The word “fisking” — originating in the blogosphere ca. 2001 — has fallen somewhat into disuse in recent years, especially as the ’sphere has expanded to include many who weren’t around back in its earliest days.
For the uninitiated, it refers to a point-by-point refutation of an odious written work, often with an acidic or sardonic tone. The referent is one Robert Fisk, a British columnist whose absurdly self-abegnating columns from Afghanistan made him a pariah, at least until he was forgotten. Forceful responses from bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan gave rise to the term itself.
But this eponym is worth keeping around, and it’s up to armchair cultural anthropologists like yours truly to point out earlier examples of the form where they find them.
Which brings us to the once-popular and still-familiar 1936 book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. I picked up a copy from Amazon recently, and have been reading it on the Metro to work. In one early chapter, Carnegie explains how persuasion is best accomplished by appealing to your persuadee’s self-interest, and as a counter-example reprints a letter from an officious adman and intersperses it with his own commentary. Carnegie introduces the section thus:
This letter was sent to the managers of local radio stations throughout the country. (I have set down, in brackets, my reactions to each paragraph.)
And here, for your reading interest, is a partial reproduction:
Mr. John Blank,
Dear Mr. Blank:
The —— company desires to retain its position in advertising agency leadership in the radio field.
[Who cares what your company desires? I am worried about my own problems. The bank is foreclosing on my house, the bugs are destroying the hollyhocks, the stuck market tumbled yesterday. I missed the eight-fifteen this morning, I wasn’t invited to the Jones’s dance last night, the doctor tells me I have high blood pressure and neuritis and dandruff. And then what happens? I come down to the office this morning worried, open my mail and here is some little whippersnapper off in New York yapping about what his company wants. Bah! If he only realized what sort of impression his letter makes, he would get out of the advertising business and start manufacturing sheep dip.]
This agency’s national advertising accounts were the bulwark of the network. Our subsequent clearances of station time have kept us at the top of agencies year after year.
[You are big and rich and right at the top, are you? So what? I don’t give two whoops in Hades if you are as big as General Motors and General Electric and the General Staff of the U.S. Army all combined. If you had as much sense as a half-witted hummingbird, you would realize that I am interested in how big I am–not how big you are. All this talk about your enormous success makes me feel small and unimportant.]
We desire to service our accounts with the last word on radio station information.
[You desire! You desire. You unmitigated ass. I’m not interested in what you desire or what the President of the United States desires. Let me tell you once and for all that I am interested in what I desire–and you haven’t said a word about that yet in this absurd letter of yours.]
Zing! Dale Carnegie wasn’t warblogger, but he certainly could have fit in with those whippersnappers.
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