Boring serious post: Robert Fisk

Posted on June 10, 2006


I went to see Robert Fisk speak yesterday with M (the boyfriend) at U of T. It was his idea, in fact, so it wasn’t part of the indoctrination campaign. He was speaking about his new book, The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. His appearance, as M agreed, was exactly what we expected: rumpled, tanned, had an air of having had bullets whistle past his ears.

It was thoroughly agreeable – don’t you love going to talks where the speaker confirms everything you already believe? However, I’ve long thought that sarcastic humour does serious subjects a disservice. When people are dying in great numbers, making snarky remarks about the perpetrators de-legitimizes their plight and gives the whole tragedy a schoolyard air. As well, he made fun of many traditional targets of the left: CNN, Bush, etc. Ridicule appeals to the lowest common denominator, although it is an easy way to keep an audience’s attention focused. Someone who seeks to convince and persuade, instead of assuming that his audience shared his beliefs, should adhere to using solid arguments alone – or perhaps rhetoric, as that strikes home in a lot of cases. However, he did not descend to the babbling of cheap slogans, nor to making widespread generalizations. For example, as M pointed out, the word apartheid never came up – a term that is guaranteed to alienate listeners. He wasn’t afraid of saying occupation, however. I was pleased to see that much of his discourse focused on facts and figures, with a sprinkling of law. Nevertheless, during questioning he revealed that he possessed that rarest of oratorical gifts: admitting that he didn’t know.

I expected there to be a lot of critics in the crowd, but I guess he’s not controversial enough to have many haters. He’s just a foreign correspondent who does his job well.

He did make a particularly interesting point about the role of journalism: it is, he said, to challenge authority, not just report on what authority says. Too many reporters these days don’t ask the difficult questions, but instead give you a rundown of what the various parties have said. While that may be seen as unbiased/balanced journalism, I think that if they HAD asked challenging questions they would have heard much that the public needs to be aware of.

Here is a podcast of another talk he gave in November, also at U of T.