The Journalism of Warfare

By Windschuttle, Keith | New Criterion, June 2005 | Go to article overview

The Journalism of Warfare


Windschuttle, Keith, New Criterion


In December 1996, Robert Fisk of the London newspaper The Independent traveled to the mountains north of Khartoum where he met Osama bin Laden. The opening sentences of the article he wrote about the meeting went as follows:

   Osama Bin Laden sat in his gold fringed robe,
   guarded by loyal Arab mujahedin.... With
   his high cheekbones, narrow eyes and long
   brown robe, Mr Bin Laden looks every inch
   the mountain warrior of mujahedin legend.
   Chadored children danced in front of him,
   preachers acknowledged his wisdom.

In a second article he wrote about the same meeting, Fisk upgraded bin Laden's attire from gold-fringed brown robe to "white Saudi robes." But whatever the detail, you get the same message. Here is a man whose face and garb reveal his nobility. Fisk's description bears a close similarity to another account by a British writer of his meeting with an Arab aristocrat. In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom T. E. Lawrence describes his first meeting with Prince Feisal in 1916.

   Feisal looked very tall and pillar-like, very
   slender in his long white silk robes and his
   brown head-cloth bound with a brilliant scarlet
   and gold cord. His eyelids were dropped;
   and his black beard and colourless face were
   like a mask against the strange, still watchfulness
   of his body. His hands were crossed in
   front of him on his dagger.

In Fisk's description, bin Laden was attended by "bearded, taciturn figures" who never strayed more than a few yards from him. In Lawrence's account, Feisal was accompanied by a retinue of slaves who guarded his person and lit his path with lamps. Students of British imperial adventure novels will recognize the genre. The world the writers conjure up is pre-modern, where natural aristocrats, tall and slender, lord over male servants and slaves who are handsome, silent, and strong. The aristocrats are famous for their warrior skills. Their long robes are trimmed with gold and scarlet. They carry daggers in their belts. It is a world without women and it reeks of homoeroticism.

In conjuring up this imagery, Fisk was doing the same as the many European writers who have been drawn to the Arab world over the past two centuries. In his book Muslim Society, the late Ernest Gellner analyzed the nature of the appeal of this pre-modern, feudal order. Gellner wrote:

   The European discovery and exploration of
   Muslim tribal society occurred in the main
   after the French Revolution, and was often
   carried out by men--long before T. E.
   Lawrence--who were possessed by a nostalgia
   for a Europe as it was, prior to the diffusion of
   the egalitarian ideal.... They sought not the
   noble savage, but the savage noble.

This same hankering after the trappings of aristocracy, or anything that smacks of aristocracy, is behind much of the anti-American and anti-Jewish sentiment that now emanates from the European news media, especially in the writings of European leftists such as Fisk.

The aristocratic disdain for American society goes back more than two hundred years. It originated in the presumption that none of Europe's cast-offs would ever amount to anything great. Even Alexis de Tocqueville's otherwise illuminating work Democracy in America stated that only a society based on privilege, never an egalitarian democracy, could produce a great culture. Indeed, all the settler societies of the New World were saddled with the same condescending presumption: no greatness without an aristocracy. It is heavily ironic that leftist authors like Robert Fisk, who imagine themselves the ideological heirs of the French Revolution, now speak more for the world view of the ancien regime.

Similarly, despite the remarkable artistic accomplishments of the Jews throughout Western history, the fact that their own societies contained no aristocrats puts them in almost the same boat as the uncouth settlers of the New World. …

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