Calling Charlie Hebdo out for making fun of Alan Kurdi makes as much sense as if PolitiFact seriously tried to debunk The Onion
Back in March 2014, a 23-year-old twitter activist named Suey Park launched a campaign to cancel the Colbert Report, a comedy news show satirizing right-wing pundits, for what she considered to be an offensive tweet.
The official Comedy Central twitter account for the show had indeed posted a quote from the previous evening, which read: “I am willing to show Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”
Maybe my grandmother – who lives in the French countryside and has never watched American TV or heard of Stephen Colbert, and is generally not aware of American comedy news formats – would’ve lacked the context to understand the joke. But even without context, the obviously over the top sarcasm of the tweet would’ve still slapped her in the face hard enough to trip her satire alarm multiple times over. Was it insensitive on the face of it? Yes. That was the entire point. That insensitivity is exactly what the comedian was mocking.
Otherwise smart people keep making the same mistake as Suey Park
Thankfully, very few people were sufficiently oblivious to both sarcasm and Stephen Colbert’s onscreen persona to mistake Asians for the butt of the joke. The #CancelColbert twitter campaign backfired on an epic scale when Colbert himself ridiculed it on his TV show. (Ironically, said show was actually cancelled soon thereafter, as Colbert was chosen to replace David Letterman on the Late Show – or an even more prominent gig for the comedian.)
While very few satirists have the same level of name recognition as Stephen Colbert, French publication Charlie Hebdo has undoubtedly been among those who do, since core members of their staff were murdered at the newspaper’s Paris headquarters in January of this year.
Despite the heights of their fame and the tragic circumstances which lead to it, many usually intelligent and sophisticated people – from investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald to the prominent novelists who boycotted the PEN Awards – keep making the same mistake as Suey Park.
Most recently, Charlie Hebdo sparked twitter’s rage with its latest cover depicting Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who washed ashore in Turkey as he and his family tried to reach Europe.
The cartoon, headlined “Welcome to migrants!”, features the child face-down on the beach, with a billboard in the background advertising a two-for-the-price-of-one promotion on happy meals at McDonald’s, next to the words “So Close”. A second cartoon in the same edition shows Jesus walking on water next to the submerged body of the Muslim child, under the headline “Proof that Europe is Christian”.
In the following hours, social media was ablaze with insults directed at the cartoonists, denouncing their “racism”, and calling them out for “punching down”.
Charlie Hebdo is to cynicism what Stephen Colbert is to Bill O’Reilly.
A shallow reading could make the “So Close” seem like a taunt, if one is oblivious to sarcasm. To anyone else, it should come as no surprise that satire is never to be taken at face value. That’s actually the entire point of satire. In this case, Charlie Hebdo is to cynicism what Stephen Colbert is to Bill O’Reilly.
While the latter cartoon is an obvious reference to the Romanian Prime Minister’s remark about “keeping Europe Christian” – and attempts to show how disgusting that logic is – the cover has attracted the most attention because if features the sadly iconic position in which Kurdi’s body was found.
But Kurdi wasn’t the only child refugee to die in the Mediterranean over the past months. Not by a long shot. And while photos of the three-year-old have sparked a wave of worldwide compassion, it took just ten days for Germany to start discuss closing its borders and for Europe to resume ignoring the conditions in which Syrian and African refugees – yes, including children – attempt to cross the sea each day.
Because we chose to close our eyes, thousands of children have died – and will continue to die – “so close” to safety
Now, I won’t put words in Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’ mouths, but at least to me, that’s what the cover is mocking – and not in a light-hearted way, but with nothing but contempt for Europe’s underlying cynicism. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, many supporters of the publication depicted the pencil as a cartoonist’s weapon. There lies ‘Charlie’ critics’ mistake: a political cartoon isn’t a joke, it’s a statement; it’s an attack. It’s supposed to turn your stomach upside down, because that’s how the news of refugees dying by the thousands should make you feel.
Were it not for the international community’s cynicism in giving refugees no other option but to face near-certain death in order to reach safer shores, maybe Alan would’ve made it a few extra miles and eventually enjoyed a burger at McDonald’s (a brand purposefully chosen for how repulsive and obscene it seems in this context). But because we chose to close our eyes, thousands of children have died – and will continue to die – “so close” to safety. How’s that for punching down?