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Obama's hit -- and big miss

His Cairo speech was good -- but good enough? Plus: U2, Depeche Mode and one "wise Latina"

By Camille Paglia

Jun. 10, 2009 |

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. For example, while driving recently on the New Jersey Turnpike, I was passed by an SUV with a U.S. Marine Corps sticker and a black-and-white decal that said: "What do you feel when you kill a terrorist? RECOIL." For "terrorist," of course, substitute "Muslim" -- a scenario where a person without a military uniform can nevertheless be instantly targeted for slaughter and where the executioner, wrenched far from his native land, has deadened himself to feel nothing but the kick of his own rifle.

Hence, given the lingering climate of fear and suspicion, I wish that the Cairo speech had been more specific and instructional about Muslim beliefs and culture. Obama's quick and late citations of Andalusia and Córdoba, for instance, could only prove baffling to the majority of Americans, who know virtually nothing about Moorish Spain. 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.

The Cairo speech will certainly not be Obama's final word on this important subject, which I hope will remain on the front burner throughout his presidency. But 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.

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.

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! This is the kind of mushy balderdash I doggedly had to plow through for five years in trying to find a good feminist poem for my collection, "Break, Blow, Burn." I never found one. Rule of art: Cant kills creativity!

OK, on to pop! It's been two decades since I bought my last U2 album. The peripatetic Bono's messianic do-gooder complex plumb wore me out. Then two weeks ago, "Magnificent," a song from U2's latest album, "No Line on the Horizon," came blasting out of my car radio. I was soon in Best Buy at record speed to snag the CD. Here's the video, which takes the strange but compelling conceit of white shrouds being gracefully blown by the wind off the Muslim world. It is a fascinatingly oblique plea for peace and mutual understanding. The lyrics (by Bono and ace guitarist the Edge) at first seemed like a standard love song. Then I suddenly realized they are a manifesto of artistic mission -- of musicians "born to be with you," the audience, and mandated by destiny to "magnify" the joy and beauty of life. Thrilling -- and yes, magnificent!

While I was in the store, I spotted another new release, this time a double disc -- Depeche Mode's "The Singles 1986-98." Where to start? So many of these songs are as fresh and high-impact as they were 20 years ago. "Personal Jesus," with its dark, evangelical power, remains an elegantly forbidding classic. Unfortunately, the official 1989 video is a tacky pastiche of a Mexi-Cali saloon dotted with faux cowboys and emoting Brit girlies. But we get a good look at lead vocalist Dave Gahan, lewdly wiggling his hips and doing his thing -- that inimitable, droning Byzantine dirge. My No. 1 favorite Depeche Mode song, however, is "Never Let Me Down Again," whose whimsical 1987 video does not do justice to its hypnotic power. It never really sank in until I bought this collection that the lyrics of "Never Let Me Down Again," which seem ambiguously gay, can also be read as a scenario of impotence and masturbation. Is this song actually a guy's ode to his penis? Fly, baby, fly!

And now for my cherished interlude, the Daniela Mercury department. I am very grateful to Nilson Junior of Curitiba, Paraná, in Brazil for sending me this video of Daniela at the Festival de Verão in Salvador da Bahia in 2004. He says it shows "how she truly gives everything she has while performing on stage." Daniela had just launched her "Carnaval Eletronico" album and had invited several DJs to join her.

This song was evidently the climax to what had probably been several hours of Daniela's typical nonstop performance. She and her troupe of sexy dancers (all in clingy, vixenish black leather) have worked the immense crowd into a surging delirium. The truly amazing part of the video starts at 4:57, when the song ends and Daniela, exhausted, goes down on her knees and bows, as if praying. As the crowd chants, "Daniela! Daniela!" her back begins to heave with sobs, and she stands up, openly weeping. A bit of fierce, masculine fist-pumping gets her voice back. Then with almost angry militance she says the following (translated by Nilson Junior), twice singing the chorus of her song, "Quero Ver Todo Mundo Sambar":

You have no idea how crazy and thrilling it feels to be on this stage, trying to do something new in a city that has such a strong and wonderful music. And it's because of this amazing traditional music that I try to reinvent my life and work as an artist. I truly believe we should always focus on the future, moving forward. Brazil has everything it takes to make it work and become a great country, and I believe in that and fight for Brazilian music everywhere I go!

Samba is my root
My national anthem
My way of praying
My carnival

Thank you, Salvador, for respecting my madness and freedom of living!

With its hyperkinetic intensity and huge range of raw emotion, this may be one of the most remarkable scenes ever recorded of a contemporary performing artist. How pat, rote and overproduced most music concerts are today. It's through her long experience with vast, open-air audiences in Brazil that Daniela Mercury has gained this kind of electrifying stage presence and power. American popular music needs to break its big-ticket addiction and get back to open-air festival grandeur – where music seems to be the voice of nature.

NOTE: I will be speaking on "Hollywood and the Bible" at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on the evening of Tuesday, June 16. My appearance is part of a lecture series accompanying the museum's summer and fall exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Camille Paglia's column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.

-- By Camille Paglia