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Obama’s Bow

16 November 2009

Much as I love reading the likes of Andrew Sullivan and Feministe, I’m making a conscious effort these days not to deliberately stoke my outrage at the hysterical right-wing.  Life is too short to get bent out of shape about the latest outbursts from the Michelle Malkins of the world, and frankly there’s usually nothing truly new to see there–nine times out of ten, it’s the same hate, different day.

But I truly had to laugh at the kerfuffle that President Obama created while in Japan this past week by offering a bow to Emperor Akihito upon meeting him at the Palace in Tokyo.  The right-wing blogosphere, predictably, wasted nary a second in jumping on this gesture as an example of Obama’s degredation of the American position in the world, and a self-effacement that signaled weakness to an ally.  Politico even devoted a thread on ‘The Arena’, a pundit forum, to the question “What Does Obama’s Bow Say?”

The number of times each day that I bow to people, be they above or below my status in the hierarchy of things, is too high to count.  Janitors, secretaries, construction workers, my vice principal, elderly people on the street, checkers at the grocery store, and even just my friends.  Every workday begins with an office meeting that starts with a staff-wide collective bow to each other.  Every class begins with the students standing as one to bow to the teacher–a gesture that the instructor invariably returns.  Yes, there’s a little status involved in how deep one bows, and there are various types of bowing involved in instances of, say public apology.  But suffice it to say that bowing is far more common in Japan than handshakes are in America, and if I have hips that still function once I leave, it will be a small miracle.

So, what does Obama’s bow say?  I think it says that he has a State Department protocol officer who is at least minimally competent (though not competent enough to advise him against the awkward handshake/bow), and that Obama himself might, in all his education, have heard about probably the most distinctive cultural practice in Japan.  Those who are critical of the President frame their hit pieces in terms of ‘deferring to royalty’, or placing himself–and thus, implicitly, the entirety of America–on a lower plane of respect.  Maybe there’s some truth to the latter, actually, and it’s a good thing in the eyes of Japan.  Showing humility here is a sign of wisdom and respect, not timidity or cowardice.  To criticize a gesture that, had it not been made, would have been perceived as an enormous slight by the Japanese media that swarmed around the President’s visit, suggests that the hysterical Right would rather stoke the collective American ego than make a harmless, 45-degree bow that leaves a lasting impression on our most important Asian ally.  What, after all, is the point of any President traveling overseas if the most important thing is to send messages that will look good to Americans?

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