In Philosophy 101 one of the first things we teach is logic, along with logical fallacies. Here’s the big one we’re starting to see in this presidential campaign, as well as in some comments on this very blog (especially regarding Barack’s Mother): guilt by association. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ” Guilt by association is a version of the ad hominem fallacy in which a person is said to be guilty of error because of the group he or she associates with. ” In response to my Barack’s Mother post, one person noted that Obama’s mother once went to a school where she was taught by a couple of Communists. Merde! I have no idea if this is true. But for the sake of argument, suppose it is. So what? The implication is that this association was more than coincidental but said something sinister about her parents’ character (in sending her to that school) and about the kind of person she would become.
My seventh grade teacher was a right-wing kook who imagined Communist conspiracies around every corner. Does this make me a right-wing kook?
At a meeting in 1996 attended by about eight people, I sat next to Karl Rove. I didn’t stand up and denounce him and disassociate myself from him and all the nefarious things he would later do. Even more “damning,” he and I were both occasional guest hosts of a public affairs program in Austin, TX. Does this make me like Karl Rove? Or does it mean that I moved in some of the same circles as he did and was being polite?
As we enter the final month of the campaign, we’re already starting to get this kind of ridiculous, ugly politics fueled by this logical fallacy. Palin, the attack dog, is already putting it out there: Obama knew Ayers; Ayers was a terrorist; therefore Obama is somehow tainted, suspicious, and dangerous. Any freshman college student can spot the fallacy. Will the American people?
Notice that the fallacy is employed to divert attention from the real issues. There is plenty to talk about: the effects of deregulation, the economy, foreign policy, energy, to name a few; and there are real differences in the two tickets’ positions. Can we talk about those please?
It’s also employed to provide cover for racist fears. How many times have I heard people say, “I just don’t trust him” even when they cannot articulate a single reason for this fear? Guilt-by-association provides a pseudo-justification for distrust, a way of avoiding examining our own psyches and complicated histories.