Friday, November 08, 2002

Why We Fisk

A few liberal blogs have expressed unhappiness with the term "Fisking" because it ridicules the poor man and it's all a bit immature anyway. One blog (I don't recall which) asked how conservative pundits would like it if they called their own paragraph-by-paragaraph demolitions "Reynoldsing" or "Sullivaning". I don't think they'd be too bothered, but these words just don't have the same ring as "Fisking", do they? It's a nice sharp word that makes you think of a broom sweeping away horrid bits of postmodern fluff. And if anyone still doesn't like it, well tough. Fiskety, Fisk, Fisk, Fisk.

It's good to remind ourselves every once in a while why the term was adopted in the first place. Reading this piece in today's Independent is enough to relight the warm glow of nostalgia. Fisk is unhappy about the al-Qaeda crisping in Yemen and thinks the BBC is being ground beneath the iron heel:

With grovelling approval, the US press used Israel's own mendacious description of such murders as a "targeted killing" – and shame on the BBC for parroting the same words on Wednesday. How about a little journalistic freedom here? Like asking why this important al-Qa'ida leader could not have been arrested. Or tried before an open court. Or, at the least, taken to Guantanamo Bay for interrogation.

Which were two of many questions raised on the BBC discussion programmes Newsnight and Question Time. Shame on the BBC for actually waiting for a discussion programme instead of turning the news into an editorial. For Fisk, failure to raise the questions he demands at the time he appoints is enough to suggest censorship.

Now we're off on one of these world trips, visiting all the tourist-unfriendly very-hotspots with Fisk as our guide. It's a bit like one of these Michael Palin television series with added dopeyness. First stop is the UN, where we arrive via contrived segue: "But a "clean shot" is what President Bush appears to want to take at the United Nations." So Bush actually wants to physically destoy the UN? Ah, no, it was a big old metaphor after all:

First, he wants to force it to adopt a resolution about which the Security Council has the gravest reservations. Then he warns that he might destroy the UN's integrity by ignoring it altogether. In other words, he wants to destroy the UN. Does George Bush realise that the United States was the prime creator of this institution, just as it was of the League of Nations under President Woodrow Wilson?

And we all remember how brilliant the League of Nations turned out to be. The UN is basically the same - an association of nations that values peace at all costs, even if the cost is the preservation of tyranny. It doesn't need Bush to destroy it. History is already pointing the way - to the dustbin.

From there, we catch a connection to Moscow via Chechnya where Fisk succumbs to a bout of quotitis, a debilitating condition that compels writers to attach "quotations" to "key phrases" in an effort to impugn them with phoniness without having to explain why. Secondary symptoms of quotitis include inexplicable references to maritime dramas:

"Targeted killing" – courtesy of the Bush administration – is now what the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon can call "legitimate warfare". And Vladimir Putin, too. Now the Russians – I kid thee not, as Captain Queeg said in the Caine Mutiny – are talking about "targeted killing" in their renewed war on Chechnya. After the disastrous "rescue" of the Moscow theatre hostages by the so-called "elite" Russian Alpha Special forces (beware, oh reader, any rescue by "elite" forces, should you be taken hostage), Putin is supported by Bush and Tony Blair in his renewed onslaught against the broken Muslim people of Chechnya.

Fisk relates an appalling account of cruelty committed by a Russian soldier named Kolya against a Chechnyan girl and asks:

Now, I have a question. If you or I was that girl's husband or lover or brother or father, would we not be prepared to take hostages in a Moscow theatre? Even if this meant – as it did – that, asphyxiated by Russian gas, we would be executed with a bullet in the head, as the Chechen women hostage-takers were? But no matter. The "war on terror" means that Kolya and the boys will be back in action soon, courtesy of Messrs Putin, Bush and Blair.

The Chechens' actions deserve a more thorough treatment than a little aside asking "well how would you feel?" in the manner of a primary school teacher chastising a child. It's a dodge out of having to evaluate their conduct objectively: They're on a mission, you see. Driven by passion!

The next flight takes us to Israel - it had to eventually - and to poor Mordechai Vanunu, banged up for selling the nuclear farm. Apparently his uninspired poetry is the reason for our global gallivanting: "...don't look at the whole machine. You are responsible for this one bolt, this one rubber stamp" Good God, it makes you wonder what sort of purple prose David Shayler will be churning out over Christmas. Fisk, though, is impressed:

Kolya would have understood that. So would the US Air Force officer "flying" the drone which murdered the al-Qa'ida men in Yemen. So would the Israeli pilot who bombed an apartment block in Gaza, killing nine small children as well as well as his Hamas target, an "operation" – that was the description, for God's sake – which Ariel Sharon described as "a great success".

Incidentally, Fisk's quotitis is proving remarkably resilient. Since US Air Force personnel weren't flying the drone in any sense there's no point using the word at all, never mind trying to imbue it with irony. "Controlling" would have done the trick. I hope there's an antidote. Antiquote, even.

And another thing. The vaporous nature of al-Qaeda seems to manifest itself in the myriad variations of its name. How are we supposed to track down this group when we can't even decide how to spell it? There's a dozen variations out there being adopted by all and sundry. Can't we just settle for one? Even if it's Al-Fuquo?

Anyway, back to Fisque. What are we to gather? The murderous Russian soldier, the Israeli pilot who killed civilians and the Predator controller were all cogs in the military machine, blindly following orders. Well, yes they were, and that's the only sane response to this big muddle of generalisations. The gaping differences in intention, context and consequences are irrelevant to Fisk, brushed aside in favour of a vague air of disapproval.

Grabbing our boarding passes in the nick of time we're off to Iraq: Think of Indiana Jones's plane journey drawn across the map in Raiders of The Lost Ark.

These days, we all believe in "clean shots". I wish that George Bush could read history. Not just Britain's colonial history, in which we contrived to use gas against the recalcitrant Kurds of Iraq in the 1930s. Not just his own country's support for Saddam Hussein throughout his war with Iran. The Iranians once produced a devastating book of coloured photographs of the gas blisters sustained by their soldiers in that war. I looked at them again this week. If you were these men, you would want to die.

I've stuck with this political travelogue for eight paragraphs and I want to die.

Fisk opines: " I wish someone could remind George Bush of the words of Lawrence of Arabia, that "making war or rebellion is messy, like eating soup off a knife."" This is just a dense repetition of the Chickenhawk argument - dumb old George Bush doesn't understand the horror and messiness of war the way Robert Fisk does. You see, Fisk has developed the uncanny ability to see into Bush's soul and can reveal his inner shortcomings to us.

But in an increasingly familiar pattern, the crowning glory is saved for the wrap-up:

No, I hope we will not commit war crimes in Iraq – there will be plenty of them for us to watch – but I would like to think that the United Nations can restrain George Bush and Vladimir Putin and, I suppose, Tony Blair. But one thing is sure. Kolya will be with them.

So let's get this straight: The efforts of Bush and Blair are equivalent to a soldier shooting a defenceless girl and raping her while she dies. That's what Fisk is saying, but it doesn't really stand up if you have to say it directly, does it? Once his high-minded yet paradoxically thoughtless analogies are stripped away there's precious little to work with.

And that's Fisk all over.

Looks well dodgy to me

According to the title of the Independent leader the police should stop, and search their consciences. Well call me a fussy old traditionalist, but I'd rather the police spent their time stopping and searching suspects. The Independent does seem awful earnest about this. I can almost hear a chorus of editorial writers singing: "Stop! In the name of love…..before you break your commitment to a more open, tolerant society free of racial stereotypes".

Home Office figures show black people are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. Minister John Denham is honestly puzzled by this but the Independent feels the need to help:

Perhaps we should enlighten him.


It is because too many police officers make assumptions about people from their skin-colour. We do not subscribe to the careless use of the term "institutionally racist" to describe any police force in Britain. But something is amiss, and it is called racial prejudice.

So in other words they're institutionally racist.

Even if it is the case that black males are more likely to be involved in street crime than whites – both as perpetrators and victims – this disproportion cannot be so great as a factor of eight.

So what is the actual factor then? Does the Independent have access to data hidden from the rest of us? Would they care to enlighten us?

But the real gem is:

What is needed is strong leadership and better management. Until the chances of being stopped match the likelihood that the person stopped is engaged in criminal activity, police time is being wasted on harassing innocent black people.

I don't think I've heard a more topsy-turvy approach to crime prevention. Taken to its logical conclusion, this means police will be obliged to stop suspects on the basis of existing statistics over and above their individual judgment. If they stop and search a black male they will have to stop, say, eight white males to fulfil the ethnic quota. Sounds like fun for everyone.

Either the government lets the police stop and search people or it doesn't. Educating police officers and honing their decision-making abilities is fine, but there comes a point where the policy-makers have to let go and let the police use their own discretion.

Racism is a serious allegation, and it must be established case by case. To bandy the term about when statistics refuse to conform to political dogma is crass and dishonest. But it's easy enough for a broadsheet to get away with such generalisations as long as it claims to be acting in the public interest.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

"Congress Falls To Republicans"?! That's how the BBC reported the Republican gains in the US midterms. It's gone now, because someone in the Beeb with half an ounce of impartiality and er, sanity, replaced it. Can you imagine them writing "Parliament falls to Conservatives"? I know it's an increasingly far-fetched scenario but still...

Drone Moan

The Guardian's leader gets all huffy about the Predator missile attack on al-Qaeda yesterday. Actually, the word "attack" doesn't really do it justice. Utter obliteration would be a better description. The scene failed to present the pitiable sight of mangled bodies or twisted metal, looking more like the aftermath of a vigourous oven-cleaning session. It was almost comical the way the cameras panned round the destruction, searching in vain for something identifiable amongst the crumbly bits of charcoal. There just wasn't enough left of the terrorists to get upset about. But the Guardian tries its best:

It is an act of war where no war has been declared. It killed people, some of whom who may have been criminals, but who will never now face trial. It assassinated men who may have been planning attacks. But who can tell? It is, at best, irresponsible extra-judicial killing, at worst a premeditated, cold-blooded murder of civilians. And it is also, and this is no mere afterthought, morally unsustainable. Those who authorised this act have some serious ethical as well as legal questions to answer.

Questions, questions, questions. Well, they might want to ask whether it was worth using up an expensive missile to get just six of the fuckers. Wasn't there a budget alternative to the Hellfire? Then again, if it did the job I'm not complaining.

I could try and work myself into a tone of sonorous reflection on extra-judicial killings and international law but I really can't be bothered. It's just not worth getting upset over these guys. I wish we lived in a utopia where all conflicts could be worked out peacefully and where violence is unnecessary. But the perfect universe of Star Trek stubbornly refuses to emerge from the inside of the television screen, so we'd better get used to mucky old realpolitik. The Americans aren't taking al-Qaeda to court, they're sending them to hell. The sooner everyone realises that peace and security aren't guaranteed by legal niceties alone the better.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

V for Visionary

If you ever want to read a twentieth century telling of the Guy Fawkes legend I recommend Alan Moore's wonderful graphic novel V for Vendetta. Illustrated by David Lloyd, it's a timeless tale of a struggle against an Orwellian state. Although the year its nightmare future is set in has come and gone it's still as mesmerising as ever. You won't forget it.

Gunpowder, treason and plot

Iain Duncan Smith seems intent on speeding along the self-detonation of his leadership. In a short statement delivered to the media he issued a stark warning to his colleagues to "unite or die".

Once again the Conservatives have managed to put their differences right at the front of the news - at a time when Labour's persistent failure to deliver is wide open to attack. IDS's tactic of asserting his authority by publicly reprimanding his colleagues is self-defeating. As Stephen Pollard points out, there's nothing less likely to convince people that you're in charge than standing up and declaring "I'm in charge" then walking off. A junior manager in a photocopying shop could tell you that.

Smith's statement manages to be both accusatory and vague, painting MPs who defied Monday's absurd three line whip as conspirators out to "undermine" his leadership. If this is meant to forestall dissent in the ranks he's going to be disappointed. This is going to ferment opposition to his leadership - and quickly. One pundit on the news tonight measured his political life expectancy in weeks, not months.

It was a tactical misstep to allow adoption to get to the top of the agenda in the first place. Yes, it's an important issue to those involved. But it's second-division material next to the big issues facing the party. It makes me wonder what they will end up doing when Europe rears its medusa head again. Will it come to punch-ups? Actual knives in the dark instead of figurative ones?

I've never been all that fascinated with the infighting in the Conservative party; Up until now I thought that there would be a long period of storm and fury and eventually they would settle down and realign themselves. Then they might be worth paying attention to. But David Carr believes they will be rendered irrelevant.

I think there's room for them in the political spectrum - if they concentrate on making a principled argument for laissez-faire small government, instead of getting tangled up in issues like gay couples adopting. British politics needs a force diametrically and vigourously opposed to Blairism. Scottish politics needs it really badly. No-one else is going to do it.

"Unite or die"? True, if the Conservatives want to be taken seriously ever again they have got to unite. But it won't be under Iain Duncan Smith.

Monday, November 04, 2002

Politics Gets Too Polite

Lileks decries the lack of good old-fashioned political invective in the Senate race for Minnesota. The debates between candidates nowadays are apparently bland affairs that lack even the entertainment value of mudslinging. Up on the podiums the opponents swallow their vitriol and metamorphose into wee sleekit cowrin' timorous beasties, not daring to let rip with a few choice barbs.

I'm reminded of Robert Redford's take on U.S. political campaigning in Michael Ritchie's The Candidate. Having succumbed to political soundbites and media-friendly marketing, populist lawyer Bill McKay (Redford) unexpectedly wins. Escaping the media commotion he turns to his wizened campaign manager and asks, quite honestly: "What do we do now?" That was thirty years ago. I hope political debate never degenerates into recitations of "after you" ... "no, I insist, after you". A bit of fiery rhetoric never hurt anyone.

Necessary Risk

School Governor Neil Collins sings the praises of the remarkable Lt Col Stuart Townend in the Telegraph. As headmaster of Hill House preparatory school Townend's no-nonsense, inspirational approach put the needs of pupils before bureaucracy. His enthusiasm for extra-curricular activities let his pupils enjoy shooting, abseiling and "the pleasures and dangers of alpine pursuits".

This approach put him increasingly at odds with today's regulatory, safety-conscious culture. Collins points out that:

...if all such questions about every activity were dealt with in such stupefying detail, the few teachers who were not driven mad by the paperwork would have no time left to teach, let alone engage in anything more interesting.

Tighter health and safety rules have a cost, in addition to the obvious one of massively increased bureaucracy. They stifle initiative, can produce additional risks of their own and, above all, alter the fundamental question, "Is this safe?", to "Does this comply with the rules?"

The imposition of forms and endless box-ticking is meant to guarantee safety, but it doesn't. Safety is maintained by people exercising their common sense from moment to moment. They have to strike a balance between sensible precaution and acceptable risk. But such discretion is being smothered by regulations that seek to eradicate the very possibility of hazard. Collins argues, quite correctly, that children need some risk in their lives. Try to remove it completely, and they will seek it elsewhere.

Townend did supervise a yachting trip that led to the death of one girl. But it was, in the end, a tragic accident that hinged on a momentary error, not the existence of some safety protocol. To remember the man for this one mistake would surely be doing him a disservice.

Behind this I sense something else: the desire to remove as much of the spontaneous from everyday life as possible. Blame must be assigned. Liability must be determined. Risk must be quantified and priced in all circumstances. The idea that sometimes senseless, random events just happen is intolerable in this supposedly rational world. The very idea is threatening.

Tomorrow night the villagers of Sherston in Wiltshire will have to use a 16-foot high fake bonfire consisting of lights and smoke. Why? Because they cannot afford the insurance for a real one - the cost has leapt tenfold. I can't think of a sadder expression of society's desire to remove risk. The fact that this is debasing the celebration of our national heritage won't, I hope, go unnoticed.

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