November 27, 2007

Moslems, Mormons, and Mitt

Hatched by Dafydd

Everybody seems to be jabbering about this supposed faux pas of Mitt Romney in response to a question by Mansoor Ijaz; but no such judgment can be made without knowing not only the exact question Ijaz asked... but also the preceding conversation, which set the context of the question.

Power Line was the first place I read it; now it's been discussed on Captain's Quarters (and here, too), Real Clear Politics, National Review, and goodness knows where else, mostly but not exclusively to Romney's discredit.

Here's the buzz. According to an opinion piece by Mansoor Ijaz in the Christian Science Monitor, the following exchange took place at a Mitt Romney fundraiser in Las Vegas earlier this month:

I asked Mr. Romney whether he would consider including qualified Americans of the Islamic faith in his cabinet as advisers on national security matters, given his position that "jihadism" is the principal foreign policy threat facing America today. He answered, "…based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified. But of course, I would imagine that Muslims could serve at lower levels of my administration."

Romney, whose Mormon faith has become the subject of heated debate in Republican caucuses, wants America to be blind to his religious beliefs and judge him on merit instead. Yet he seems to accept excluding Muslims because of their religion, claiming they're too much of a minority for a post in high-level policymaking. More ironic, that Islamic heritage is what qualifies them to best engage America's Arab and Muslim communities and to help deter Islamist threats....

He, and other candidates for the presidency from both political parties, should actively begin searching for American Muslims and Arab Americans who can serve in primary decisionmaking cabinet level posts. To do otherwise is to risk promulgating policies that once again put the US straight in the sights of the terrorists who seek to bring America down.

Who is Mansoor Ijaz? He's a fiscally (free-market) conservative, anti-terrorist, pro-war against global hirabah, native-born American of Pakistani descent. He is a Moslem, but not a radical one. Yet several things about this accusation of "aggravating hypocrisy" aggravate me:

  1. To Ijaz's core point, he accuses Romney of "excluding Muslims because of their religion." But the only thing Ijaz actually shows is that Romney rejected Ijaz's call to "actively begin searching" for people to appoint to the cabinet because they are Moslem. Isn't Ijaz's call for hiring people specifically because of their religion just as religiously biased as excluding people based on their religion would be -- even if Romney were saying he would do that?
  2. Don't you wonder, as do I, about the elipsis that begins Ijaz's alleged quotation of Romney's answer? What did Romney say before he said "based on the numbers of American Muslims in our population?"
  3. I'm also curious what Romney said after the quoted passage; did he clarify his position at all? We have no idea, because Ijaz -- the only witness -- doesn't see fit to tell us.
  4. Likewise, I am always skeptical when a person is attacked for an answer to a question -- yet we're not given the exact question. Ijaz purports to have memorized or written down the exact words that Romney used to answer the question; but evidently, Ijaz either doesn't remember what he, himself asked... or else he doesn't want us to know.

Suppose, for example, his question were actually, "Gov. Romney, we have special cabinet officers to deal with energy, commerce, the environment, education, and defense. Would you consider putting a qualified Muslim into your cabinet in order to handle domestic Muslim issues?"

And perhaps that missing section, hinted at by the elipsis, was "You mean a sort of Muslim czar? No... based on the numbers of American Muslims in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified."

If that were more or less the exchange, then what they were really talking about would have been a Moslem czar, a cabinet-level position like "Secretary of Islam." In that case, the easiest way to answer the question would be to gently point out to Ijaz that the entire panoply of domestic Moslem issues does not rise to the level of a cabinet-level appointment. I mean, we don't have a Secretary of Christianity, and most of the country would call itself Christian of one kind or another.

These are fanciful, made-up quotations, of course (hence the blue highlighting); I have no evidence either party said these. I'm simply showing how easy it would be for a natural flow of conversation to create a context in which Romney's answer was neither an example of religious bigotry nor even "aggravating hypocrisy."

(I call question (4) above the "primary polling fallacy," by the way; PPF occurs whenever a newspaper reports on polling results without telling readers the actual wording of the questions... which is critical to understanding those poll results.)

I'm not simply scrambling for some way to rescue Romney from a (supposedly) religiously bigotted remark; I'm neither a Romney supporter nor detractor... I like much of what he says, but I can say the same about Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, and John McCain; but I also dislike some things about him -- which I can also say of Giuliani, Huckabee, and McCain.

Here is the problem: Ijaz is a "good Moslem," meaning that as regards public policy (not personal devotional habits), he is an American first and a Moslem second. But he is, nevertheless, a Moslem activist.

Unlike the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Mansoor Ijaz certainly does not have an agenda of overthrowing the United States government and instituting a theocratic caliphate. But like CAIR, Ijaz does focus fairly obsessively on Moslem issues (since 9/11), and he does tend to cast anyone who doesn't agree with his expansive views on affirmative action for Moslems as a religious bigot.

To me, Ijaz seems perfectly capable of twisting Romney's response to make it appear clearer that the governor is a bigot -- as Ijaz believes of everyone who disagrees with him about Moslem issues... and Ijaz might not even realize that's what he's doing.

The same memory phenomenon occurred when Vice President Al Gore's said, "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet" -- which is bad enough, since it was "created" long before Gore was first elected to Congress in 1976 (at least as far back as the first working ARPANET connection in 1969); and indeed, Gore did not really get involved in internet-related committee work until the 1980s.

But many conservatives went farther, actually misremembering it much worse than Algore said. They transformed the statement, in their own minds, into Gore saying "I invented the internet."

I think there is actually a psychological term for this phenomenon -- intensification, or somesuch: When a person has a very strong reaction to something he heard someone say, he will tend to remember what he heard in an altered form... changed in order to intensify whatever feeling he had. Thus, if he really, really likes what someone said, he will tend to remember it phrased much better, pithier, wittier than it really was. Likewise, if he really hated what the speaker said, he will tend to remember it as worse, more vicious, or more egregious than it really was... many Democrats actually, literally "remember" George W. Bush saying that Iraq was an "imminent threat," whereas the transcript shows he said just the opposite.

These are just local variants on the generalized phenomenon that we all tend to remember important events, not as they actually happened, but as they should have happened.

This applies to the circumstances of the situation, too; many Republicans literally "remember" that when Bill Clinton said "I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," Clinton was sitting right there in the Oval Office. In fact, he was standing in a press room, either at the White House or elsewhere, I don't recall which. The meme of "sullying the office of the presidency" is intensified by falsely remembering that it occurred in the sanctum santorum of the American government itself.

Anent the Romney "Moslem in the cabinet" claim, there are simply too many problems with it to take it seriously:

  • It happened without video cameras rolling, so we cannot watch it ourselves;
  • It happened far from any microphones (if there were even any present), so we cannot hear it;
  • No other witness has stepped forward to corroborate it;
  • Not even Mansoor Ijaz says that he literally took the answer down in shorthand while Romney spoke; he may be operating entirely on his memory of what each said;
  • Ijaz doesn't give us the question he asked;
  • He doesn't give us Romney's complete answer;
  • He doesn't give us the specific context they were speaking about;
  • And he admits engaging in the same religious targeting -- on behalf of Moslems -- that he accuses Romney of engaging in against Moslems.

Ijaz is a Moslem-rights activist... and like all activists, it's hard to know when he's promoting his issue and when he's just accurately reporting in an unbiased fashion. As Captain Ed put it, Ijaz is "playing identity politics" himself.

Given these known unknowns, all of them critical to understanding the conversation, it is simply impossible to form any rational conclusion about what Mitt Romney said. Any "conclusion" drawn is in reality merely projection, based upon the concluder's own feelings in the matter.

So let's all stop trying to read the Romney tea leaves; there is no "there" there.

Lizardly Instant Update Feature: Real Clear Politics (linked above) links to an MSNBC blog called First Read, which reports a presser with Mitt Romney at which he clarified what he remembers of that conversation:

At an availability with reporters here, Romney answered questions about today's report suggesting that he would not appoint Muslims to his Cabinet. "No, that's not what I said. His question was, Did I need to have a Muslim in my Cabinet in order to confront radical jihad, or would it be important to have a Muslim in my Cabinet?' And I said no, I don't think you need a Muslim in the Cabinet to take on radical jihad any more than we needed a Japanese American to understand the threat that was coming from Japan or something of that nature."

Romney continued, "It's something I rejected, number one. And number two, point out that haven't given a lot of thought to the people I would have in my Cabinet. I don't have boxes I check off in terms of ethnicity, and it's not that I need a certain number of people representing ethnic groups. Instead, I would choose people based on their merits... I'm open to having people of any faith, ethnic group. But they would be selected based on their capacity and capabilities and what they could bring to the Administration, but I don't choose people based on checking off a box...."

A search of FEC records, finds that a Mansoor Ijaz has given $23,000 to Democratic candidates and committees from 1997 to 2000, including $2,000 to Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate run and $15,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

I think it reasonable to take that last paragraph into account when evaluating Mansoor Ijaz's CSM column.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, November 27, 2007, at the time of 2:46 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Fritz

More than reasonable Dafydd. In fact I would argue that it is essential.

Without calling anyone a liar, we often hear what we wish to hear, and the more partisan we are the more chance of misunderstanding what was said. When you add in the selective quote and the lack of the complete question, it seems to me that one needs be be very skeptical about believing Mr. Ijaz completely. His report may be exactly as happened, it may be a faulty understanding of what happened, or it could be dishonest reporting of what happened.

Full discloser, I am not a Romney fan, but even though I would rather see someone else as the candidate, and even though I realize that candidates often say stupid things, I find it hard to believe the Romney would say something that stupid. If he actually felt that way I could understand a lot of waffling on the subject, but Romney must know that any statement that hints of discrimination would be a disaster and I find it hard to believe we are getting the full and accurate picture from Mr. Ijaz's account.

The above hissed in response by: Fritz [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 27, 2007 11:21 PM

The following hissed in response by: David M

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 11/28/2007 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

The above hissed in response by: David M [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 28, 2007 8:18 AM

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