Obama's Abominable Obeisance: Cultural Perspectives

Is Obama's deep bow (with slightly bent knee) to the Saudi king as bad as it seems? The White House, apparently forgetful that we live in the Internet age, where everything is swiftly documented and disseminated -- or else thinking it leads a nation of the blind -- insists the president did not bow. He supposedly always bends in half when shaking hands with shorter people, though he certainly seemed quite erect when saluting the British queen, who is much shorter than the Saudi king.

Obama bowed; this much is certainly not open to debate. All that is left now is to place his odious obeisance in context. As such, history has much to say about the seemingly innocuous bow.

Millennia before the current war between the West and Islam -- the war Obama insists does not exist in the first place -- the ancient Greeks (forebears of Western civilization) warred with the Persians (forebears of the soon-to-be-nuclear Islamic theocracy, Iran).

Writing in the 5th century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus explained: "When the Persians meet one another in the roads, you can see whether those who meet are of equal rank. For instead of greeting by words, they kiss each other on the mouth; but if one of them is inferior to the other, they kiss one another on the cheeks."

This explanation reminds one of Bush's hand-holding/kissing sessions with the same Saudi monarch, which some insist exonerate Obama's bow. Not so; as the Greek historian explains above, such behavior is representative of equal rank in Eastern cultures.

As for Obama's conduct, Herodotus continues, "yet if one is of much less noble rank than the other, he falls down before him and worships him."

"Much less noble rank"? Could Obama, like his wife Michelle, who only recently became proud of America, be operating under the conviction that being American is not all that noble?

As for "falls down before him and worships," this phrase is a translation of the Greek word proskunesis, which means "to make obeisance," to "worship, adore," as one would a god, or king, or god-king. Basically, to fall on one's face in prostration to another. Connotatively, it implies "to make like a dog" -- base, servile, and submissive.

While common to the caste-like system of Persia, prostration was something the freedom-loving Greeks scorned. Indeed, wars were waged simply because the Greeks refused to submit -- literally and figuratively -- to Persian tyranny.

According to Arrian's chronicle, at the height of Alexander the Great's power -- when his hubris against the gods and megalomania against man were most burgeoning -- he decided to implement the proskunesis in his court, provoking controversy among the Macedonians, until one of their numbers, Callisthenes, rebuked him by saying, "Will you actually compel the Greeks as well, the freest of mankind, to do you obeisance?" Another close companion to Alexander, Clitus, vexed at the former's increasing pomposity and the lack of manly dignity at his court, told Alexander, in the words of the historian Plutarch, that "he [Alexander] had better live and converse with barbarians and slaves who would not scruple to bow the knee to his Persian girdle." His words cost him his life.

It was one decade ago, when I studied ancient history with Victor Davis Hanson, that I last examined the proskunesis (never thinking the day was nigh when it would have modern applicability -- and thanks to a U.S. president!). Recently corresponding with VDH about this whole sordid affair, he confirmed that "the Macedonians seemed to really have felt proskunesis was about the worst thing someone could do."