Paglia on the Obama Speech

June 10th, 2009

Camille Paglia writes a monthly column at Slate.com.  Her column for this month was published today.  As I’ve said before, “She is what an intellectual should be — an intelligent, educated person who has the courage and strength of mind to breach all boundaries of orthodoxy.”

In this column she deconstructs President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world from Cairo.  Her analysis is spot-on, in terms of what the President said but said poorly, the things he didn’t say but should have, and the opportunities he missed.  Her take on the relationship between the West and Muslims is also very insightful.

From the column:

Barack Obama was elected to do exactly what he did last week at Cairo University — to open a dialogue with the Muslim world. Or at least that was why I, for one, voted for him, contributed to his campaign, and continue to support him. There is no more crucial issue for the future of the West, whose material prosperity masks an increasing uncertainty about its own principles and values. Religion, abandoned by the secular professional class, will continue to be a major marker of cultural identity for most people — even more so during periods of economic or political instability. But the now widespread stereotyping of Islam as medieval and inherently violent and intolerant ensures eternal war. Visionary leaders are vitally needed on both sides to call for mutual understanding and rational coexistence. Yet, post-9/11, troublingly few voices of Muslim moderation have emerged.

Obama’s speech (which I read rather than heard) seemed to my teacher’s eye like a strong first draft rather than a polished final product. This could and should have been one of the most important documents in American political history. But any president, given the crushing onus of his daily agenda, needs help from a team of speechwriters and advisors who will flesh out his thoughts and argument with example and detail. Despite his Ivy League background, Obama evidently still lacks a reliable circle of erudite, cosmopolitan analysts like those John F. Kennedy drafted via his Harvard network.

The Cairo speech is well-organized, ticking off central thorny issues region by region. But there is an unsettling slackness and even sentimentality in its view of history. Yes, Obama’s principal targeted audience was moderate Muslims, whom he attempted to woo away from extremism. But the president missed a huge opportunity to speak with equal force to doubters in his own nation, where suspicion of Muslims has sometimes turned ruthless and paranoid. …

Obama’s cursory two-sentence summary of the past relationship between Islam and the West — jumping from “conflict and religious wars” to “colonialism” — seemed vague and timid. While there was a mini-list of Muslim ideas and inventions (including the questionable assertion that we owe our “mastery of pens and printing” to the Arabs), no comparable credit was given to the enormous Western contributions to science, medicine and technology. But the gravest omission was that Obama failed to fully articulate the most basic Western concepts of legal process and civil liberties, which have inspired reformers around the world. The president of the U.S. should be an eloquent ambassador of those ideals wherever he goes.

It was also puzzling how a major statement about religion could seem so detached from religion. Obama projected himself as a floating spectator of other people’s beliefs (as in his memory of hearing the call to prayer in Indonesia). Though he identified himself as a Christian, there was no sign that it goes very deep. Christianity seemed like a badge or school scarf, a testament of affiliation without spiritual convictions or constraints. This was one reason, perhaps, for the odd failure of the speech to acknowledge the common Middle Eastern roots of Judeo-Christianity and Islam, for both of whom the holy city of Jerusalem remains a hotly contested symbol.

Obama’s lack of fervor may be one reason he rejects and perhaps cannot comprehend the religious passions that perennially erupt around the globe and that will never be waved away by mere words. By approaching religion with the cool, neutral voice of the American professional elite, Obama was sometimes simplistic and even inadvertently condescending, as in his gift bag of educational perks like “scholarships,” “internships,” and “online learning” — as if any of these could checkmate the seething, hallucinatory obsessions of jihadism.

…before he can sway hearts and minds, the president will need to show that he understands the ultimate divergence and perhaps incompatibility of major creeds. At the finale, his recitation of soft-focus quotes from the Koran, Talmud and Bible came perilously close to a fuzzy New Age syncretism of “all religions are the same” — which they unequivocally are not. The problem facing international security is that people who believe something will always be stronger and more committed than people who believe nothing — which unfortunately describes the complacent passivity of most Western intellectuals these days.

On Obama’s performance in dealing with the economic crisis:

Within the U.S., the Obama presidency will be mainly measured by the success or failure of his economic policies. And here, I fear, the monstrous stimulus package with which this administration stumbled out of the gate will prove to be Obama’s Waterloo. All the backtracking and spin doctoring in the world will not erase that major blunder, which made the new president seem reckless, naive and out of control of his own party, which was in effect dictating to him from Capitol Hill. The GOP has failed thus far to gain traction only because it is trudging through a severe talent drought. But the moment is ripe for an experienced businessman to talk practical, prudent economics to the electorate — which is why Mitt Romney’s political fortunes are steadily being resurrected from the grave.

On the Sotomayor nomination to the Supreme Court:

Federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, seems like a shoo-in. The hasty attempts by right-wing talk radio to dismiss her as a “mediocrity” comically misfired when it sank in that Sotomayor was a 1976 summa cum laude graduate of Princeton University — at a time when Princeton had only recently gone coed and when its academic standards were still high. Her childhood experiences in a working-class immigrant neighborhood in New York certainly deepened her perspective and, as long as she demonstrates a record of professional objectivity, should properly be part of what she brings to the highest court.

But Sotomayor’s vainglorious lecture bromide about herself as “a wise Latina” trumping white men is a vulgar embarrassment — a vestige of the bad old days of male-bashing feminism when even the doughty Ann Richards was saying to the 1988 Democratic National Convention: “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” What flatulent canards mainstream feminism used to traffic in! Astaire, idolized even by Mikhail Baryshnikov, was one of the most brilliant and peerless dancers and choreographers of the 20th century. The agile but limited Ginger Rogers, a spunky, smart-mouthed comedian, is only a footnote. Get real, girls!


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5 Responses to “Paglia on the Obama Speech”



  1. Kevin |

    Yes, Obama’s principal targeted audience was moderate Muslims, whom he attempted to woo away from extremism. But the president missed a huge opportunity to speak with equal force to doubters in his own nation, where suspicion of Muslims has sometimes turned ruthless and paranoid.

    Firstly, it is a fundamental mistake to filter the president’s speech through the eyes of academia (i.e., “seemed to my teacher’s eye…”) precisely because it wasn’t intended to be an academic paper.

    Secondly, using the speech to speak with equal force to doubters in his own nation would have undercut it and diminished the self-evident point of the speech. The Muslims he was speaking to aren’t ignorant. They know as well as the president that many Americans, particularly TheoCons, are unswayable by what any president might say unless it just happened to coincide with what their preacher says is God’s will.

    The fact that Obama’s target audience was not Westerners is no reason to ass-u-me that they’re any more/less ignorant of our political and ideological dynamics than Westerners like Paglia are about their political and ideological dynamics.

    Tom, you’ve mentioned in the past that you spent some time learning from a Rabbi and that this has informed your view of the Middle East. Well, I did something similar but in my case it was a Moroccan intellectual. I’m not so arrogant as to think that I therefore now understand all Arabs or all Muslims. But it was very surprising how misguided, mindlessly myopic and flat out arrogant many of my neat and concise then-conservative ideological premises turned out to be.


  2. Harvey |

    Pagila writes a brilliant column! I’m sure you don’t expect me to have anything negative to say (LOL!) but of course I do.

    I agree completely with her take on “Obama’s Waterloo” — he is mismanaging the economic crisis so badly it actually, literally, makes me scared. My only hope is that the things he’s doing are reversible and are reversed before the freemarket is completely destroyed and we are all taxed to death. I’ve said that all along and now you have a source you trust saying basically the same thing.

    Her take on Sotomayor is very realistic but I’m not as optimistic as Pagilia that Sotomayor CAN be objective — I believe she’s carrying too much ‘Latina baggage’.

    That leave her analysis of Obama’s speech to the Muslim world. She focused quite a bit on religion and, no argument, it’s an important topic but she seems to have lost sight of the fact that we can understand the Muslim religion until Hell freezes over and it will not change the fact that individuals and masses of individuals will continue to pursue those “seething, hallucinatory obsessions of jihadism.” She calls the common understanding of Islam being “medieval and inherently violent and intolerant” a stereotype! It’s not a stereotype it is a perception; it is a fact that to the Western ear, eye and mind and in relation to 99% of Western Religions, Islam IS “medieval and inherently violent and intolerant.” I understand very well that the vast majority of Muslims are probably peace-loving, kind, very tolerant and abhor violence — but they are not the problem!

    Pagila concludes with a search for “visionary leaders” on both sides who will “call for mutual understanding and rational coexistence” instead of what is really needed: powerful and respected Islamic clerics on THEIR side who can use their influence to bring an end to terrorism — if that is even possible. OUR SIDE has been calling for mutual understanding and rational coexistence for years but ours is a voice the terrorists will not listen to — not even when the voice belongs to our charismatic, half-Muslim president.


  3. Tom |

    Kevin, the “seemed to my teacher’s eye” comment was, I’m sure, related to both form and the manner in which the ideas were developed, or incompletely developed. Nothing wrong with that.

    I get the implication in your last paragraph. However, I’ve never said that studying Judaism “informed my view of the Middle East” in general terms. That’s only part of the picture. I’ve also read extensively on Islam and lived, worked, and traveled in Muslim-majority countries in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. That included discussion of Islam with people at all levels. Now that we’ve compared sizes, can we return to discussion without the ad hominem element?

    Harvey, I agree that there are those among Muslims who are “medieval and inherently violent and intolerant.” They’re the ones we have to worry about because they want to kill us and have done so in the past. But that characterization obviously doesn’t apply to all Muslims, and we have to keep that in mind. I would, by the way, say that some Christian fundamentalists are medieval and intolerant. The only thing that’s missing is the large-scale commitment to violence, and that makes all the difference.

    You diminish the quality of your argument when you refer to President Obama as “half-Muslim.” He says he’s a Christian, and that declaration of faith is as valid as anyone else’s statement of religious belief.


  4. Kevin |

    You misread both the point and the substance of that last paragraph, Tom. It wasn’t about comparing sizes or anything of the sort. The point simply was and is that every one of us, whether we admit it or not, filters or comprehends the outside world through the lenses of our past experiences, beliefs and ideologies. It is neither good, bad nor indifferent. It just is the way that it is. And if something informs ones view on a subject, that literally means that it added to it. There is nothing about that word or that phrasing which implies anything approaching totality. In fact, it rather directly implies that one already had an a priori understanding which was then informed or added to.


  5. Harvey |

    The “half-Muslim” comment was not intended as a slur! In the eyes of his audience, and in his own words in the speech, he specified that he is of half Muslim and half non-Muslim parentage. My point was: I believe he thought that his parentage would get him a “foot in the door” of the Muslim world — and I believe he was wrong.


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