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.

Customer Relations in the Modern University

Satadru Sen has posted an interesting piece on his experiences teaching history at Queens College in CUNY. (I highly recommend Satadru’s blog; every single essay on there is literate and thoughtful.)  Because I wrote recently on completing ten years of teaching at Brooklyn College–and what I’ve learned from it— I thought I’d offer some thoughts triggered by Satadru’s article.

Many of the frustrations Satadru describes are familiar ones, some caused by the mysterious-to-faculty responses that  students have to syllabic requirements, some by the structure of CUNY’s pedagogical arrangements, which are geared toward administrative and bureaucratic efficiency. The latter, of course, is a common perception of the modern  university, which more often than not, is run in ways that have little to do with teaching or learning but everything to do with ‘management’, ‘maximizing resource utilization’ and other imperatives orthogonal to the educational process. (Consider, for instance, the three-hour night class, considered essential to the working student; I often wonder about its pedagogical efficacy.)

It is the students’ encounter with the university’s ‘system,’ which contributes to some of the students responses that Sen notes in his post; they have been exposed to the relentlessly bureaucratic structure of their supposed ‘institution of learning’ from the day they wandered onto its campus, and slowly but surely, they have internalized the most common response to the deadly impress of a grey, impersonal, bland and banal bean-counting culture: a state which is a halfway-house between reluctant acceptance and irate rejection. They sense the lack of concern with their education in the university’s arrangements; they respond accordingly. So, over the years, I’ve come to suspect that my syllabi, in which I strive for comprehensiveness as I detail the grade requirements, the reading list, and the varied administrative parameters by which I will conduct the class during the semester, are often viewed as just more ‘detail’, more official, and thus officious, requirements, which in the end do nothing more but build up just another fantastically complicated obstacle course, one to be deftly maneuvered through somehow.

The modern university too often functions like a modern corporation. (I don’t like comparing the university to a customer-serving corporation, but they insist on that analogy, so I feel duty-bound to comply.) In particular, it functions like those, that while ostensibly concerned about their ‘customers’,  are only really interested in the ‘first sale.’ After that you are a number to be quickly, efficiently, manipulated. Given this resemblance, it would make sense to note that customer-corporation relations are, and have been, at a notable low for a while. Part of the reason is that companies care little for customer service; it isn’t really an efficient money-maker.

And so,

The real problem may be that companies have a roving eye: they’re always more interested in the customers they don’t have. So they pour money into sales and marketing to lure new customers while giving their existing ones short shrift, in an effort to minimize costs and maximize revenue. [This is ] the “efficient relationship paradox”: it’s only once you’ve actually become a customer that companies put efficiency ahead of attention, with the result that a company’s current customers are often the ones who experience its worst service. Economically, this makes little sense; it’s more expensive to acquire a new customer than to hold on to an old one, and, these days, annoyed customers are quick to take their business elsewhere. But, because most companies are set up to focus on the first sale rather than on all the ones that might follow, they end up devoting all their energies to courting us, promising wonderful products and excellent service. Then, once they’ve got us, their attention wanders….

Apparently, if you try too hard to aspire to corporation-hood, you inherit its blemishes as well as its balance-sheets.

Incontrovertible Proof of the Corporatized University: Its Modern Architecture

In “Laboratory Conditions” (New Yorker, September 19 2011), Paul Goldberger waxes lyrical over the architectural details of new science buildings like the Rockefeller University Collaborative Research Center, Columbia University’s new “fourteen-story tower for scientific research,” and the University of San Francisco’s “new center for stem-cell research.” Goldberger clearly likes what he sees:

[A]ll three of the new buildings I recently visited managed to satisfy a daunting list of functional demands and still have room for poetry….scientific research can be conducted in an environment of both zest and dignity….scientists have become the architecture profession’s most optimistic clients. They believe that well-designed buildings can help them.

To which my reaction is: I’m glad someone is happy with the buildings now under construction for centers of learning. The recipients of Goldberger’s admiration appear to be exceptions to a broad regularity, for a ghastly fact staring us in the face is that university buildings are on a Road to Architectural Perdition, wherein their buildings get uglier and uglier, hankering apparently, for some summum bonum of sheer architectural banality.

Most newly-constructed university buildings now seemingly aspire to the status of Generic Corporate Park Resident, with an exterior that resembles a thrown-together assembly of dull, mass-manufactured, pre-fabricated parts. My own academic home–Brooklyn College–has provided a particularly undistinguished addition to the pantheon of Ugly University Architecture. Our most recently erected building stands, in dramatic and depressing contrast, across Bedford Avenue, to the older Georgian structures on the older quad; its ugliness defies reasonable description. Many years ago, when a graduate student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, I heard Cullimore Hall, a nondescript lecture hall, described as Ham-n-Cheese Hall. Nothing else quite captured its sheer ordinariness, its sinister and yet dull color scheme, than that little nickname, nothing quite deflated a component of the university like a naming after a boring, run-of-the-mill, easily-made-shapeless edible item. All too many modern samples of university architecture aspire to, and emulate, the two samples I have just noted.

But even corporate park buildings i.e., actual Generic Corporate Park Residents, come off better than most modern university buildings. Their glass, steel, aluminium, their straight-lines and metallic countenance, all speak to corporate efficiency, to a streamlined mode of operation that no matter how mythical in denying its own rough edges and inefficiencies, is at least true to a dream-making associated with it. In the case of corporations the Corporate Park Look might work; in the case of universities, the Corporate Park look is jarring. What part of the academic mission is this architecture speaking to?

Only in the context of a throughly-corporatized university do its new architectural inclinations make any sense.  That is, the modern, ugly university only makes sense if one understands it to be no longer committed to its older mission of fostering inquiry but rather to be pursuing considerably less-elevated bottom-lines (perhaps “outcomes”, “deliverables” and the like?). That is, if one accepts as concrete the clash between that older mission and the visible  goal of the contract awarded to the lowest bidder. Then, all of a sudden, all is made clear: the architecture of the modern university is a loud testament to the race to the bottom that is sought to be enacted within its walls.