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.

I’d Rather Be ‘Working’?

A New Yorker cartoon shows us a car careening down the street; from the rear, we can make out the silhouettes of a mother and three children in their car-seats; a ball is being thrown up in the air; and on the back of the car, a bumper sticker reads ‘I’d rather be working.’ Parents and non-parents alike chuckle; kids are a pain in the ass, aren’t they? So bothersome, that we’d rather return to the workplace, and its sundry oppressions, its dreaded co-workers, its bosses and meetings, its resident bullies and clowns.  Yes sir, taking care of kids is no walk in the park, and certainly not even a leisurely drive around the block. We’d rather be dealing with the Dilbertian stupidities of our fellow sufferers in employment than engaging with the exhausting follies of our offspring. (Once this hilarity recedes, some misgivings set in.  We see that old pernicious classification at play, the one that says ‘work’ happens in the ‘workplace’ and not at ‘home’, the one that renders the labor of stay-at-home parents invisible.  It’s a categorization that has been internalized by the caretakers themselves, of course.  ‘Are you working today?; No, I’m staying at home to look after the kids.’)

I was reminded of this cartoon yesterday as I made some tentative inquiries yesterday at Brooklyn College about suspending my sabbatical in the spring semester and returning to teaching duties. (I would return to my sabbatical either in the fall of 2014 or the spring of 2015.) My first mention of this to a colleague–and a fellow parent–prompted a guffaw and the rejoinder, ‘You’d rather be back at work, right?’ Other reactions were more incredulous. Why would you want to suspend a sabbatical and return to teaching? Why would you want to return to grading, meetings, committee work and dealing with university administrators?

Well, for one thing, I’ve been home-bound too long. I was on paternity leave in the spring semester with no teaching duties and spent most days of the week attending to my daughter and taking care of college administrative work–from home. Over the summer, I’ve been a full-time caretaker, a situation that has only changed in the past couple of weeks with the addition of a babysitter for a couple of hours a day and even more recently, some daycare. I’ve become infected with a version of cabin fever, and as I noted in a post a while ago, I do miss teaching.

Curing myself means leaving home, heading to a library or two, and consequently, seeking more time at the daycare center for my daughter. But daycare is expensive, very expensive; the bills for it can easily rise to a staggering twenty thousand dollars a year. And my sabbatical entails a twenty percent pay cut. (This is still a radical improvement from the situation of a few years ago, when the sabbatical meant a fifty percent decrease.) That’s not great news in a city like New York.

So, perhaps a return to teaching and a full-time salary is on the cards. Perhaps next year, with some savings in the bank, I’ll try the sabbatical again. Decisions, decisions.

Earnin’ a Livin’ With Humiliation as a Perk

A New Yorker cartoon from last year shows a woman walking out from her boss’ office and saying to a co-worker, “That’s the worst humiliation I’ve been subjected to this week.” Or something like that. We laugh, a little nervously, or perhaps wince just a little, because the punchline hits home. Or we breathe a sigh of relief, just in case our workplace isn’t one that subjects us to situations that provoke and inspire cartoonists thus. (It is not an insignificant feature of this cartoon that the workers depicted are women; for more on which, see below.)

For too many workers–whether blue-collar or white–the workplace is where you go to be subjected to behavior that you wish your family would never come to know about.  It is where you go to be subjected to naked exertions of power; in the American context, the workplace is where you check the Constitution at the door. If I had a dollar for every time I have had to remind my students in my Philosophy of Law or Social and Political Philosophy classes about this simple fact…well, let’s just say my kids would be able to afford Brooklyn College’s steadily rising tuition quite easily.

The worker who returns home, seething with barely repressed anger, which is then channeled into either intemperate expressions directed against loved ones (“Having a bad day, love?”) or in seeking the bromides of intoxication–‘A quick one after work to take the edge off?”–is a well-established trope of our modern lives. There is a reason why ‘going postal‘ is one of the modern era’s most distinctive phrases. Anyone that has worked for a ‘boss’ and by that I mean, you know, someone that bosses you around, knows why. All too well. Which brings us back to the cartoon.

Consider then, the following story:

Martha Reyes walked in the employee entrance of the Santa Clara Hyatt Regency to the sound of her male colleagues laughing. She believed they were laughing at her. It was “Housekeeping Appreciation Week” at the Hyatt and to celebrate, a digitally altered photo collage of Hyatt Housekeepers’ faces — including Martha’s and her sister Lorena’s — superimposed on bikini-clad cartoon-bodies was posted on a bulletin board at work. She felt humiliated and embarrassed. But she knew her sister Lorena — also a housekeeper at Hyatt — would be even more so. Martha tore the posters of her and her sister down.Then, with management present, a coworker told Martha she needed to return the photos. She refused and said if they wanted it back, they’d have to take her to court. Hyatt management fired Martha and Lorena just a few weeks later.

Martha and Lorena worked at that hotel as housekeepers for 7 and 24 years respectively….On the day she was fired, the HR Director told Martha she was an “excellent worker” and that there hadn’t been any complaints about her. Before the day Lorena was fired, she had never in her 24 years been written up for a single break violation….What happened to the Reyes sisters is just another example of Hyatt’s culture of disrespect for its workers: Hyatt housekeepers have high rates of injury, and in 2011 various state and federal agencies issued 18 citations against Hyatt for alleged safety violations. Hyatt has even lobbied against new laws that would make housekeeping work safer, and has made it a pattern  of firing housekeepers only to hire subcontractors everywhere from Manilla [sic] to Boston.

 If this story sounds all too familiar, consider signing the petition available at the link above.