Robert Fisk at Concordia: “Obama, Us, and the Middle East Wars”

Posted on February 20, 2009 by

fiskEarlier tonight (Thursday, 19 Feb. 2009) I attended a special engagement with British journalist, Robert Fisk, who writes for The Independent, followed by his talk to an auditorium packed to the maximum, with 678 people attending at Concordia University‘s Sir George Williams campus. The special engagement was hosted by Concordia’s student newspaper, The Link in its offices (see The Link’s interview with Fisk from 17 Feb. 2009) and was attended by numerous student journalists. Fisk repeated almost all of his comments an hour after the engagement, in the auditorium. He is amazingly consistent, as if following a set script that he can repeat almost word for word.

Fisk promises to be one in a series of high profile speakers to visit Concordia over the next weeks and months: the previous night Spike Lee spoke in the same auditorium, and we can look forward to visits by Naomi Klein, Ward Churchill, and Noam Chomsky. With any luck, I will be able to report on each of those events, with especial interest in Churchill.

Numerous organizations came together to organize this event, for which Fisk received no payment and which allowed people to enter on the basis of no donations, or for free. Among the organizations listed were: the Montreal Citizen Forum, Montreal Serai, Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine, Social Justice Committee, Palestinian & Jewish Unity (PAJU), Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), Independent Jewish Voices – Montreal, CKUT FM, Concordia’s Department of Journalism, and Concordia’s School of Community and Public Affairs, and with an introduction provided by Échec à la guerre.

“You can’t work for a blog”

Fisk is a charming and easy going person who seems to feel at home among strangers, and so his encounter with students flowed smoothly, with few inhibitions on either side, and while it was an amiable and agreeable atmosphere, there was really little agreement. Many of the students were particularly interested in issues of independent journalism, alternative information networks, blogging, and counter-lobbies, and Fisk essentially disappointed them on each of these fronts. Fisk’s persistent points were that one needs a “proper” newspaper, people have to pay for the news (putting it for free on the Internet has severely damaged the budget of The Independent), and deep readers are needed. Fisk seemed to have limitless scorn for both cable television news, the Internet, and blogs in particular; he claimed to not use the Internet at all, nor e-mail. One student pointed out how some blogs have been especially successful, and Fisk’s retort was, “Yes, but you can’t work for a blog.” How does a blog pay for the travel of the correspondent, for airline tickets, hotels, etc.?

On the whole, a strong generational gap seemed to divide him from the students, as well as a different conception of how news is reported: the students seemed to prefer large, widespread, international collaborative networks with numerous bloggers in situ, while Fisk seems to prefer the lone and intrepid foreign correspondent who dances across the globe from war zone to war zone.

I left the room thinking that I might have been happier had I just heard the students speaking among themselves.

No Boycott?

The subject of any kind of boycott of Israel was not mentioned by Fisk during his encounter with students nor during his address in the auditorium (it may have followed in final questions from the audience, but I exited about 10 minutes before the event was scheduled to end).

Obama: Change You Can Deceive In

Fisk is by no means charmed by Obama, and flatly says he will change nothing in the Middle East. Not only did he note, as I did here, that Obama made a pact with AIPAC, but that when he went to Israel he spent over 24 hours with his Israeli hosts, and then met for a mere 45 minutes with Palestinians. Fisk also quoted some of Obama’s noteworthy fluff statements, that say little or nothing at all, but are meant to convey a sense of serious purpose and optimism, without any goal or vision of reality.

An Absence of Cohesion

Fisk struck me as a man who can maintain intense focus, within an individual article. Most of his articles have always struck me as having something penetrating and revealing to offer. What I did not realize is that, outside of a given article, and ranging across a wide array of information, Fisk begins to lose focus considerably. To put it bluntly, he lacks a vision that can bring all the bits and pieces together to form a coherent analytical framework, a theory, or a philosophy. He has elements of all of these, but he has not found a way to gather them and make them work together. No wonder that he ended his address on a note of complete despair, confessing to a lack of any hope or idea for any possible solution.

Fisk has numerous anecdotes, endless quotes from historical texts, from major historical figures, from other reporters, and so forth, but no coherent story apart from a few select points that he will repeat, and sometimes contradict. His observations, the ones he repeats, or his advice, are needlessly contradictory because he singles out elements of the same object and distances them from one another. Here are some examples:

  • (a) Hamas started the war with Israel; (b) Hamas did not start the war with Israel, it was Israel that broke the ceasefire, but Hamas let Israel start the war, or made Israel start the war;
  • (a) Hamas is an incompetent organization that is a forest of spies; (b) since the Gaza war, Hamas has killed over 40 Palestinian collaborators, or about four times as many Palestinians as Israeli soldiers. This is a serious slight on Fisk’s part, since (b) is clearly used by Hamas as the solution to (a), and it is aware of (a). Except in Fisk’s formulation, (a) and (b) are kept far apart, so the only conclusion one can draw is that Hamas consists of incompetent buffoons on the one hand, and on the other hand they act out of insane cruelty;
  • The Internet has been to Islamic radicals what the printing press was to European nationalism (a point I have made in my own publications concerning indigenous resurgence); yet, we are to ignore the Internet.
  • We lack historical knowledge, we need to see the common patterns, the repetition, the previous bases, and so Fisk makes a statistical comparison between the present number of U.S. troops in Muslim nations and the number of Crusaders in Muslim areas in the 12th century. Yet, he objects to anyone who speaks of Israeli “apartheid,” because then we lose sight of the particulars, and we get a world crowded with metaphors and parallels. We should use history…but then not really.

My general impression of Fisk’s politics is that in some instances he can sound as a liberal democrat, and in other instances as an angrier social democrat. Despite the images that some have conjured up of an extremist Fisk (who is scornful, even contemptuous toward Hamas and Hezbollah), he is probably the left’s middle ground, much like Obama is the right’s middle ground. There are many middle grounds of course, and none of them are actually in the middle of everything, nor especially in the middle of anything as we are all in the middle of different choices and tendencies. Even “the extremist” is a myth.

Committed Objectivity: “Neutral and Unbiased in Favour of the Suffering”

One of the more interesting apparent contradictions that Fisk relies upon is the one used for the heading above. Fisk makes a very interesting case for the prejudicial nature of forcibly balanced news coverage, and while I quote from Giuseppe Valiante’s interview with Fisk for The Link, Fisk repeats virtually the exact same words and examples when he speaks elsewhere, as he did twice tonight:

When I started as a journalist […] you report football matches, you report on public inquiries into new motorways that cut through green areas, and you give time and space in your article to each side. […] But the Middle East is not a football match, and it’s not a public inquiry into something that will benefit the community, it’s a massive bloody tragedy. And it doesn’t mean we take sides in the war, but we must take a moral side….

The idea of a journalist is not to be a machine that goes in and spews out stuff where you give 50 per cent to each side. We’re human beings. We’re sent out there to be the nerve endings of our newspaper. […] Our job is to tell it how it is. Not to report on a football match.

If you were reporting the slave trade in the 18th century, would you give equal time to the slave ship captain? No. You’d be talking to the slaves. If you were present at the liberation of a Nazi extermination camp, would you give equal time to the SS spokesman? No. You would not, you’d be talking to the survivors and looking at the dead.

When I was in Jerusalem in the summer of 2000, a Palestinian suicide bomber walked in to an Israeli restaurant and killed 16 people, most of them children. I didn’t give equal time to the Islamic Jihad spokesperson….

Audio Files

Introduction by Raymond Legault of Échec à la guerre:

Talk by Robert Fisk:

Related Resources:

“Kenney says some Canadian Arab groups express hatred toward Jews: Should not expect government funding, immigration minister says,” CBC News, 17 February 2009.

“Canada becomes Israel,” Yves Engler, The Electronic Intifada, 12 February 2009.

“Gaza: Critique on Canadian media coverage,” Interview with Derrick O’Keefe, editor of, by Stefan Christoff, Tadamon! 10 February 2009.

Obama the imperialist: Change? In foreign policy, hardly. The new president is in the classic liberal interventionist mould,” Richard Seymour, The Guardian, 27 January 2009.