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MONDAY, MAY 12, 2008

SOMEBODY MIGHT GET STONED: We never cease to be amazed at the endless varieties of bad judgment offered by the upper-end press corps. In our view, Edward Luttwak’s op-ed in today New York Times breaks new ground in this regard. We’ll assume that most of what follows is accurate. The gruesome bad judgment comes into play when we realize who Luttwak is discussing:

LUTTWAK (5/12/08): With few exceptions, the jurists of all Sunni and Shiite schools prescribe execution for all adults who leave the faith not under duress; the recommended punishment is beheading at the hands of a cleric, although in recent years there have been both stonings and hangings. (Some may point to cases in which lesser punishments were ordered—as with some Egyptian intellectuals who have been punished for writings that were construed as apostasy—but those were really instances of supposed heresy, not explicitly declared apostasy...)

It is true that the criminal codes in most Muslim countries do not mandate execution for apostasy (although a law doing exactly that is pending before Iran’s Parliament and in two Malaysian states). But as a practical matter, in very few Islamic countries do the governments have sufficient authority to resist demands for the punishment of apostates at the hands of religious authorities.

We’ll assume this is all true. But whose potential beheading, stoning or hanging is ghoulish Luttwak imagining here? He’s discussing a possible President Obama, who has already committed “the worst of all crimes that a Muslim can commit, worse than murder.” According to Luttwak, Obama’s “conversion” to Christianity “was a crime in Muslim eyes.” As he goes on, Luttwak helps us imagine the attendant security nightmares:

LUTTWAK: Because no government is likely to allow the prosecution of a President Obama—not even those of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the only two countries where Islamic religious courts dominate over secular law—another provision of Muslim law is perhaps more relevant: it prohibits punishment for any Muslim who kills any apostate, and effectively prohibits interference with such a killing.

At the very least, that would complicate the security planning of state visits by President Obama to Muslim countries, because the very act of protecting him would be sinful for Islamic security guards. More broadly, most citizens of the Islamic world would be horrified by the fact of Senator Obama’s conversion to Christianity once it became widely known—as it would, no doubt, should he win the White House. This would compromise the ability of governments in Muslim nations to cooperate with the United States in the fight against terrorism, as well as American efforts to export democracy and human rights abroad.

Are the claims in this passage true? More specifically, would most Muslims be horrified by the news of Obama’s “conversion?” We have no earthly idea. But Luttwak’s discussion could hardly be more lurid, and it cavalierly treats a set of notions that should be approached very carefully. These are the notions associated with what Luttwak calls Obama’s “Muslim heritage.”

In our view, some deeply weird editorial judgment went into this column’s publication. Before this, had you ever seen a writer ponder the stoning or beheading of an American president? Have you ever seen a writer casually proclaim that “no government is likely to allow the prosecution” of such a president? These are very unusual editorial choices, happily proffered by the Times. And the whole discussion has been triggered by the following high-minded purpose:

LUTTWAK: One danger of [Obama’s] charisma, however, is that it can evoke unrealistic hopes of what a candidate could actually accomplish in office regardless of his own personal abilities. Case in point is the oft-made claim that an Obama presidency would be welcomed by the Muslim world.

Luttwak’s images of stoning, beheading and violent assassination (while security forces watch) is triggered by a noble impulse—the desire to refute “the oft-made claim that an Obama presidency would be welcomed by the Muslim world.” For ourselves, we’ve heard that “unrealistic hope” suggested once or twice—but we can’t recall when we heard it last. In Luttwak’s hands, this infrequent claim becomes a trigger for an exceptionally odd discussion, in which he spreads notions and images which should be approached with great caution:

LUTTWAK (continuing directly): This idea often goes hand in hand with the altogether more plausible argument that Mr. Obama’s election would raise America’s esteem in Africa—indeed, he already arouses much enthusiasm in his father’s native Kenya and to a degree elsewhere on the continent.

But it is a mistake to conflate his African identity with his Muslim heritage. Senator Obama is half African by birth and Africans can understandably identify with him. In Islam, however, there is no such thing as a half-Muslim. Like all monotheistic religions, Islam is an exclusive faith.

Is Barack Obama “half African by birth?” Does Obama have a “Muslim heritage?” Did Obama “convert” to Christianity? In the current American political context, these notions should be pursued very cautiously. Instead, the Times throws them out in an unseasoned stew, wrapped in the image of stoning and beheading. All so we can see through an “oft-made claim”—an oft-made claim which isn’t being made very often at all.

Was Luttwak’s topic worth discussing? Concerning that, we have no firm view. But a very peculiar set of images drives today’s unfortunate piece. Major figures like Obama are normally granted a higher threshold of dignity. Today, we’re invited to picture him getting beheaded because of his “conversion” to Christianity—all so Luttwak can try to debunk a claim few people are discussing. This somehow made sense to the New York Times. It doesn’t make much sense to us.

GET A PERMISSION SLIP: Should Hillary Clinton have made that remark about her support among white voters? Without question, she should at least have made the remark in a less clumsy manner (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/08). But in fact, the remark came out rather poorly, and The Cult of the Offhand Comment took over. Adepts of this famous order wait for clumsy extemporaneous remarks (especially by pols they hate). They then expend their last few brain cells on the “analysis” of same. Often, they agree to reveal what the speaker “really” said.

We’ve discussed The Cult of the Offhand Comment before; its commandments shape much of our sad, sorry discourse. But as we noted on Friday, the hub-bub over Clinton’s remark illustrates another key point. Within the world of the mainstream press, pundits are allowed to discuss certain topics—but disfavored politicians will be trashed for doing the same. The press can discuss them; the pols need permission! And uh-oh! On Sunday’s Reliable Sources, Clarence Page expressed this rule rather perfectly. We call attention to his exchange with Howard Kurtz because it illustrates this key point so nicely:

KURTZ (5/12/08): Clarence Page, was this a terrible racial remark for Hillary Clinton to make about white voters?

PAGE: Well, it was not good political etiquette. I can't remember when I have ever heard a candidate speak so candidly. It's normally your operatives, your surrogates, your consultants who talk like that—or us, the pundits.

Or us, the pundits! In fact, the nation’s pundits had been “talking like that” non-stop, around the clock, for weeks. Aside from the clumsiness of her remark, why shouldn’t Clinton have done the same? Kurtz pursued things further:

KURTZ (continuing directly): But that's not to say that—But that's the point. It's not to say that it's not true. In fact, she is quoting an Associated Press article.

PAGE: Truth is only part of the game here, Howard. We're talking about politics, after all. And we're talking about a candidate who up front says, well, my opponent is weak with white voters. So I'm going to go out and get them.

You know, race is still too sensitive a topic in this country for you to just blindly say that as if we're talking about, say, Catholic voters, say, during the 1960 campaign with JFK.

Race is too sensitive a topic, Page said. For that reason, we are allowed to discuss it non-stop. But we’ll have to reserve the right to beat up on pols when they do.

Note one more part of Page’s remark. It’s OK to talk about Catholic voters in 1960; you just can’t talk about white voters now. Let’s expand that point just a bit:

As we noted months ago, pundits thought it was A-OK when Huckabee’s opponents noted that his Iowa win was driven by evangelical voters. That was OK—but a few weeks later, it wasn’t OK to say that Obama’s win in South Carolina was largely driven by black voters. Presumably, that’s because of the press corps’ finely-developed sensitivities about these very difficult matters. Either that, or these people have a set of rules which may not make perfect sense.

For the record, we know Page a bit (we serve on a charity board together!) and like him a lot. And let’s note again what Page didn’t note in this exchange—Clinton’s comment was clumsily expressed. But let’s note something else: Most major pundits are far less decent than Clarence Page is—and they’re rarely advanced, enlightened, fluent or knowing about racial matters. Their judgments about the etiquette of race will often be driven by throwback values. In many cases, they are very poorly equipped to make these fine etiquette judgments. But so what? In the aftermath of South Carolina, their judgments about racial etiquette helped change the Democratic race.

At any rate, we thought this discussion was worth recording because of the principle it captures. We can talk about race, the press says. But if others want to talk about race, they should perhaps get permission first.

TOMORROW: How did Obama beat Clinton? Kurtz asked. We chuckled at some of the answers.