FO° Wednesday: More than a Year of Reflections Now

Facts matter but facts alone are not enough. Perspective is key as my father made me realize by giving me history books from four different countries. At Fair Observer, we view the world through many prisms to provide you a healthy and balanced diet on world news.


April 10, 2024 07:31 EDT

Dear FO Reader, 

Last year, my colleague Roberta Campani came up with the idea of a weekly newsletter that would share personal reflections of members of the FO° Community with our readers. Her idea was simple: inject more personality into Fair Observer. 

As members of our FO° Community increasingly realize, we are much more than a publication. We host meetups, we educate young editors, we mentor our authors and we have partnerships with institutions from around the world. In a nutshell, we have created an ecosystem for the exchange of ideas and insights from around the world. FO° Wednesday is our effort to give you insights into that ecosystem through reflections of different members of our team.

We are not born in a log cabin we built ourselves

Peter Isackson announced the launch of FO° Wednesday on April 5, 2023 and we published the first newsletter on April 15. With metronomic Swiss precision, Roberta informs me that this is the 52nd edition of FO° Wednesday. I have returned from India, leaving behind my aging parents in the National Capital Region — the infamously polluted urban sprawl surrounding Delhi. As I sit in the National Press Club in Washington, DC today, I cannot but help think of my parents.

When I was a child, my father gave me four children’s history books to read: Indian, British, Soviet and American. When I would ask him which one of them was true, he would respond with a twinkle in his eye: “That’s for you to figure out.” From an early age, I discovered that history was not memorizing dates and regurgitating irrelevant facts. It dawned on me that history was mythology. Just as the stories of Buddha, Shiva, Jesus and Muhammad are foundational myths for four world religions, history textbooks in high school are foundational myths for nations themselves.

Like religions, nations are human constructs. Just as gods and goddesses have appeared and disappeared over time, so have empires, kingdoms and city states. I am well aware that we are publishing something blasphemous on the day millions of Muslims are celebrating Eid-ul-Fitr. To them, I wish Eid Mubarak even as I treat all religions and all histories as mythologies that capture much truth even as they are not literally true. I owe freewheeling and ecumenical worldview to my father, a great man who was far ahead of his time. 

To add some context, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that my father grew up in difficult circumstances. He lost his father whilst he was still in school. Born in 1943, he grew up in a poor nation, managed to get into one of the top medical schools in the country and then served as a surgeon in the military. In the 1971 India-Pakistan War, he operated 72 consecutive hours and is so old school that he never mentioned this feat to my brother and me. Very early, my father understood the power of narrative and, by giving me those four different history books he shaped the foundational DNA of Fair Observer.

Remembering Edward Halett Carr

When I was a teenager, my father got me Edward Halett Carr’s classic What Is History? It left an indelible impression on me and, in many ways, captures the philosophy underlying Fair Observer. Carr gave the metaphor of the course of history as a moving procession. This procession “winds along, swerving now to the right and now to the left, and sometimes doubling back on itself, the relative positions of different parts of the procession are constantly changing.” With the return of trade wars and actual wars, we are closer to the 1910s or the 1930s than the 1950s or the 1990s. 

Tempting though it may be, the historian is not “an eagle surveying the scene from a lonely crag.” Instead, in Carr’s memorable words, “The historian is part of history.” The historian’s place in the procession determines his or her view of the past. Exactly the same holds true for journalists for what is journalism but history in a hurry or, in other words, the first draft of history.

When I first came to the US, I was amused by American journalists pretending to be eagles with a panoramic view of reality. Like Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times, many seemed to drone: “Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” Yet my American friends curiously seemed to forget the importance of perspective, which is critical to representing and, even more so, interpreting facts.

When I speak to friends around the world about the Russia-Ukraine War or the Israel-Hamas War, this divide is stark. During my trip to India, I met many Muslim friends who were deeply distraught over the Israel-Hamas War. They believed Israel was engaging in genocide and something needed to be done for the poor Palestinians. These same good souls did not care as much for the Ukrainians or the Sudanese or the Armenians whom the Azerbaijanis have kicked out of Nagorno-Karabakh. Many of my American friends tend to sympathize with the Ukrainians much more than with the Palestinians or the Sudanese or other suffering people. 

Whether we like it or not, our sympathies are influenced by factors such as our race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, ideology et al. We do not operate in a vacuum. Therefore, it is important we do not descend into echo chambers. Social media is a whirlpool that feeds us ever narrower and narrowing perspectives, utilizing algorithms to feed us information that cater to our proclivities . If I like one video of Pelé or Johan Cryuff, YouTube feeds me endless classic football videos. The same holds true for any other topic and these social media algorithms create vortexes that suck many people into dark places.

So, my colleagues and I have set out to deliberately publish perspectives we disagree with and organize events where we meet people who hold different points of view. Our journalism is all about viewing the world through different prisms. Yes, we believe facts are important and we spend an awful amount of time fact-checking, but we do not agree with the fictional Dickensian character Mr. Gradgrind that facts are the be all and end all. Instead, we hold true to what my father taught me in the importance of many narratives.

Some years ago, I quipped, “All of history is mythology and all of news is fiction.” I was speaking in jest but many a truth is said in jest. The point I was making is not that news is fiction but there is an element of fiction to the news and the only way we will be aware of this fact is when we get our news from many sources. That is precisely what we strive to provide you. Just eating a diversified diet with many fruits and vegetables is a jolly good thing, so is reading (watching and listening too) the many voices on Fair Observer.

My best wishes and warmest regards, 

Atul Singh
Founder, CEO & Editor-in-Chief

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