Mark here: Charlie Hebdo made news again this week, running two cartoons that played off the image of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee toddler photographed drowned on the shore. As you would expect, the reaction was swift and fierce. Many felt that the cartoons were outright mocking an innocent child, dead through no fault of his, or his family’s, own. As with previous controversies, Charlie Hebdo published the cartoons under the banner of dense irony, made in a political framework and supported by untethered free speech. Supporters of the most recent cartoons are backing them on this point now as they did before; though interestingly, we’re not seeing a flurry of “Je suis Charlie” right now.
Why? Well, for one, the last incident led to an attack on the paper and the tragic deaths of twelve people, which compelled many to take their stand for free speech in the face of a radicalized attempt at suppression. This situation isn’t that one.
But let’s look at the cartoons themselves. I read them. I get them. I get the point they’re trying to make. Both are jabs at Europe, one for its soulless embrace of capitalism and the other for its self-righteous moral superiority that folds in the face of actual moral issues (in this case, Europe’s half-assed response to the Syrian refugee crisis). These are subjects that social commentary, of which comedy is a part, should explore in multiple ways. These are topics ready to be ripped apart with razor-sharp jokes.
Yet while I believe all subjects are open to comedy (a principle I know some don’t agree with), I also believe that how you make the joke is just as important, maybe more important, than the joke itself. You can make a joke, but you need a vehicle to get there. Nobody likes just the punchline. In this case, Charlie Hebdo made Aylan the vehicle, and their goal was lost in that moment. Because this child isn’t a vehicle. He’s not a means to an end. He never was, or will be. Humans, as beings, just aren’t less than ends in and of themselves. This is the sin of Hebdo: they thought a dead toddler, a very real one, was their ticket to the punchline, a punchline which could have been reached in a number of other ways.
And if you’re reading this, fuming that I’m not uplifting some unnuanced version of free speech, let’s talk pure comedy. The jokes weren’t good. I got them, but they weren’t good. I don’t even live in Europe and I feel like I could pull off a more clever commentary than that. It said nothing new, nothing that hasn’t been said ad nauseum about the modern West. Political cartoons are supposed to point to more than the obvious; they’re supposed to be subversive to the end of changing minds. And if you want your work to actually change anything, to actually mean something…it’d better be good work.
Instead, they traded on the humanity of a kid to tell a shitty joke, which wasn’t funny. And if your joke isn’t funny, it’s nothing at all.