Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

March 21, 2007

Nobody Won Means Nobody Won

I generally prefer pointing out news stories about last year's Danish Cartoons Controversy to discussing the issues they might bring up. More than any other comics- or cartoon-related story ever, Jyllands-Posten's Fall 2005 decision to publish multiple caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed and the resulting violence, political upheaval and economic maneuvering tends to bring out the inexact arguing mechanism, with its common "you are saying this, and therefore you are also saying this" construction. That being said, after reading this story and this interview, I'd like to say something.

None of the people involved in the original publication of the caricatures deserved the grief and fear that's hounded them, that's true. But they don't deserve awards, either, or to have their spin taken at face value. Flemming Rose says the publication of those caricatures wasn't intended to provoke but to instigate conversation. Okay. I have a friend who walks wild-eyed back into bars who later swears on the way to the hospital he just wanted to talk to the guy, too. But leave that aside. There are ten thousand ways a newspaper can instigate a conversation that have nothing to do with taking a stand by pulling a stunt, that are about asking questions rather than making statements, that are about relating a story rather than deciding to be one. What Jyllands-Posten did by publishing the caricatures had almost nothing to do with the children's book illustration quandary that preceded it, a story that eventually played itself out on a completely different track. Publishing the caricatures was grandstanding, in the worst possible way. It didn't inform the issues facing Europe as their Muslim communities grow; it exploited those issues.

If Jyllands-Posten had published depictions of Muhammed in pursuit of a story, just like every journalistic entity should have last year in order to best fulfill their primary obligation to inform and educate, they'd deserve a lot of awards. But choosing to do so given the vast array of options they had at their disposal in 2005 deserves disapproval, not praise, no matter how we might feel about what they suffered.

Even if you see the publication of caricatures as a valid choice for the newspaper, and this kind of thing well within the bounds of responsible journalism, it's clear this was at least a poorly executed instigation of dialog, with little of impact in the way of comparable follow-up, put out there in a way that gave opportunity to some really not-nice people to convince others to do some awful things. When your stand on a public issue gives international credence on any level to an outcome of violence, economic distress and death, you don't get to run a victory lap.
posted 2:41 am PST | Permalink

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