My previous article on Antiwar.com, "Fisking Feith’s Faulty Case for War," led to an unusually high number of thoughtful criticisms. The feedback I typically get to my articles on Antiwar.com falls into one of two categories: (1) agreement with me on pretty much everything I wrote or (2) disagreement, with a barb or two thrown in.
But I received a number of criticisms from people on the Feith article that were in neither category. They didn’t disagree with me, but they expressed strong, principled disagreement with my use of one word. Can you guess the word? It was "fisking." I found their arguments against using that word persuasive, so much so that I’m devoting this whole article to the issue. And at the end, I ask for your input.
I never liked the word "fisking" it sounds strange and is hardly informative on its face, and so, on those grounds alone, I should not have used it. In the mid-1980s and then again in the mid-1990s, I was a frequent contributor to Fortune magazine (for one example of my writing, see "The Case for Small Government"), and one of my editors there gave me a writing tip that has always stayed with me: "The three most important things in good writing are clarity, clarity, and clarity." Using the word "fisking" breaks that rule.
But my critics have a more fundamental objection to use of the word "fisking." I used the word the way Wikipedia defines it: "detailed point-by-point criticism that highlights perceived errors, disputes the analysis of presented facts, or highlights other problems in a statement, article, or essay." Within hours of my piece appearing, I received the following e-mail from Muhammad Idrees Ahmad:
"Rather sad that you should help popularize a silly term invented by the very supporters of the neoconservatives that you claim to oppose. The term was invented by Brit neocons to disparage the legendary journalist Robert Fisk, who had been undermining their case for war with on the ground reporting contradicting their WMD claims. The attempts by their allies in the Wall Street Journal and the Observer had hitherto only drawn ridicule. This is the first time I am seeing it used by anyone other than a mad-dog Zionist. I hope you have better sense in the future than to become an unwitting tool of the neocons and disavow this nonsense in your next column."
As you might imagine, I didn’t totally like the tone of that letter, but its author did make a good point. It reminded me of a point that psychiatrist Thomas Szasz has made: "Among animals, it’s ‘eat or be eaten’; among humans, it’s ‘define or be defined.’" In other words, the words you use matter a lot. You can give the game away simply by using the other side’s terms. That’s why, for example, I have written a number of pieces arguing against using the word "we" when discussing the policies of a government that you disagree with. It’s why I don’t use the word "generous" when talking about government’s forcible transfers of wealth from group A to group B. So here’s how I replied:
"Dear Mr. Ahmad,
"I don’t think it’s a silly term. It does accurately represent what Andrew Sullivan did to Robert Fisk’s statements. You don’t have to agree with all of Sullivan’s criticisms (although I agree with most of them) of Robert Fisk’s defense of his attackers. The point is that Sullivan did a point-by-point take-apart of Fisk. Thus the term ‘fisking.’
"However, I am open to other terms. If you can give me a punchy word that communicates a line-by-line analytic take-apart, and one that people will understand, I am open to hearing it."
Mr. Ahmad replied:
"The term predates Sullivan’s use, and Fisk wasn’t the only target (John Pilger was another). The common thread in both cases was their hard-hitting reports on Israel. Sullivan probably only picked it up in the case of Afghanistan so he could harness American jingoism in the service of an Israel-lobby-inspired character assassination campaign. You may agree with Sullivan, but the fact stands that Sullivan was wrong and Fisk has been invariably right. Whether it is Afghanistan or Iraq, the latter’s predictions have been borne out. So if you can’t think of a term for the specific meaning you intend to convey, you can make one up. The Israel lobby did. Except you have a much larger pool of culprits to choose from. Feith, for one, is an eminently more serviceable name for basing such a term on.
"Let me also mention here that the reason I took such strong exception to this is that I generally find your articles very insightful. I just don’t think the use of this term was such a wise decision."
I thought about that and realized that there was something else I didn’t like about the term "fisking," and Mr. Ahmad’s suggestion of using the word "feith" made me understand what I didn’t like. It gives way too much credit to the person being criticized. One can’t read Feith’s article that I criticized without coming to the belief that this is the product of a weak intellect. Why give him credit with a word that is used to denote an analytic tour de force? I replied:
"Good points. I think you’ve just come up with the term: feithing. Or, we could put it on the person doing it, rather than the person it’s done on: hendersoning. :-"
To which Mr. Ahmad replied:
"I think that has a much better ring to it. ‘Feith just got hendersoned!’"
A similar criticism arrived later from Bruce Dodds. Mr. Dodds wrote:
"Dear Mr. Henderson,
"I didn’t read your article about ‘Fisking Feith’s Faulty Case for War,’ but the term ‘fisking’ in the title caught my eye.
“‘Fisking’ supposedly refers to the exhaustive demolition of a piece of journalism. It takes its name from Robert Fisk, the British journalist who was supposedly the target of such treatment.
"There are two problems with the term. First, Robert Fisk is a terrific, award-winning journalist whose name shouldn’t be associated with the practice.
"Second, ‘fisking’ never happened to begin with. I was around when the original so-called ‘fiskings’ took place. Those supposed deconstructions of Fisk’s work were just incredibly lame. His work was not the target of sharp, critical minds, but of people like Jonah Goldberg. They never laid a glove on him.
"So the term is first an insult, and second a silly travesty. It should be retired."
To which I replied:
"Thanks for your letter. The fisking I had in mind that was fairly good, and the one mentioned in the Wikipedia article on fisking, was by Andrew Sullivan. I couldn’t find a fisking by Jonah Goldberg. Please provide a cite."
Bruce Dodds replied:
"I think that Sullivan’s skewering of Fisk’s histrionics in that piece has some merit. However, Sullivan does not do a ‘point-by-point refutation of a blog entry or (especially) news story.’ He looks at a very few lines in Fisk’s long article. It’s all one-sided.
"Sullivan fairly points out that the extent to which Fisk excused the mob that attacked him was absurd. He doesn’t acknowledge that Fisk actually may have been correct to point out that the people who attacked him were influenced by the fact that they came from an area that was under American attack.
"Sullivan uses the same kind of wild overstatement he accuses Fisk of with less excuse, since he hadn’t just been through an extremely traumatic personal experience. As here:
‘Think about that for a minute. [Fisk] doesn’t excuse their violence "It doesn’t excuse them for beating me up so badly" yet he feels they were morally justified in what they did. Isn’t that exactly what the far left essentially meant in the wake of September 11?’
"I don’t know how you feel about that, but I think it’s a vicious distortion.
"Sullivan’s ‘analysis’ is selective. He ignores that part of the article where Fisk describes being rescued and protected by Muslim Pakistanis. This doesn’t fit in with the attitude Sullivan expresses elsewhere on the page:
‘Norah Vincent nails the depravity, illiberalism, intolerance, and hypocrisy of the ascendant Arab culture.’
"Afghans aren’t Arabs, but do you seriously think that matters to Sullivan? Look through the rest of that page ‘pummel [Arabs] and they will respect you,’ etc., etc., etc., etc.
"The original ‘fisking’ was not a ‘detailed point-by-point criticism’ but a right-wing hatchet job. The term slanders the name of a good journalist, of whom the piece in question is not representative. It shouldn’t be used at Antiwar.com.
"PS: I don’t have a cite for Jonah Goldberg. What I wrote was ‘people like Jonah Goldberg,’ of whom Sullivan is a fan. (From the same page: ‘I love reading Jonah Goldberg. He writes like an angel after a couple of bourbons.’)"
I found most of Mr. Dodds’ criticism persuasive. So I replied:
"Thank you. All good points. I will reconsider my use of the word ‘fisking.'”
So here’s where you come in, dear reader. I will drop the use of the word "fisking," but I need another word that is communicative and, ideally, punchy. "Hendersoning" certainly satisfies my ego, but it doesn’t fit the above criteria and it violates my previous Fortune editor’s admonition for clarity. So what are your candidates for a good word that avoids the problem? Please send them to me at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.