Words cannot contend with the instant, electronically transmissible pictures from around the world available to us.
In another age — now increasingly remote from our digital world of information overload — words evoked images for readers whose ability to imagine things had not been bludgeoned by the sheer abundance of graphic pictures with which we are surrounded.
A picture is worth a thousand words is an old cliché, and the columns most of us write for this, or any other paper, are merely a few hundred words in length at best.
What then is the purpose of a column when a picture can convey more graphically events as news?
I have been writing a weekly opinion column for the QMI Agency papers for several years and occasionally have pondered over the thought and effort that go into writing these pieces for readers who cover the entire spectrum from appreciative to abusive.
A column is not a news item, though most are written in response to news.
A column is a reflective piece on events or matters of interest that have become part of the public conversation.
It is said a world of meanings can be conveyed in a wink.
I view a column as a wink from a writer trusting the reader will be provoked sufficiently, and in the best possible manner, to consider the subject of the column afresh.
This is all a column may do — even those from the finest practitioners among us, such as George Jonas, Mark Steyn, David Solway, Christopher Hitchens — in providing a perspective, an insight, or a context to readers that pictures, despite their graphic details, cannot.
In this respect, poets possess a special gift. They can in few words, just as abstract artists or painters of miniature prints are able to do with great economy, telegraph a message even more effective than pictures.
We have been witnessing, as if in a theatre, how swiftly the Arab “spring” turned ugly and cruel.
But words cannot describe as effectively as the pictures from Syria of tanks, helicopter gunships and gun-toting soldiers unleashed against unarmed civilians by a despot.
I have sought, instead, to convey in my recent columns a context to explain what we are witnessing in the Arab-Muslim world as it sinks deeper into its own bloodletting.
Or direct my curious readers to authors and books that probe deeply into culture and politics of the region.
A column minimally is sharing a perspective in prose that cannot, if ever, match the power of poetry.
Here is a verse translated from Arabic: “When a helmet becomes God in heaven/ and can do what it wishes/ with a citizen — crush, mash/ kill and resurrect/ whatever it wills,/ then the state is a whorehouse,/ history is a rag,/ and thought is lower than boots.”
These are words of Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), a Syrian poet, reflecting on the nature of Arab politics in his time even as his words speak to ours.
Yet cruelty of man over man is not confined to, or characteristic of, any one culture.
This last is a wink, and if the message gets across, the column then has done well within its limitation.