Another Perspective

The Making of an Icon

The story behind the "terrorist fist bump."

By 7.18.08

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I don't know which cable news yakker started making a fuss over what he (or she) called a "terrorist fist bump" exchanged by Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, but he (or she) unknowingly started a fuss that reveals the state of the elite mind and of the elites' take on American culture. It also reveals that cohort's isolation from everyday life.

First, let's define "elite." I refer, with that term, to a self-designated member of a smallish group in media, academe, and sometimes entertainment (for reasons to be seen later, the fist bump probably excludes entertainment figures from the current flap), who talk on TV, who see themselves as "opinion makers" (working under the rubric "journalism"), and who are hypersensitive to cultural indicators that can be chewed over as hot topics or talking points. Like the producers of Muzak, they have an endless hunger for material. Give them one good piece of verbiage, and the whole tiny tribe of them will repeat it over and over again.

Think of Rush Limbaugh's funny audio montages of media figures saying exactly the same thing. "Gravitas" is the most famous, employed to describe Dick Cheney when George W. Bush first picked him as his vice presidential candidate.

What makes the elites so funny?They're so busy talking that they don't listen.

Now the fist bump shows up on a New Yorker cover, depicting Barack Obama in Middle Eastern garb, his wife got up like a college radical, in the Oval Office, with an American flag burning in the fireplace and a portrait of Osama bin Laden on the wall. "Oh, man, you know what'd be really cool? Have them exchanging a fist bump! Yeah!" And so it was added to the cartoon, the final, current touch.

HAVE THESE PEOPLE NEVER SEEN a sporting event? Have they never seen Tiger Woods exchange fist bumps with his caddie, Steve Williams? The fist bump, indeed, is about the commonest and lowest level congratulatory gesture in sports. Celebrities pick up on it in pro-ams. A few weeks back, golfer Fred Funk used his wife Sharon as his caddie, and they did it when Fred sank a nice putt.

The fist bump probably evolved as shorthand for a full-fledged "soul" handshake: clasp up, clasp down, fist stack, reverse fist stack, elbow, elbow, etc. There just isn't time to go through the whole rigmarole, especially in a sporting event, besides which the routine changes depending on context.

Whatever, this completely ordinary, everyday American gesture now carries no racial or political connotation. Contestants on game shows fist bump. Kids playing soccer fist bump. Little Leaguers fist bump. Oscar winners fist bump.

The gesture is so ordinary, in fact, that, until dubbed "terrorist fist bump" by a cable show talkie, it did not even have a name.

The only people who don't do it? Terrorists. And maybe cable show talkers, whose only frame of reference is television, and their own careers in it.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.