Obama’s Symmetries

I hadn’t fully realized it before reading the text of Obama’s speech in Cairo but what is certainly most interesting, in my view at least, about Obama’s rhetoric is his sense no issue has been properly represented until it has been satured with symmetries.  This seems to be a compulsion on the President’s part or, more productively, a habit.  So, I am going start paying attention to Obama’s discourse in these terms–as the construction of a set of symmetries, across a continuum ranging from sensible but obvious, to startling and provocative, and  finally to outrageous and obscene.  Where and when he crosses over from one “region” to another should be telling; and it is likely that this rhetorical focus will yield insights into not only Obama’s own thinking and likely political direction, but to what he represents for so many–what those many take him to be transcending, and how.  And I am happy to start here, with the Cairo speech, because despite the challenging topic and venue, it seems to me that Obama kept the portion of outrageous and obscene symmetries to a minimum.

Here’s the speech:


Let’s start with the following symmetry, offered as a cause of current “tension” between the United States and Muslims:

More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

This is a good place to begin.  “More recently” seems to cover a large period of time here–and sometimes you need a lot of time if you are going to establish an equivalence.  “Colonialism” was not only quite a while ago but also actually very brief and had little effect in the Muslim world–from the middle to late 19th century until the mid 20th, and with the exception of the French in Algeria in particular, the occupation of Muslim lands was not heavy handed.  What little constitutionalism ever existed in countries like Iraq and Egypt seems to have been left there by the British–and then swept away afterward.  The Cold War is a little more “recent,” but with the famous exception of helping to install (or re-install) the Shah back in 1953, it would be very hard to give an example of a Muslim government that would have been very different if not for America’s insensitivity toward the wishes of the people of that country (perhaps Indonesia, where we supported a very violent suppression of a Communist rebellion in 1965–are Muslims complaining about that?).  But this broad temporal sweep also enables Obama to put the Islamists’ rejection of modernity in a larger context that would, implicitly, at least, implicate the Muslim world as a whole in that rejection.  So, our representation of modernity in the Muslim world has been bullying and hence gave modernity a bad name; while many in the Muslim world, perhaps because they over-generalized from those actions of ours, or because modernity and globalization are hard (for us as well), have failed to distinguish better from worse elements of modernity.  Now, if we set aside all questions of truth and fairness, and just think in originary terms of the purpose of such supposed symmetries (on the originary scene, who first reached for the object, who first elbowed another out of the way, etc., is all irrelevant once the sign is extended), we must judge them as follows:  can acknowledged representatives of both “sides” sign onto these provisions as a starting point, in which case their truth need not be determined until after we have tried to live up to them.  From that standpoint, “we will eschew more aggressive impositions of modernity and globalization if you will determine to embrace some version of modernity and globalization that will get you into the system” seems reasonable.  Of course, what will then count as “aggressive” or “destructive” versions of modernity, what it would mean to get inside the “system,” etc, would all bve open to debate, which would also be part of the point here.

So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.


But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words – within our borders, and around the world. We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum: “Out of many, one.”


Here, on one side, there are “negative stereotypes of Islam” and on the other side the “crude stereotype of America as a self-interested empire.”  The President obliges himself to fight against the former “wherever they appear”; it’s less clear who is obliged to contest the latter.  In other words, there is an odd asymmetry here, which Obama  must have felt was needed for the larger symmetry in which each side opposes stereoytpes of the other.  Perhaps the asymmetry lies in the fact that the speaker can make the initial gesture by obliging himself; he can’t oblige others.  All he can do is disprove the stereoype held by the other.  The extent to which this symmetrical formation holds together depends upon whether the main objection to America on the part of Obama’s audience is, indeed, America’s imperialism, or (another odd phrase) its “self-interestedness” (as opposed to disinterested empires?), which I must assume is an oblique gesture to our “materialism.” In other words, the fact that we have always tried to give meaning to our principles “around the world” must be distinguishable for that audience from the “imperialism” itself.  Otherwise, Obama’s very words here would confirm the stereotype.  On the other side, what will count as a “negative stereotype” of Islam–and in what sense does it fall within the President’s responsibility to fight against them?  This symmetrical formation is more tenuous than the previous one, insofar as the President might be taken to be pledging to oppose those of his fellow citizens who are critical of Islam.  The weakness here may lie in the opposition of “America” to “Islam”–America is a nation and can do good or evil; Islam is a religion which doesn’t “do” anything, so Muslims agreeing to see the US in more complex terms doesn’t really line up with us not saying anything “offensive” about Islam.  Why, then, couldn’t Obama here have contrasted the actions and principles of Americans with the actions and principles of Muslims (as he did in the symmetry I just examined)?  Here, we hit a serious obstacle:  which liberatory or universalistic actions carried out by Muslims as Muslims could Obama have pointed to here?  When he would, by the laws of symmetry, need to point to some complexity (good and evil) in the actions of Muslims, at least in terms of engaging the principles of the modern world, he falls short.  So Obama here has to commit himself and us to something both impossible and wrong–to avoid criticizing Islam.  The alternative would have been to split the “Muslim World,” and single out proponents of democracy and human rights at odds with their government, and whose existence would therefore enable Americans to arrive at a more complex view of Muslims.


Now, here is a symmetry that has already been generating quite a bit of controversy, and is well worth examining:

 Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.


On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.


For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers – for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.


That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest. That is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires. The obligations that the parties have agreed to under the Road Map are clear. For peace to come, it is time for them – and all of us – to live up to our responsibilities.


Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.


Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.


At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.


Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society. And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress. 

 There is a lot to go through here.  Obama begins be weighing, not so much Jewish suffering against Palestinian suffering, as the unacceptability of us today denying either suffering.  That is, I don’t think he is equating what the Palestinians have gone through to the Holocaust–we need to find the point of symmetry, and not every element of each side of the equation has to line up with some element on the other side.  Obama suggests that threatening Israel with destruction today is equivalent to denying the atrocities committed against Jews in the past–actually, a rather subtle and reassuring thought.  Now, let’s go to the “other hand.”  That the situation of the Palestinians is “intolerable” is as “undeniable” as the suffering of the Jews.  (Note the way the imperative of formal symmetry works here–what holds this part of the speech together is the equivalence of “undeniability” that pertains to both Israelis/Jews and Palestinians–a rather thin thread, but it forces Obama to make the connection I just noted between “denial” and “threats.”)  So, America will not reject the claims of either side.  I don’t see what would prevent this from being a starting point:  it is undeniable that threatening Israel with destruction or denying the Holocaust will not resolve anything; and it is equally undeniable that ignoring the situation of the Palestinians will not resolve anything.  All this seems undeniable.  Obama’s reference to the “humiliations of occupation” seems out of date as most of the Palestinians’ territory is presently unoccupied, but this claim is not really necessary to this equivalence, anyway.

Soon after comes the equivalence between the Palestinians and blacks in the American South and non-violent revolts elseewhere.  Here, again, Obama is not saying that Palestinians are “like” American blacks, South African blacks, East European dissidents, etc., in every way–the equivalence here is forward looking and projective and therefore one it would be incumbent upon the Palestinians to redeem.  That is, the comparison is not between different forms of oppression, but different models of liberation.  And, yes, the slaves were freed by the “violence” of the civil war but, again, that doesn’t fall within the scope of the proposed symmetry here, which is between various “sublatern” struggles for liberation against “advanced” nations in the late modern world.  In other words, it’s a salutary redirection of anti-colonial resentments toward more “post-colonial” ones. 

The Israeli side of the symmetry seems to me especially weak here.  Unlike his account of the Palestinians, there is no distinction between what Israel has done and what they should do; there is no proposal of another model for Israel to follow–Israel is just given orders.  “Israel must” is the prevailing locution here and, with the exception of the very vague comment on “continued Israeli settlements,” Obama never acknowledges that Israel might be very willing and may even be trying to do what they “must,” but may need cooperation from the Palestinians.  One consequence of the demand for symmetry here is that Obama “must” insist that Israel hold up its end all the more forcefully precisely because the Palestinians can’t or won’t hold up theirs–in other words, if both sides are in place, you can simply apply pressure wherever it’s likely to be effective.

I do like Obama’s assertion that we will say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs–I don’t remember hearing that in a Presidential speech before.  I also don’t believe it, but it’s a good thing to say, if only because it provides a standard for judging Obama here (why not aim at symmetry here as well, though, and insist that all sides follow the same logic and say the same things publicly and privately?  Would it have been hard to establish an equivalence between Muslims and Israelis on that score, since Israel is already as transparent as any society can be and the divergence between what Muslim governments say to their own people and to others notorious?  So, is that what places certain topics off limits–their resistance to symmetrical rhetorical formulations?).  But, to end this–if anyone wishes to examine other parts of the speech in the comments, I’m game–the biggest problem with symmetries is that they leave out the question, who goes first?  And, in the end, that’s the only question.  I can hypothesize, then, that part of the attraction of Obama is his belief that any conflict or dilemma can be framed in a symmetrical form such that the very framing appears to transcend that conflict or dilemma; and, that the other part is that the symmetries need not, indeed should not, lead to any reciprocal action.  Indeed, if we take those symmetries I have portrayed most favorably, as possible starting points, where, indeed, would one go with them?  Let’s say we go first and stop imposing our forms of modernity and globalization upon the Muslim world–in fact, we can read Obama’s speech as such a going first.  All we will have done is leave the field open for the various competing positions on modernity and globalization to fight it out among themselves–our move ties into no reciprocal action, we can’t point to anyone going in one direction rather than others, someone whom we could join.  Obama can’t even point to more productive approaches to modernity and globalization within the Muslim world–indeed, one strange thing about his speech is that he doesn’t praise anyone doing anything right now–all he does is recognize grievances and propose better models for pursuing them.  To praise some would be to dispraise others, and that would be to impose.  One could say that he therefore represents the Muslim World more negatively than Bush ever did, even though his explicit criticisms are usually very mild.   Obama’s symmetries, then, require us to believe in mass conversion throughout the Muslim world, a spontaneous conversion, in response to Obama’s presence, with Obama himself as the guarantee that the conversion will be reciprocated (here, his bizarre pledge to commit himself to stamping out steretypes of Islam makes sense).  This is the result of the rejection of the attempt made by Bush to split the Islamic world, which ended up splitting the West as well–it is the terror of those entwined civil wars that gives Obama’s symmetries their mystical force, at least for his followers in the West.  For his Muslim audience, Obama’s speech can readily be translated into homilies on the need for self-improvement, but at our own pace–we are already on the way to becoming what we are supposed to be.  Indeed, the proof of that would be that we are addressed by and can appreciate the speech.  There is very little Muslims can do–other than support al Qaeda, deny the Holocaust, etc.–that would leave them outside one of these symmetrical formulations.  And what is now gone is any sense of being monitored by an other, from within the “system”–the symmetries are reversable and allow one to shift one’s gaze back to one’s interlocutor at will.

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2 thoughts on “Obama’s Symmetries

  1. CK MacLeod

    I’m going to be turning this one over in mind for a while, but I’ll say for now I particularly like the observations you work toward at the end, and particularly the passage that connects up to the quasi-messianic, paradoxically as messianic as cynical, aura of Obamaism: “One could say that he therefore represents the Muslim World more negatively than Bush ever did, even though his explicit criticisms are usually very mild. Obama’s symmetries, then, require us to believe in mass conversion throughout the Muslim world, a spontaneous conversion, in response to Obama’s presence, with Obama himself as the guarantee that the conversion will be reciprocated (here, his bizarre pledge to commit himself to stamping out steretypes of Islam makes sense).”

    Somewhat relating to the last point, though not exactly reinforcing it, Ian at Contentions put up a rather daring comment about Obama as crypto-Moslem that’s worth looking up if you missed it:


    What a strange presidency we’re having.

  2. adam Post author

    Regarding Ian’s comment, it may well be that nostalgia for his childhood in the “Muslim World,” plus the leftism that would have taught him to see that experience as more “authentic” than his Americanness, plus his strange sense that somehow his persona represents the transcendence of of West-Islamic tensions and should therefore be foregrounded has led him cultivate, personally and politically, certain signs of Muslimness. At any rate, there is a level of fantasy and cultishness in this Presidency that is unique, to say the least.

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