In his comment on the little affair on Ware Street, before knowing (as he admitted at the time) any of the all-important details, Barack Obama proceeded to inject himself, and to declare with great self-assurance that the Cambridge police had acted “stupidly” — but if he knew so little about that matter, what business did he have commenting at all? Did he know that seven passersby and many policemen were witnesses to the hysterical and outrageous behavior of a man — his “friend” Henry Louis Gates?
Gates would not listen to Sergeant Crowley, who was repeatedly giving him his name, and continued in the “yo mama” vein and would not shut up. The professor finally was, quite properly — not “stupidly” at all — arrested. He was so quick to simultaneously invoke white racism and “racial profiling” and, at the very same time, to insist on quite another line — the “do you know who I am” approach — to overawe someone he thought would be deeply impressed and not make him, Gates, subject to the same rules as others.
It was a telling moment, for it showed that Obama is willing to speak, with equal assurance and aplomb, about matters about which he knows something, and about matters about which he knows little or nothing. That will not soon be forgotten by a great many people, including many who were his formerly ardent supporters. And it is relevant to his disastrous — intellectually, morally, and geopolitically disastrous — speech on Islam that he delivered in Cairo.
For the Gates-comment fiasco, see the dignified and unanswerable message to be delivered by Crowley to Gates and Obama — the one that was composed by Crowley”s colleague, black sergeant Leon K. Lashley, who was present at Ware Street when Gates was shrieking hysterically and was handcuffed. The whole affair was merely an example of what Obama did in Cairo, again presuming to speak on a subject about which he knew almost nothing, and still does. I don’t think Obama has felt the need to start studying the texts and tenets of islam. I don’t think he has bothered to read Ibn Warraq, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ali Sina, or to watch the youtube appearances of Wafa Sultan. I think he thinks that having a vague view of Islam based on spending a few childhood years at a most unrepresentative school, in a most unrepresentative city, in the least representative Muslim-dominated country, at a time when secularism was at its height and Islam seemed to be on the wane and on the run, is sufficient. (In those pre-OPEC and pre-Muslims-in-Europe days, Islam at least seemed to be on the wane and on the run.) Obama thinks it is sufficient to be conscious of having a biological father who called himself a Muslim, whatever that may have meant to a black African Kenyan nearly a half-century ago, in the then-easygoing and syncretistic quasi-Islam of Kenya at that time.
For someone whose fame and fortune are owed, most critically, to his being elected President of the Harvard Law Review, where editors are supposed to burn the midnight oil in Gannett House seven nights a week, Obama appears to be singularly unbookish. He likes to write books about himself, but does he also like to read them? Doesn’t he feel the need, don’t others around him feel the need, to start reading, to find out what is in the texts, and not to listen solely to the apologists for Islam, of whom there are so very many, and so very many of whom are so well-versed in the arts of dissimulation and deception?
About the Ware Street matter he spoke without having found out very much. He did not realize that Sergeant Crowley was not some Rod-Steigerish fat southern sheriff from a 1960s film, but a sober, articulate, no-nonsense man who had been chosen to teach policemen about “racial profiling.” Nor did Obama apparently know that the man he called a “friend” is not, as he appears to think, someone who is greatly respected either by Africanists (who found his PBS series appalling), nor by many in the field of Afro-American Studies, where Gates has a reputation as a prima donna and academic entrepreneur, not as a scholar as that word is normally understood. For he is above all, as the head of the Du Bois Center at Harvard, a powerful dispenser of favors and money that can help if offered, and harm if withheld. Apparently Obama is unaware of the reviews that raked Gates’ “Africana” effort over the coals for what it included and what it left out, and the quality of its entries. Nor, one assumes, is Obama aware of the scholarly work (see Celeste Bernier and Judie Newman) calling into question, in ways that are unanswerable, the large claims and ballyhoo that Gates produced about that manuscript he bought at the Swann Auction galleries, and proceeded to then sell the publishing rights to Warner Books for an inflated sum. Is Obama unaware of the scholarship? See Celeste-Marie Bernier and Judie Newman, “The Bondwoman’s Narrative: Text, Paratext, Intertext and Hypertext”, 147-166; Tim Lustig, “Missing Intertexts: Hannah Crafts’ The Bondswoman’s Narrative and African American Literary History” 207-239; and Cynthia Hamilton’s long review of H.L. Gates In Search of Hannah Crafts, 305-8.
All that makes a mockery of Gates” confident assertions. Obama is unaware of all this? Why not? Is Obama aware that Gates failed to recognize, in that work, the nearly word-for-word appropriation by its author — most likely not a black woman named Hannah Crafts — of one of the most celebrated passages in all of Dickens, the first paragraph of “Bleak House”? In that passage dinosaurs are invoked to describe a London particular, the fog thus setting the stage for the ruinous pettifoggery of that case in Chancery, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. And elsewhere, I have recently learned, Gates has referred to “My luv is like a red, red rose” as a line by “Shakespeare.” Such astonishing ignorance should raise eyebrows, not least because Gates majored in English as a Yale undergraduate and, unaccountably, received a summa. There is a Barzunian morale to be drawn here — I leave it to you to perform that grim task.
And Obama, for all of the hype about the enormous preparation that went into that Cairo speech, did the same thing when he spoke, with such little intellectual preparation, so self-assuredly (and absurdly) about Islam. The Cairo speech was composed by people who apparently are proud of all the effort they put in, and of how candid they were — just as Obama wanted them to be. But of course he wasn’t candid, for to be fully candid about Islam would have mortally wounded his hearers. But he could cleverly have smuggled in some home truths that would have required his Muslim audience to think, rather than to appeal to those among them who wanted their self-esteem increased, in a sign of tribute from the supposed leader of the Infidel West.
Obama and his speech-writers, so self-conscious of their mission, ought to have remembered that the audience did not consist only or even mainly of deep believers in Islam. He ought to have spoken truths, or at least not spoken so many egregious untruths, to those who, born into Islam, and now perhaps in a state of nascent questioning, would have preferred to have had him state things, obliquely if not directly, that might have raised uncomfortable questions, even while appearing to be simple remarks about, say, the American Bill of Rights, or about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all the ways in which the “Islamic” version — the so-called Cairo Declaration — differ from it, and whether or not these two views of the individual can be reconciled.
None of this was done. And the apostates from Islam — Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan, Ibn Warraq — have publicly or privately expressed their deep dismay, or in some cases their deep outrage and fury, at the damage that Cairo Speech did.
And if it is both the questioning Muslims, and those who have jettisoned Islam altogether, who should have been kept in mind as an important audience, there is yet another audience: all the world’s non-Muslims, in Western Europe, in North America, in Asia, in sub-Saharan Africa, who in various ways are threatened by those who take their Islam seriously, and should not have had to endure a speech so palpably naive about Islam, even as its deliverer and his fellow speech-writers were congratulating themselves on their candor and their bravery.
What a pass we have come to. Held in thrall to an intelligent charmer, but one who on the most pressing matter of the day — the meaning and the menace of Islam — belongs firmly in the Camp of the Innocent, yet chooses to speak, as he did later on the little affair at Ware Street, with great self-assurance, when he had not, alas, earned the right.
Will he learn from this? Does he think the citizens of imperiled Western Europe are impressed with his Cairo Speech? Or the Israelis? Or the Indians? Or the Australians? And ask yourself exactly what gains were made by such a series of misstatements, about Islam as a “religion of tolerance” and so on, when the same hideous massacres of Christians are conducted in Pakistan, and the same violence — prompted by the violence in the texts and teachings of Islam — continues in Iraq, with this or that local enemy playing the role of “Infidel” faute de mieux, as well as in Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
So far, Obama has shown himself as willfully ignorant of Islam as was his predecessor. We will certainly “lose Iraq” in the Bush-Administration sense, and Obama appears not to understand that that “loss” — as sectarian and ethnic conflicts reassert themselves, and if we are lucky, have repercussions elsewhere within the Camp of Islam — will in fact be the only “victory” that should ever have been contemplated. Such a “victory” can have meaning, and credit taken for it, only by those who wish ardently to divide and demoralize the Camp of Islam, and such people must first recognize the meaning and menace of Islam.
This Obama clearly has not done. He has not studied, he has not thought deeply and at length about Islam at all. In his pieties about it, he comes closest to being an echo of George Bush. His pieties, and his policies, with the squandering of men, money, materiel, and morale, have now shifted from Iraq to a theatre in Central Asia. Yet if you live in Western Europe, the menace of Islamic unrest is soon coming to a theatre near you. For until now we in the advanced West, some still with heads in sands and feet in quicksand, have been privy merely to previews of coming attractions.