“There are only two or three human stories,” said Carl Linstrum in Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers!, “and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.”
The same sentiment, of course, can also be said of the news splashed across the morning papers. Stripped of details, of places and quotations and all the proper nouns, most daily news can be filed into only a handful of folders. Vast gallons of ink and pixels are expended on the same few stories of love and ego, power and betrayal. And let’s not forget the time-honoured act of provocation. It’s been having something of a renaissance in recent weeks.
Unfazed by the firebombing of his offices last year, the editor of a satirical French magazine on Wednesday once again published crude caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. In anticipation of violence, the French government ordered schools and embassies to be shut down in about 20 countries on Friday, the Muslim holy day.
The foreign minister said it wasn’t “appropriate” or “intelligent” to “pour oil on the fire”. Some claimed the magazine acted “irresponsibly”. Others stood by the “fundamental right” to freedom of expression. For his part, the magazine’s editor rejected the label of provocateur. “It’s not provocation,” he said. “We are a political and satirical newspaper and every week we make a comment on the news, so we just did our job.”
But surely this is false. The cartoons are provocative. They incite. They anger. They irritate. The question is not whether a caricature of Mohammad provokes – it does. The question is whether the act of publishing – or any act, for that matter – should fundamentally be tied to a response such as violence. Should incitement justify the acts of the incited?
Turn the page. While the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi now looks like an unrelated attack, the protester breaches at the embassies in Cairo and Tunis were in response to a crude and now infamous film. Flip the page again to the East China Sea. The region is in a near-constant state of instability due to a maritime spat over the status of five uninhabited islands and three rocks collectively no larger than seven square kilometres. Boats sailing to and from territory claimed by others. All cry foul.
Are these acts inherently irresponsible? And in the case of France, if a violent reprisal is expected, is the cartoonist obligated to holster his pencil?
The protests in the Arab world have been tragic and fatal but they’ve once again brought such questions into the public discourse, which is never a bad thing, so long as the discussion is constructive. So, while one would be hard pressed to pluck an obvious upside from the ashes, this just may be it.