Requiem for a Question Period
June 8, 2006

“I was hoping that you could speak to the current situation in Saudi Arabia,” he said, and left the microphone to return to his seat.  And for a moment, I thought that the curse had been lifted: there stood the heroic Robert Fisk on stage, having just delivered a staggering half-hour presentation to the massive Vancouver audience assembled at the Maritime Labour Centre, and the question period had opened with a sincere, legitimate question.  No preamble, no posturing; simply an audience-member looking for more information, and requesting it in the most unadorned language.  Fisk answered to the best of his abilities, and as we moved on to the next questioner, I wondered if this time it might be different – different from any other question period I had experienced at the countless left-wing forums that I had attended in my life.

The next crowd member to ask a question was a handsome and honey-voiced South Asian man whose purple-prose preamble grated the rest of us despite its pleasantly-accented British English (even Fisk prodded him gently, ‘Question!  Question!’).  The famed journalist then scanned the room, asking for gender parity, picking out an attractive middle-aged woman whom I might just as easily as Fisk have mistaken for a interested observer if I didn’t already know her to be an active conspiracy-monger.  Fisk was lambasted for toeing the Bush-party line on 9/11.

“Bin Laden’s confession was written with his right hand – but bin Laden’s left-handed!” she said.  “Seven of the hijackers are still alive,” she continued, after handing an informational DVD to the sporting Fisk. “I mean, how stupid can we be?”

Next an old man stood up to ask a cryptic question about Pearl Harbour.  After that, a muttering fellow whom my friend identified as the custodian of a locally-based anti-Semitic blog chastised Fisk for thinking the Yanks were in Iraq for the oil when in fact they only went to war for Israel.  My friends and I gathered up our jackets and snuck out at this point, myriad visions of other question periods at other public talks I’d been to dancing in my head.

There was the episode in which an artsy Main Street small businessman began screaming unintelligibly at renowned author and anti-war activist Tariq Ali.  There was Noam Chomsky’s lecture at the Orpheum at which a pompous young Zionist told us his life story in order to illustrate how far he’d come since his earlier, more radical days, which had included his working on a Chomsky forum elsewhere.  “Your views haven’t changed much, mine probably have,” said the undergraduate to the man dubbed the world’s most important intellectual, even by the corporate press that he routinely excoriates.  There was the Michael Parenti talk at which a must-have-been-stoned audience member told Parenti how much better he was than Chomsky, and then proceeded to ask what role “machismo” had played in some or another military campaign.

Not once, that I can remember, have I felt satisfied with or enlightened by a question period.  Invariably, the sectarians; the bully-boys; the blowhard men in the audience make their way to the microphones or throw their hands in the air (and wave them while we just don’t care what they have to say).  Members of small, dogmatic political organizations weasel their way into the spotlight in order to denounce or correct an esteemed speaker brought in from out of town in order to share new information, insight and analysis with a crowd that has paid to see them.  In the rare instances in which this is not taking place, questioners have been formulating the precise wording of their interventions since halfway through the talk in order to maximize the articulateness of their mini-presentations.

What’s more, I don’t know anybody on the left who doesn’t feel the same way as I do about question periods.  The social experience of leaving the event together, chatting amongst ourselves about the talk as we disperse, sincere question-askers rushing to shake hands with the speaker – these are all lost as instead we sneak away, handfuls at a time, the atmosphere often destroyed by a thoughtlessly belligerent question from somebody with an axe to grind.

So let’s do ourselves a favour – let’s forget the question period.  We’ll casually break into groups for coffee, for drinks, for late dinners after the presentations.  We’ll talk to the speaker herself if there’s anything pressing to be asked, and maybe invite her along.  But if I have to hear about WTC Building 7 at one more forum whose subject matter is anything but, I think I’m going to scream.


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