expression , western countries fought civil wars , and draught blood .
    So when we face another culture from whom everything depicting their values or sensabilities , was not entended as free expression , but an offensive against the other … things will go wrong .
    From many years , those cartoons from Carlie Hebdo , make fun on western politicians , or the church , the christian ones … without the kind of consequences … i mean … the killings … that now happen .
    Theres so because , the radicalization of islam was not in the order of the day .
    France got a small comunitie of muslims from who their religion was something inner to them … Now became an ideology for many ., and a violent one .
    So what is seen for many free of expression , from some became a blasfemy .
    In a civilized society , those offenses will be challenged on courts .
    But now freedom of expression is being fighted with bullets .Something that the west don`t remember was fought by hanging the offendres in the middle ages , or by the sword .
    We fought centuries for nothing now ?
    Who remember MAD magazine in the US who for decades is know for … without any restritions … go down on everything , from religion , politics, morals … anything .
    And others magazines on the same wave lenght.
    So what now ?
    Many years ago cartoons that came out , against a foreign religion , as the Danish ones , or the ones from Charlie, nobody will notice .And if somedody be offended , must go to the courts .
    There , without any doubth , a clashe of cultures in now on .
    By self censorship , if they do , the west will not be the same anymore.
    On that cartoon , as one say the offensive in in the eye of the beholder .With this cartoon theres many questions .
    The way we all see refugees , before and after the gang rape , and sexual general assaults in this New Year Eve on many western countries.Generosity goes in a wrong way .Or our capacity to understand , but stand by our convictions .
    The other is respectable and if they sensed , those parents from Alan will challenged the free of expression intended , as an individual crime against the memorie of the child .
    So if that happen many years ago , one might think that maybe things wont go on that direction .
    But now … and we are on 24 hours schockwave … things tended to go worse .
    If one must remember from history , from many centuries, one of the ways the beggars induced compassion , and pietty on others to get any kind of help , is by selfmutilation , or showing suffering even a fake one , or worse by self inflitting wounds .
    On Europe for many centuries things go that way on fighthing poverty .Without the church , or the State to help , or the families .
    The way facing death is even a different one . As one must understand , if in the west death is seen with a reserved cerimony , in the middle east , specially on war or facing cameras on television on war areas , the deaths are exposed on a very strange way , as if it was a statement against the agressor .Sensed on Gaza , or other areas.
    The body of Alan Kurdi , do more for refugees than all the silent , thousands of unseen deaths in the mediterranean sea .
    So one might asked if the exposition of the child body was not a indecent exposition , without shame, intended to cause compassion .Hard to understand . Or believe .
    But the Kurdi familie are now in Canada , the Syrian man kicked by those right wing journalist in Hungary are now in Madrid take coffee in Cate Morocco , and with a footbool trainer contract , or those hundreds of male youth assylum seekers that cannot grope or rape any blond ( islamic toy ) women in Gemany , are now looking from the Germany Calendar to know the day of February Carnival from going on a sexual rampage .Offensive as it be .Thats the way that one must see the cartoon .Or one of the ways the drawer of it , intended to show his satire .

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