Foreign Policy

Barack's Backbone Aria

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Supercilious Chinese guy looks down his snooty snoot at our president.

Another picture of President Obama inclining his upper torso toward a foreign potentate -- this time China's premier Wen Jiabao -- has surfaced.

Folks are furious.

"We have to deal with China as though we are a superpower--Not like we are a Jr. Senator from Illinois begging the Chinese leader to stay," says one commenter in a thread I'm participating in.

"Obama's begging - that's his body language," says another.  "And reading the comments below that pic makes me want to puke.  Bunch of jello-brained Obots."

In the past, Obama has bowed to Wen, to the monarchs of Japan and Saudi Arabia, and to General Zod's disappointing son, a student at Sidwell Friends.

In each case, the bow has drawn the kind of catcalls cited above. Let me preface my opinion by saying that of course, every time the president of the United States shows excessive respect to the leader of a major American trading partner, the terrorists are emboldened, the Russians seize back more of their former empire, and our national cock becomes an inch shorter. But I think a people whose only experience of physical courtesies comes from church may be missing some subtleties in a calculated presidential bowing campaign.

President Obama rendered helpless in the finger-breaking grip of Premier Wen Jiabao

The first thing to remember is that in modernity it's almost never true that we bow down before the one we serve. Excessive servility came into its own with Uriah Heep, who is always humbly working somebody over to his own advantage.

There's an acting-class truism that if one person leans back calmly in his or her chair, and the other leans forward in his or her chair, the power of the scene accrues to the leaner-back. The signature scene for this principle is probably the opening of The Godfather. In real life, exactly the opposite holds true. The leaner-forward draws all your attention. That person is excitable, interested, and possibly ready to attack. The person leaning back, well, who does he think he is?

Americans love to tell stories of how our informal manners once impressed courtly foreigners. My favorite is the reminiscence of a captured Wehrmacht soldier: "All the Americans were chewing gum, which made them seem especially insolent and contemptuous." But there is more conveyed by courtly manners than a simple power dynamic.

This shouldn't need stating, but the United States is still obviously the most feared and powerful state on the planet -- as the lousy foreigners demonstrated last year, when they had a real opportunity to destroy our currency and wipe out our government, but chickened out and decided to let us do it to ourselves. There is absolutely nothing lost when a president makes an obsequious gesture. It's the equivalent of the old handshake trick where you say "Ow, ow!" and hunch over as if the other guy's grip is so firm that your fingers are breaking. You can call me old-fashioned, but I still think a deep bow is less creepy than two men holding hands, unless they're really in love.

In fact, if there's something to object to in Obama's bowing, it's that he gave such a shallow sampling of his superbly honed posture to Queen Elizabeth II -- the only monarch left who's worth being nice to.

How can you learn more about the gradations of the bow? After years of print obscurity, my very favorite Alan Moore comic is on teh interwebs. "The Bowing Machine," a collaboration with Mark Beyer from the days of Japan Inc., can be seen (with some unfortunate loss of detail) here. I suspect neither Moore nor Beyer had an especially deep understanding of Japanese customs, but it's an impressive feat by a couple of bignoses imagining themselves into a culture of infinite deference.