In December 2001, the Independent’sRobert Fisk earned international infamy when he filed a dispatch from Afghanistan about a group of young Afghan men and boys who nearly beat him to death. “In fact, if I were the Afghan refugees of Kila Abdullah, close to the Afghan-Pakistan border, I would have done just the same to Robert Fisk,” he wrote. “Or any other Westerner I could find.” A more fitting example of the Western foreign correspondent “gone native” — recognizable by ample amounts of self-loathing and patronization toward dark-skinned people — could not be found. The article, “My Beating by Refugees is a Symbol of the Hatred and Fury of this Filthy War,” inspired the Internet phenomenon of “Fisking,” the painstaking deconstruction of a news article or column, sentence by sentence, with biting and caustic commentary.
I’ve largely ignored Robert Fisk since then, so predictable and overwrought is his work. Last month, however, a fellow journalist who covers Afghanistan and Pakistan placed into my hands a copy of a speech he had delivered just days earlier to the fifth Al Jazeera Annual Forum. Titled “Journalism and ‘the words of power,’” it’s a typically rambling, occasionally conspiratorial discourse on the venality and corruption of the Western news media — in other words, a hallmark of the Fisk oeuvre, with some sprinkles of Foucault thrown in for good measure (the Independent reprinted the speech, in modified form, here).
The gist of Fisk’s speech is that journalists, in collusion with Western governments, use language in a corrupt and dishonest way to further the interests of imperialism. “More and more today, we journalists have become prisoners of the language of power,” he told his audience. Yet Fisk is no less a victim of the supposed ills he diagnoses. He deems the appointment of Tony Blair as the Quartet Middle East peace envoy to be “an obscenity of history,” right up there, one assumes, with Halabja and all the other massacres Fisk has witnessed in his decades-long career. There is the requisite attack on “Israeli colonization of Arab land” (can one imagine Robert Fisk or anyone of his ilk ever referring to “Jewish land” or “Christian land”?). He compares the blockade of Gaza to the Soviet army’s blockade of Berlin.
The speech is a cavalcade of hyperbole. He considers the shorthand, diplo-military term “AfPak” “as racist as it is politically dishonest.” He’s angered by use of the term “foreign fighters” to describe Arab Islamists fighting coalition forces in Afghanistan. After all, are not those men and women “in American or other NATO uniforms” also foreign fighters?. Technically they may be, but they are in Afghanistan at the behest of the internationally recognized Afghan government, and they serve there on a United Nations mandate. Only a man as dishonest and possessive of the corrupt politics of Robert Fisk would not be able to tell the difference between the two.
To account for the West’s moral failing, Fisk delivers the following non sequitur: “Maybe one problem is that we no longer think for ourselves because we no longer read books. The Arabs read books — I’m not talking here about Arab illiteracy rates — but I’m not sure that we in the West still read books.” Well, if he’s not talking about literacy rates, what the hell is he talking about? The United Nations Arab Human Development Report, surveying 22 countries, presents stunning and incontrovertible evidence of the failures of Arab regimes to educate their people. Last year’s report found the adult literacy rate in these nations to average out at 70.3 percent over the period from 1995 to 2005. Of the first such report in 2002, which produced similarly dreary findings, a Jordanian journalist wrote that it “hangs out the Arabs’ dirty washing before the world and offers a wealth of information that mars the image of the Arabs in the world, but unfortunately the information is correct.” That same report contained the infamous statistic that tiny and bankrupt Greece translates five times as many books into English as do all the Arab states combined. And what books “the Arabs” are reading seem to be dog-eared copies of Gamal Abdel Nasser speeches and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
But somehow, according to this vaunted interpreter of world events, it is Westerners who don’t understand. This is certainly the view of “the Arab street,” of whose dim prejudices Fisk is not so much a reporter but a fierce advocate. This penchant for attributing the region’s problems on outside forces, a habit bred by anti-Semitism and a conspiracist worldview, is recognized by a courageous and honest band of Arab intellectuals, like the Jordanian writer I quoted above. But it is of little interest to Robert Fisk, who, by indulging the worst instincts of the people he covers, isolates the region’s liberals and sides with its reactionaries by ritually blaming the problems confronted by Muslims on everyone but themselves.