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,
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
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
"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
"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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to
reprint should be directed to the author