Sunday, February 05, 2006


Fisking "Civilisation"

Efraim Karsh conducts a competent "fisking" of the namesake himself, in a review of  Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, in Commentary Magazine. Karsh finds that, as a journalist, writer or historian, Fisk fails in this work:
Fisk's indictment is a familiar one, at least for anyone who has attended to Arab propaganda over the years or, more recently, to the sloganeering of the anti-Israel Left. But he does not wish to be seen as just another partisan in the debate. As the ostentatious bulk of his current book attests, Fisk wants to be taken seriously, both as a journalist and as a writer with wider intellectual and historiographical ambitions. In this, he falls dismally --if predictably -- short.
First there is the problem of simple accuracy. It is difficult to turn a page of The Great War for Civilisation without encountering some basic error. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not, as Fisk has it, in Jerusalem. The Caliph Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, was murdered in the year 661, not in the 8th century. Emir Abdallah became king of Transjordan in 1946, not 1921, and both he and his younger brother, King Faisal I of Iraq, hailed not from a "Gulf tribe" but rather from the Hashemites on the other side of the Arabian peninsula. The Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in 1958, not 1962; Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, was appointed by the British authorities, not elected; Ayatollah Khomeini transferred his exile from Turkey to the holy Shiite city of Najaf not during Saddam Hussein’s rule but fourteen years before Saddam seized power. Security Council resolution 242 was passed in November 1967, not 1968; Anwar Sadat of Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, not 1977, and was assassinated in October 1981, not 1979. Yitzhak Rabin was minister of defense, not prime minister, during the first Palestinian intifada, and al Qaeda was established not in 1998 but a decade earlier. And so on and so forth.
The deeper problem with Fisk's work is not the sort of thing that can be fixed by acquiring a better research assistant or fact-checking apparatus. Facts must be placed in their proper context, after all, and this demands a degree of good faith that Fisk utterly lacks. Indeed, so blatant and thoroughgoing are his ideological prejudices that his very name has entered the lexicon of the Internet as a synonym for systematic bias. Among the online commentators known as bloggers, the verb "to fisk" has come to mean a point-by-point rebuttal of an egregiously slanted piece of writing -- like, classically, a Fisk dispatch from the Middle East.
I am no longer surprised by the utter lack of professionalism and scholarly discipline among the fiercest defenders of a certain set of leftist beliefs. But I begin to think that a pure and undefiled ignorance lies at the heart of such as these. They really do seem to embrace the core of the new "fake but accurate" journalistic credo.
Someday perhaps a conservative psychiatrist or neuroscientist will uncover the precise mechanism that allows truth and facts to slip through the neural network untethered, leaving preconceptions and old dust-bunnies in their wake. Myself, I think every piece of intellectual flotsam that drifts by is scooped up and filtered through a "does this fit my perfect conception of the world" net, and if not, it flows out with the other trivia.
Whatever. No serious, non-partisan, non-militarized scholar of Middle Eastern history would take Fisk seriously. His portfolio is full of both propaganda and bitter enmity towards those he would damn, coupled with rationalizations and appeasement for those who he would pardon. He claims to seek impartiality, and distorts history and evidence to weight his conclusions towards preferred outcomes.
Karsh concludes his review of Fisk's fantastical Civilisation, with a pretty thorough review of the man himself:
Such is the general standard Fisk applies as an "impartial witness to history." Massacres of innocent civilians by Arab and Islamic militants throughout the world -- from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to Manhattan, Bali, and Baghdad -- are for him not acts of terrorism but rather the understandable and altogether patriotic response of people brutalized by colonial occupation. The curious effect of this effort to absolve Middle Easterners of any blame or responsibility for their region's problems, or their own deeds, is to make Fisk guilty of the sin for which he endlessly berates the West; he patronizes his subjects in the worst tradition of the "white man's burden."
Though Fisk compares himself to Arab kings at the start of his book, he emerges, ultimately, much more like Lawrence of Arabia, who concluded that the Arabs were "a limited, narrow-minded people," incapable of decent behavior because their "inert intellect lay fallow in incurious resignation." As the eminent Orientalist Bernard Lewis likes to joke, possessing such fundamentally racist attitudes is what it means today to be "pro-Arab."
Sadly, all too many in the West will read Fisk's self-indulgent work of fiction and cluck to themselves, "how true, how true."

Links: Austin Bay, Mudville Gazette

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