• Robert Fisk Challenges Audiences to New Awareness

    • Posted on Dec 01, 2002

    2002 (not sure of exact date) 

    Every so often someone appears who seems from another time and place.  Visionaries, seers, prophets, they connect with a reality unknown to many of their peers. 

    Leonardo da Vinci serves as a visionary's visionary who designed submarines, parachutes, and strange aircraft. In his spare time he designed buildings, weaponry, and oh yes, painted the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. How could one self have contained so many geniuses in so many fields?  

    Da Vinci still outshines them all, and though revered in his lifetime, he wasn’t well understood because he belongs less to his time than ours.  

    Then there's Bartolomeo de la Casa, a Spanish priest and contemporary of Columbus, who openly questioned why the indigenous people of the Bahamas were treated as subhuman by Columbus and his men.  Only recently has de la Casa come to seem like a visionary hero who saw beyond his time.  

    And more recently, Oscar Schindler, who seemed intent on behaving like a decent human being when all around him had become monsters. One still wonders why there weren't more Schindlers in Nazi Germany, but how many visionaries does one find anywhere, at any time? 

    Which brings me to Robert Fisk.  He spoke at UNI last Monday, and though comparing him to Leonardo da Vinci or even Oscar Schindler might be a stretch, he literally goes where most of us refuse to go, and therefore sees more than most. 

    Fisk has interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times, lived in the Middle East for 25 years, and reports regularly from Beirut, Lebanon for the London Independent.  He has a reputation for telling the Palestinian and Arab side of the story, and has gotten into real trouble with both readers and governments.

    On Monday he read several threatening e-mails, and displayed an editorial cartoon which portrays  him as a rabid attack dog.  He lives with such threats daily, and won’t be silenced by them.  

    Whatever else one might say of him, Robert Fisk walks the walk.  

    After September 11, while traveling in Afghanistan reporting on the war, Fisk was attacked by Afghans and beaten.   They treated him as an enemy because he looks Western, which to them meant pro-American.  He’s a British citizen, and probably the best friend in the region those Afghanis could have.  Fisk didn’t excuse his attackers, but he understood their rage.    

    At UNI, Fisk received a standing ovation in Lang Hall for his talk, “Ask Who Did it But For Heaven’s Sake Don’t Ask Why."  The title summarizes his point.  He talked for ninety minutes, detailing his observation that too many Westerners aren’t paying attention to Arab/Muslim grievances.   

    Some would say that his talk was too pro-Arab, that he's a raging leftist imposing his 
    Anti-American propaganda on a gullible minority.  Yet I found his talk simply balanced. It certainly wasn’t all pro-Arab.  He commended a Palestinian journalist for questioning their suicide bombing tactics and flat-out challenged Arabs and Muslims to critically examine their own views. 

     “I sometimes think,” he asserted, “that Arabs are their own worst enemies.”  
    In a recent interview,  Fisk insisted that Bin Laden must be brought to justice, but that Bin Laden speaks for many Arabs when articulating grievances.  Here’s a direct quote:  “. . .unfortunately, Bin Laden puts his finger on other longstanding injustices in the Arab world:  The continued occupation of Palestinian land  by the Israelis; . . .tens of thousands of Iraqi children who are dying under sanctions; the feelings of humiliation of millions of Arabs living under petty dictators, almost all of whom are propped up by the West.” 

    None of this excuses Bin Laden and his Al Queda network. At no point did Fisk try to justify their actions.  However, he takes great pains to detail Arabs’ legitimate complaints that keep getting overlooked.  

    He believes that Arabs aren’t upset about poverty, or about a decadent American democracy so much as constant injustice.  They’ve been mistreated, and they’re out to find respect and justice. That’s Fisk’s basic message, and it’s not what most of us want to hear.  

    Too often we lump the terrorists with all Arabs, demonizing rather than understanding. 
    And we continue to support dictatorial regimes as long as they seem to support us.

    That policy only creates more anti-American feelings.  

    To prevent terrorism in the long run, we must examine root causes and be brave enough to admit we’re wrong.  We’ve finally admitted our mistaken policy in Vietnam.

    Maybe it’s time to own up to our mistakes in the Middle East.  

    Robert Fisk, reporter and visionary, can show us why.  

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  • A Classic Revisited: Jack Kerouac's ON THE ROAD

    • Posted on Jun 30, 2002


     Every now and again we need to return to sources, to the originals that most everyone seems to have copied.  If nothing else, it keeps us humble.  

     In 1957, a novel came out that set the stage not just for dozens of later novelists, but  that gave voice, meaning, and a name to an entire "Beat" generation.

    I read Jack Kerouac's ON THE ROAD last week, somewhat dutifully at first, then with enthusiasm, and finally with amazement.  Though written nearly a half-century ago, Kerouac's novel offers insights that connect more than ever to the realities that define America and Americans.

    What does being an "American" mean, after all? 

    As Kerouac acutely observes, Americans are seekers, people consumed with setting out to find--well, what?  A better life, better jobs, good times, adventures, spirituality, happiness, themselves.  You name it, restless Americans are trying to find it. 

    Kerouac's characters believe that "it" can't be found by staying home.  Just as America itself was founded by pilgrims and adventurers from Europe, post WWII America got redefined by wanderers, beatniks, hipsters, then hippies, and most recently by alienated grungers.  Seekers all, sometimes outlaws, never passive, often infuriating for their convention-flouting.

    These Americans aren't political in the usual sense.  Kerouac himself wanted nothing to do with left-wing hippies, openly supported the Vietnam war, and befriended  archconservative William F. Buckley. 

    However, in a larger sense, Kerouac and his spawn are hugely political, meaning catalysts for cultural change.  Where politicians try to change the political and legal landscape, American seekers change how an entire culture perceives itself.

    They're heroes and role models for the young, dangerous rebels and outlaws for the old.  The more they behave as outlaws, the more the young seem drawn to them. 

    Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marlon Brando, a host of Jack Nicholson characters--all could have jumped out of the pages of Kerouac's novel. What American male born from the forties to the sixties, and even later, hasn't been influenced by one or more of these iconic figures?  

    Yes, they're all white males, and that's a problem.  Marilyn Monroe and Madonna types do appear in Kerouac, but as bit players who invariably get used and dumped.  Kerouac died in 1969, so didn't live to see many women rebels.  

    Aside from his sexist blinders, Kerouac saw clearly into the vital heart of America, its most powerful essence:  Passionate lovers of life, rebellious seekers as American archetypes who keep the culture from stagnating, but at a huge cost to themselves.  

    ON THE ROAD tells the story of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, who first connect as soul-friends, and end up barely speaking, sad and disillusioned.  They crisscross the country from New York to Denver to San Francisco and back, meeting hobos, drifters, poets, prophets, insane homeless down-and-outers, visionaries. 

    What becomes of people who take to the road to find "it"?  At bottom, they're romantics and idealists,  convinced there's a better world out there they can have for the taking.  They all seek, but few find. 

    Most end up disillusioned, angry, broke,  even small-time crooks.  They can't make a living or a life on the road.  These pilgrims become pirates, addicted to rebellion for its own sake, lost in alcoholic and drug fogs,  embittered and suicidal.

     Kurt Cobain serves as a fairly recent example, as did John Belushi, River Phoenix, and any number of less famous lost souls who seem drawn from Kerouac's Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty characters. 

    Such hipsters live a story that begins as the American Dream, a desire for freedom, adventure, something entirely new, and ends as the American Nightmare, a sad parody of itself, innocence not only lost, but destroyed.

    Kerouac's ON THE ROAD reveals all this with such good-natured wit that it's hugely entertaining and memorable.

    And for erstwhile American seekers, frightening.




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