WaPo's 'Great' Osama? Obama Speech Signified 'One Great Man Taking Down Another'

Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott couldn't bring himself in a Tuesday essay to dwell on the evil of Osama bin Laden. He committed a "single morning of destruction," but he was really so much more fascinating than that. He killed a few thousand people, to be sure. But on the bright side, his actions led to the Kennedy Center's "Arabesque" festival and he was "very good for book clubs" as he "shifted the horizons of our curiosity" into the appreciation of literary stars in Afghanistan, Turkey and Iran.

Kennicott's ending: "To assert order and reclaim the power of the state, Obama had to embody it in a way that recalled the regal precedents on which the American presidency is based. A primitive story line required a primitive ending, one great man taking down another."

The headline on top of the Style section was non-judgmental: "One-man show: Osama bin Laden reset the world stage and made himself the superstar player." In the penultimate paragraph, Kennicott was smitten by the image of Obama in the East Room:

The president gave credit to the anonymous forces who staged the raid, but he also asserted presidential power, used the first person, emphasized the phrase “at my direction.” It was a striking end to the drama, a one-man show of another sort. What had begun with some of the most spectacular and terrifying images of destruction ever captured on film ended with a lone man speaking against the backdrop of a long and empty hallway.

Is this why Obama seems allergic to giving a speech from the Oval Office? It doesn't offer his obsequious journalistic image-polishers the same sense of drama as the East Room?  Kennicott's opus began: "A day before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it was still possible to believe in the future, like a religion of infinite promise. With the collapse of the Soviet Union more than a decade before, history had supposedly come to an end. The age of great ideological conflict was over. Technology, prosperity and global connectedness were leading us to an evolutionary leap in consciousness."

Kennicott, clearly not religious, doesn't realize many Americans in 2011 continue to believe in a "religion of infinite promise." But it continued:

One man dispelled all of that, casting the world simultaneously backward and forward with a single morning of destruction. He refreshed old ideas about history, religion and the role of epic players in the course of human events. The concept of evil had a new lease on life, and suddenly, for better and for worse, larger-than-life actors again bestrode the stage of history. He made so many atavistic ideas once again respectable that the world felt new and different, engulfed in a fresh age of apocalypse.

No man has had a greater impact on American culture in the 21st century than Osama bin Laden. It’s hard to remember how frighteningly smart bin Laden seemed at first. He embodied precisely the kind of intellect that corporate America craves: a man who thought outside the box, who made no small plans, a man who knew how to harness the power of teamwork, a big-picture leader and a details guy at the same time.

He drew upon Stone Age tribalism and Iron Age tropes of battle, but he had also mastered personal mythmaking in the wired world of networks and video imagery. He knew the modern PR playbook, releasing videos filled with a horrifying mix of rationalism and phantasmagoria. A few months after the attacks, he starred in the dreams video, a compendium of nocturnal visions and prognostications that built a weird Jungian subtext for the attack.

But in the same video, he spoke like an engineer: “We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower.”

Inside Style, on page C-6, the headline was "American culture, dominated by a solo show." Before Kennicott began praising the Osama bin Laden effect on culture and literature, he claimed movie villains suddenly turned Arab. That's clearly not what the critics of Arab portrayals in the movies thought, including an uproar about stereotyped portrayals in the 1998 movie The Siege. But the Post thinks he's on a roll, so no one edited it:

He became the hidden impresario of cultural life. Almost overnight, our movie villains changed complexion. The old exotica of Orientalism, operas about villainous Turks or magnanimous sultans, ballets about renegade pirates, were suddenly relevant in a way they hadn’t been for centuries. He reanimated the age-old bugaboos of history.

For a large part of the Western world, bin Laden invented what it meant to be Arab. He gave us a caricature, but the flip side of fear turned out to be intimacy, a passionate need to know the art and culture of The Other. Would the Kennedy Center’s 2009 “Arabesque” festival, devoted to the arts of the Arab world, have happened without Osama bin Laden?

Bin Laden was very good for book clubs, too, as readers sought out voices from the Arab world and beyond. Many of the voices that flourished in the age of Osama — Khaled Hosseini, Orhan Pamuk, Azar Nafisi — weren’t even Arab, but Afghan, Turkish and Iranian. It didn’t matter. Bin Laden had shifted the horizons of our curiosity.

Kennicott's so anti-Bush that he trashed Bush even when reviewing the architecture of his forthcoming presidential library in 2009: "Bush was so full of contradictions, so seemingly hostile to the very things that define most important architects — intellectual sophistication, metaphorical games, aesthetic refinement — that it’s hard to imagine a more meaningful building ever fitting him comfortably."

Washington Post Philip Kennicott Osama bin Laden
Tim Graham's picture