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Responses to Obama's Speech: An Attitudinal National and Ethnic Divide?

Links added

In scanning the progressive press, I’d like to add an observation to Idrees’ survey of the online reaction to Obama’s speech about an interesting pattern that seems to have emerged. A list follows by way of illustration, and then I’ll draw out why I think a significant attitudinal divide may exist and speculate about why it is there.

Largely Lauding

Largely Skeptical

  • Ali Abunimah (A Bush in sheep’s clothing)
  • As’ad Abu Khalil (Chicanery and intelligence-insulting, vapid and sinister)
  • Yaman @ Kabobfest (“A little Qur’an here, a little civilizational worth there, and abracadabra, the Muslims are happy again!)
  • Ahdaf Soueif (Global moral standing still elusive if sectional interests prevail — my précis)
  • Hossam el-Hamalawy (“Republicans screw the Arabs. Democrats screw the Arabs, but with a smile,” is a popular saying among the dissidents’ circles in Egypt.)  See also el-Hamalawy’s (aka the Arabist) pre-speech NYT Op-Ed.

Somewhere in between


  • Noam Chomsky (omissions are telling: ‘What Obama Didn’t Say in His Cairo Address Speaks Volumes About His Mideast Policy’, actually tending more towards critical)
  • Jennifer Loewenstein (critical israeli perspective, argues that alleged differences between Obama and Netanyahu are mostly semantic)
  • Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani (thanks Ludek) (‘Obama Talks Democracy, Endorses Dictatorship’)

The import of Obama’s speech is certainly to be measured as much in the whole world as in the Middle East and in the all-important, nay critical, political epicenter and constituency of the United States. As Yaman @ Kabobfest notes, “Obama’s speech is probably more important for non-Muslims in the West to hear than for Muslims either in the West or elsewhere”, at the same time acknowledging that in many of his comments, “Obama normalized the Muslim presence in American discourse. … Even the Arabic word for school (madrasa) has been criminalized in this country. That we need this kind of intervention in the first place reflects more poorly on American society that it does positively on Obama, but his words may have these effects nevertheless.”

That Obama’s speech was pitched as much for those outside the Middle East and especially in the States as it was for people in the Middle East is also explicitly acknowledged by Philip Weiss, who opined that the speech was pitched to American Jews.

It is interesting then that the selective scan of the Anglophone progressive press (above) reflects this. Those who generally, albeit cautiously, laud Obama’s speech in my sample above all happen to be American Jews. They have been prominent as among the earliest endorsers and most effusive in their praise of Obama’s Cairo address, noting such things as the fact that Obama did not mention the words ‘terrorism’ or ‘global war on terror’ as his predecessor did, that he proffered some acknowledgment of the plight of Palestinians for justice and statehood as legitimate and that he made mention of the illegal israeli settlements.

That this is taken to represent such praise-worthy progress arguably reflects a great deal about the climate of opinion in the US and how, on this issue, it may still be significantly out of synch with, rather than leading, the rest of the world.

In contrast, those largely skeptical and who proffered more critical analyses are more likely to be Arabs or have Muslim or Middle Eastern backgrounds. I base this on my sample above as well as my own observations (see also Juan Cole‘s round-up of reaction in the Syrian and pan-Arab press as compiled by the Open-Source Centre). In an excellent piece already highlighted by Neil and Robin for example, Ali Abunimah rightly points out that the blindspots are still very much there, on Palestine, as well as the continuity of policy disasters, on Iraq, on Afghanistan. Writers in the skeptic’s camp express mostly respectful skepticism (more scathing in Abu Khalil’s case) and disappointment in Obama’s address, in his silence on Gaza, in his failure to bring Israel to account, in his prescriptions for a Palestinian state that will require not just criticism of settlement expansion, but evacuation of existing illegal settlements.

Certainly, the significance of Obama’s speech, and that it is seen to represent substantive progress by our friends above, is best understood in relation to the context from which it emerges.  On one reading, that Obama’s speech is more strongly praised within American and specifically progressive Jewish American circles may simply reflect just how lopsided the narrative still is in mainstream US media — in large part because of the Israel Lobby — or simply the fact that Americans are more likely to come out in support of “their man.”

Another hypothesis about this apparent division into optimistic (naive?) or skeptical (jaded?) positions is that a perspectival dissonance exists that might in part simply be a function of hegemony. The view from the political margins is very different from that of the epicenter of privilege and influence, notwithstanding the fact that Abu Khalil and Abunimah, for example, both currently live in the United States, the point about marginalization still applies. (Contrast their views with New York-born founder of the Arab-American Institute James Zogby in ‘Right Man, Right Place, Right Time‘). Note also that I am basing this specifically on the Anglophone progressive press, not on vox pop opinion that might be randomly recorded.

It is true that the positives ought not be unduly dismissed, and that some progress in transforming the framework of debate may yet yield substantive results given that the US is the most consequential climate of opinion in the world. Yet the dangers of reading too much into Obama’s speech and overstating the extent to which it represents a real shift are also there. MJ Rosenberg’s comments illustrate this tendency to read what he wishes into Obama’s address, in his statement that “Not only did the speech specifically reject western (and American) colonialism, its entire tone was the antithesis of colonial.” [!]

In virtually the same breath, Rosenberg then exercises rather than exorcises that colonial attitude, by rather patronisingly proclaiming that:

Arab leaders who were listening to this speech might want to consider a similar speech of their own to their people. That is not going to happen. But they have to realize that this speech will significantly raise expectations among their own people. This is the kind of speech they have never heard before, and they will expect something like it, but from their own potentates next time.

What they might expect, Mr Rosenberg, is that their freedoms might not be clamped down by regimes that are propped up with US military aid. Is that going to happen from your ‘potentates’? Who have underwritten and excused Israel’s potentates?

Let’s continue to work for justice, but not succumb to hopenosis. Dispensing with the overt and vestigial ‘othering’ will help bridge this divide too.  Yalla!

See comments for additional links.

22 comments on “Responses to Obama's Speech: An Attitudinal National and Ethnic Divide?

  1. RickB
    5 June, 2009

    [PS. there is a malware warning on clicking to Floyd’s site, the result of a minor hack now apparently fixed.]

  2. Christian Avard
    5 June, 2009

    What a great run down. Thanks Ann!

  3. peoplesgeography
    5 June, 2009

    Please do, appreciate the link. I welcome any other reviews we can add to the mix. Thanks, Rick.

  4. Christian Avard
    5 June, 2009


    Khaleed Meshaal, head of Hamas’s political bureau, is in the “somewhere in between” category.

    Helenna Cobban has the interview.

    Coming up…. Jack Shaheen :)

  5. Pingback: Taking Obama’s Pulse « Ten Percent

  6. peoplesgeography
    5 June, 2009

    Christian, terrific, looking forward to your interview.

    Great to see the Helena Cobban link, much appreciated. Will read it now.

  7. qunfuz
    5 June, 2009

    Great analysis, Ann

  8. Christian Avard
    5 June, 2009

    Ann et al,

    Put Jack Shaheen in the “largely lauding” category. It was actually a great interview. I think you’ll like what he has to say. Stay tuned.

  9. Pingback: Israelis and American Jews in Jerusalem React to Obama's Cairo Speech | Prose Before Hos

  10. Eli Stephens
    5 June, 2009

    Completely skeptical: Left I on the News

  11. Christian Avard
    5 June, 2009

    James Zogby, of the Arab-American Institute said it was the right time, the right place, and the right president. File him under “largely lauding.”

  12. 99
    5 June, 2009

    What made me stand up on my hind legs and start barking at my monitor was his gall to quote the Qur’an on truth, when he was clearly in the midst of doing what is called in the vernacular “dazzling ’em with his bullshit”. Then, too, the bit about killing one being equal to killing all mankind was hard to bear from his lips, given the givens.

    The one part of his speech I could not fault was the part about women’s equality. This is a weird position to find myself in because I’m pretty much of a jerk on feminism, hate whiners ruining my life and other women’s lives with their glorification of victimhood, hate male feminists making this worse, want to box heads when people speak as though women actually are somehow lesser while purporting to be speaking in favor of remedying that. If I didn’t know that there are so many women in Afghanistan who want education and freedom from the burqa, the power to determine their own lives, I might have found all kinds of fault with his assertions in that section of his speech, but I do know that. So that part trips me up.

    I noted that he paid lipservice to every point the Iranians have laid down for conditions of engaging in diplomacy, without seeming to be doing that. The problem still is that he’s only said it. The problem still is that no matter what he says or how impeccably, every single time he gives a speech it is just another batch of mere words to make us waste our time analyzing in place of the action we ought to expect to be analyzing. And his action has, so far, been almost completely at variance with his words.

    People go on about how much is on his plate, how much he is doing already, and it is true that he’s got his stamp now on an awful lot of stuff. Virtually indistinguishable from the last administration’s, too. I’m irked that I can’t rid myself of that last grain of hope that he’ll suddenly snap out of it, snap out of his lifelong capitulation to the politically astute moves while, clearly, staying dazzled by his own bullshit… ceding so reliably his own ideals and morals without even knowing that’s what he’s doing because he is SO good with the soaring oratory, even in his thoughts. This is called “hubris”.

    People fail to recognize that hubris is not a consciously understood phenomenon in those who err with it. They are so convinced of the practical excuses for it that they completely obscure the brute fact of it from their own realization.

    I wish to hell he’d just SHUT UP and start doing a good job. Islam would be won over THAT way. As long as he’s talking, NOBODY should waste their time listening.

    I say this after wasting a few hours on this yesterday. I get the transcendental aspects after I’ve had a chance to sleep on it, let my REAL sense weigh in. I’m bugged that I have to be asleep to drop my own idiocy enough to get at the real, but, well, at least I do it at all….

  13. atheo
    6 June, 2009

    Another entry from beyond the limits of foundation funding:

    Obama Speech: Part Vapid and Part Sinister
    by As’ad at Angry Arab Blogspot

  14. peoplesgeography
    6 June, 2009

    Thanks guys. I see the punditry in places like HuffPo has continued to be mostly praising of the speech, even people like Deepak Chopra have weighed in (‘superlative cobweb-clearing speech, content wasn’t exceptional’ but also patronising and preachy about the claimed ‘inability of “good” Muslims to stand up for change’ and the human rights deficit in the region is ‘tolerated’ by the US). It seems Obama will get credit simply for not being George W Bush.

    See also Jennifer Loewenstein, a critical israeli perspective: How Much Really Separates Obama and Netanyahu? and contrast it with UK-based Gilad Atzmon’s God Blessed America, decidedly in the lauding camp.

  15. atheo
    6 June, 2009

    A real let down from Atzmon (God Bless America???). It just goes to show that people can be wrapped up in their own personal experience and blind to global events beyond.

    Dreyfuss too is disappointing. This is a defining subject. One wonders what they are thinking. Sympathy toward the speech is in fact acceptance of the GWOT.

  16. peoplesgeography
    7 June, 2009

    Atheo, I found the Atzmon piece surprising as well.

    A few more interesting reviews:

    * John V. Whitbeck, Obama’s Historic Speech – A Post-Mortem
    * Farzana Versey, The Oprahfication of Obama
    * Justin Raimondo, Obama in Cairo: Words, Words, Words

    It was interesting to see Hamas official Ahmad Yousef interviewed by CNN just a couple of days ago. That would have probably been far less likely in the Bush era.

    With the Lebanese elections today, and Iran’s on June 12, we will see what policy emanates from the Obama administration: that will certainly be instructive as to their attitudes and intentions as measured up against the rhetoric, as well as on I-P.

  17. 99
    7 June, 2009

    I don’t mean to be contrary, but why do we need to measure against the rhetoric? We have all kinds of basis already to know for sure we can shitcan the rhetoric. Just in the last couple days we find that Obama is trying to make it legal to cover up war crimes, and to make it legal for Gitmo detainees to commit suicide by guilty plea. On Friday night Jeremy Scahill covered a lot of the other horrifying stuff on Moyers Journal [16 minute video]… which very eloquently blew holes in this performance vaunted by some and reviled by others. I don’t think anyone should listen to him, but everyone should watch what he does. Much safer.

  18. peoplesgeography
    8 June, 2009

    Indeed, well put, 99.

  19. 99
    8 June, 2009

    I’m trying to keep the hysteria out of my voice….

    I am noting that groupthink is attributing a pro-Western win in Lebanon to the efficacy of His Royal Charmingtude’s speech, which is adding insult to my injury, big time.

    I was rooting for Hezbollah, and I hope, hope, hope the election was not rigged and that the Lebanese people haven’t made a fatal error.

    I’m going back to listening to Terry Eagleton, now, because he’s having a great soothing effect on my mounting hysteria….

  20. peoplesgeography
    8 June, 2009

    99, a March 14 win is OK, the Hezbollah-led opposition is still represented and there is much evidence that HA (who only fielded 11 candidates) didn’t necessarily want to be in the government for a number of reasons as various people have observed, including As’ad Abu Khalil (and here) and Paul Salem (‘Why Hezbollah Doesn’t Really Want to Win‘). I’m happy that the elections were conducted smoothly and safely, largely without incident except for a few minor scuffles. Let’s see what happens in the weeks ahead.

    The main result is that the configuration in the new Parliament replicates much the same numbers as the last one. The current projection at time of writing is around 67 71 seats for the US-Saudi-backed March 14 bloc, 52 for March 8 (Hezbollah and its Christian FPM and other allies) — the outgoing Parliament had 70 and 58 for the Government and Opposition respectively.

    As the HA & Aoun-hostile Fisk points out, March 14 did not win decisively. I anticipated that the result would be even closer myself. I am however disgusted at some zio media’s characterizations that a HA win would have meant an “Islamic state” and that it would have provoked a war with israel. A public broadcaster here in Australia, SBS, focused in its nightly news an inordinate amount of attention on what israel thought of the election outcome and fawned over the response that it was “relieved”. Who flipping cares, SBS? The broadcaster’s credibility has gone done the drain.

  21. 99
    8 June, 2009

    Thanks. Makes me feel some better. I think I am so sick of the greed and violence and void of lucidity in our leadership that I’m just flipped into total freedom fighter cheerleader mode.

    Honestly, I can be so thick sometimes! It took me forever to figure out what people meant by the meme: “Make no mistake, Iran means us harm,” and then immediately following it with some variation of the “supporting terrorists” talking point. I was hearing it even from Plame’s husband, Wilson. I always immediately responded with loud questions. What do you have to support the claim they mean us harm? And WHAT terrorists? What am I missing?”

    Those were genuine questions. It finally occurred to me that they meant Hezbollah and Hamas. Even as I knew they had been designated as such, it still didn’t sink in that anybody actually THOUGHT that. I think I didn’t let it sink in because it was too psychedelic, too hard to accept in a mind so unwilling to brook the kind of cognitive dissonance formerly reserved for POW camps in Korea.

    Anyway, my point is: This then set me immovably in favor of political victories for these two groups, where I had only just admired them for putting their lives on the line to improve the lives of their brothers and sisters before.

    Very hard to work those old movies from my childhood out of my heart. The best and the bravest always won. That never seemed fantastical to me. It seemed right.

    I’m glad to know that in this instance the best and the bravest, from my way not informed enough point of view, may have gotten just what they wanted. Thank you.

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This entry was posted on 5 June, 2009 by in Media, Middle East, US Foreign Policy and tagged .

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