Obama’s Defense: "You Say Guilt By Association"," or YSGBA

In previous postings I have complained, as have many others, that Senator Obama’s loyalty to his pastor, the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., reflects badly on his fitness for high office. This pastor is on record asking God to “damn America.” He is on record as giving high praise to the notorious Minister Farrakhan. And this pastor has reprinted in his “pastor’s column,” with his specific endorsement, an op-ed piece by a leader of Hamas. (For a description of the virulent, radical anti-Semitism of Hamas, see the New York Times, April 1, 2008). All this, many of us suggest, reflects on Obama, no matter how many or how few of the offending sermons he actually heard first hand.

But those who criticize Barak Obama in this manner are accused, by Obama’s friends, of using “guilt by association.” We are told that this criterion is illogical and abusive, if not “McCarthyite.” So “You Say Guilt by Association,” or YSGBA, is presented as a self-contained, self-justifying defense of Obama.

It is interesting that “guilt by association” is not a phrase that is ever used by those who presumably believe in it. Like other such polemical expressions (see, for instance, the article by Klehr and Haynes on “premature anti-Fascist“), it is used by people who accuse others of advocating ideas that they do not, in fact, either advocate or hold.

What can be said about this bugaboo, mostly used by the Left, of “guilt by association” ?

Eliot Spitzer and the Mafia

A few days ago the New York Times ran a story, very prominently on the front page of its Metro Section, entitled “Call Girl Linked to Spitzer Knew Reputed Mob Affiliate.” The story was murky but went on for a few hundred words. It seems that a certain Mr. Anthony Scibelli “who the authorities contend is an associate of organized crime” had an acquaintanceship or relationship (of an undisclosed nature) with Ms. Ashley Alexandra Dupré, the professional lady with whom Spitzer is said to have consorted in Washington.

So here it is. Our ex-governor, in addition to all his other sins and problems, seems related, by no more than three or four degrees (depending how you count) to, yes, to the dreaded Mafia.

What are we to make of this story ? Let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s say that Spitzer, instead of being the relatively unideological figure that he in fact is, were a figure beloved by the Left. In that case we could imagine a “progressive” reaction to the Times’s treatment:

This is a clear case of guilt by association ! The New York Times, for reasons best known to itself, sees fit to smear a progressive leader. True, Mr. Spitzer knows Ms. Dupré. But then it is alleged that Ms. Dupré knows a certain Mr. Scibelli (note that there is no proof that she does), and it’s also alleged that Mr. Scibelli “is an associate of organized crime” (no proof of that either). But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Ms. Dupré is indeed acquainted with Mr. Scibelli, and let’s assume further, for the sake of argument, that Mr. Scibelli is a Mafioso. But how does that affect Spitzer ? Mr. Spitzer has had dealings with Ms. Dupré and Ms. Dupré knows Mr. Scibelli. How can that make Mr. Spitzer a Mafioso, except by the fallacious, reactionary, malicious reasoning known as Guilt by Association. Outrageous.

Ambiguities of “Guilt”

This argument in defense of Spitzer — “You Say Guilt by Association” (YSGBA) — seems to have validity, at least on the surface. But it will not stand closer examination. The problem lies in what is formally known as the fallacy of equivocation, that is “the misleading use of a word [or words] with more than one meaning (by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time)” (Wikipedia). Both “guilt” and “association” are deeply ambiguous.

Let us start with “guilt.”

In the context of Anglo-American criminal jurisprudence, a criminal defendant cannot be found “guilty” except by “proof beyond reasonable doubt.” This standard, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, helps to define the very meaning of “guilt” in this context. It is a very high standard for the prosecution, and in effect allows the defendant to benefit from all (reasonable) doubts in the case.

In going about our business in matters not related to crime, in the courts or elsewhere, we do not and cannot be guided by this very rigid, one-sided standard. In civil law cases, for instance, the ordinary standard is much lower, viz. “”balance of probabilities,” sometimes termed “preponderance of evidence.” (In certain cases an issue is decided by “clear and convincing evidence,” which is more demanding than “balance of probabilities,” but not as stringent as “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”) So it is clear that whatever “guilt” or wrongdoing may mean outside the realm of the criminal law, it is something quite different from criminal guilt.

Moreover, there is yet another standard that is particularly relevant to a discussion of the behavior of politicians and public servants. If a judge appears to have a conflict of interest, for example, he must recuse himself from the case. Justice not only needs to be done, it must also seen, or appear, to be done. An appearance of impropriety by a public official, whether or not there is a substance of impropriety, cannot be tolerated. Professor Deborah Hellman, among others, has shown that there are good reasons indeed for this rule.

It would certainly appear that Spitzer’s second-hand relationship with organized crime is of legitimate interest to the public, as, indeed, is Obama’s second-hand relationship with organized anti-Semitism. In either case, there is at least the appearance of something gone awry. This something, absent a criminal prosecution, need not be proven “beyond all reasonable doubt.”

The YSGBA defense, then, must fall because of the ambiguity of its use of “guilt.” It alleges that those who accuse Obama (or Spitzer) do not use the strict standards of criminal guilt-finding when, in fact, the accusations are not related to crime (Of course there may also be criminal aspects to the Spitzer case, but that is not the issue here.)

The other term of the YSGBA defense, “association,” is similarly vague.

Ambiguities of “Association”

We may be “associated” with others in a great variety of ways. When I take a subway train to the Borough of Manhattan, I sit with many others in a subway car, associated with them for the duration of my trip. Some of these fellow-travelers may be felons, but, obviously, this does not make me a felon. The proponents of the YSBGA defense suggest that since some types of association are totally innocent in this way, all association is innocent.

We know, of course, that some association is far from innocent. The criminal law itself recognizes criminal association of various sorts. In addition to provisions dealing with aiding and abetting, there is also the law of conspiracy, which holds a conspirator in a crime to be as guilty as the actual perpetrator.

But beyond the domain of law, our ordinary experience teaches us that the company we keep helps to define who we are. A person who habitually associates with known criminals, for example, is rightfully suspect. My Jewish prayer book enjoins me to ask God every morning to “deliver me this day, and every day, from arrogant men and from arrogance, from a bad man, from a bad companion and from a bad neighbor…” [My thanks to my nephew Butchie for pointing me to this]. The Mishna (Kelim 12,12) tells us that “Who consorts with the unclean becomes himself unclean.” The New Testament concurs: “Bad company corrupts good morals” (I Corinthians 15:33).


When we complain about Obama’s associations, we do not allege that these associations make him a criminal. We are not bound by a standard of “truth beyond a reasonable doubt.” Nor is all association innocent. Some is deeply troubling. We are right in scrutinizing the associations of those who would be President. And Barack Obama’s associations are not reassuring.

5 thoughts on “Obama’s Defense: "You Say Guilt By Association"," or YSGBA”

  1. There is nothing ironclad here. I am also not reassurred by Obama’s association with Wright, and Wright’s association with Farrakhan and Hamas. This doesn’t mean, however, that Obama = Wright = Farrakhan, et al.

    Unless we had good evidence from a variety of sources that Obama was tainted by his association with Wright to think like him about Farrakhan and Hamas, and the related issues we care about of Jews and Israel, this should have limited import.

    Based mostly on the overall experience of the two Democratic candidates, I have supported Sen. Clinton. It’s going to take much more, however, for me to totally reject Obama as a plausible recipient of my vote in the general election. I understand if Werner feels otherwise, but I think this is an emotional rather than a rational choice on his part.

  2. thanks, Ralph, for your prompt comment.

    I think that the public links between Obama on the one hand and Wright, Farrakhan, and Hamas on the other establish at least an appearance of some sort of connection between them. Obama had every chance to sever that connection conclusively, but chose not to do so. (You may wish to read Deborah Hellman — the link is in my posting — on the importance of appearance here).

    Now of course Obama has every right in the world to be loyal to Wright, and Wright has every right in the world to be loyal to Farrakhan and to Hamas. But people like us have every right not to be thrilled by these choices.

    Obama can’t seem to cut loose from bad company when he’s a candidate. What is he going to do in the White House, when there is no election imminent ?

  3. Your argument that Obama is culpable for continuing to associate with a congregation in which unattractive things have been said from the pulpit exaggerates the importance of the sermon in church life. Have you examined the entire program of this church and its benefit to the community? If (as I have no reason to doubt) the effect is wholesome and civilizing, perhaps crucially and uniquely so– i.e., if its members didn’t have this church to attend, would they be likely to attend another, yours for example– then you take on quite a burden of proof indeed in suggesting that an upstanding citizen would repudiate it.

    I would argue, further, that a preacher is quite correct in condemning any image, ideology, or instutition, including the government of the United States, or the image of the United States as something deserving of uncritical support. These are demonic idols. This theology, first articulated by the late William Stringfellow (who, curiously, happens to share certain biographical details with Barack Obama) and after his death has been rigorously developed by Walter Wink– an Episcopalian and a Lutheran respectively. These ideas are not the product of a lunatic fringe.

    Whatever the church is, you have far from made a case that it should exist for the purpose of propping up knee-jerk nationalism. Where does this notion come from?

    All else being equal, given a choice between a Presidential candidate who understands the temptations and dangers, both to himself spiritually and to his responsibilities to his fellow human beings, in this office, and a candidate who does not, I’ll take the one whose eyes are open any day.

  4. STOP THE MADNESS! Are you kidding me?

    Who we are is defined by the company we keep. Let’s examine:
    1. Frank Marshall Davis- Mentor to Barack in Hawaii. Obama referenced him in his book as such; Pedophile and Communist
    2. Odinga- Islamic sympathizer and supporter of Sharia Law, openly Socialist, partially responsible for the massacres and church burnings in Kenya. Obama visited and supported him in Kenyan 2007 elections.
    3. William Ayers- Domestic Terrorist, Communist, Radical. Friend and co-board member with Obama in Chicago. Threw Obama a “coming out party”. In his social circle.
    4. Reverend Wright- America Hater, Racist, Black Liberation Theologist. His church gave the anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan an award. Obama was a member of his church nearly twenty years.
    5. Father Flagher- radical priest, anti-capitalist, race baiter, openly supported rebels in El Salvador and Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
    6. Tony Rezko- Indicted Slum Lord. Charged with Corruption. Funneled money through his two companies to Obama’s Senate campaign. Hosted parties, several shady connections in real estate; too detailed to go into here.
    7. Khalid al-Mansour- Principle adviser to Saudi Billionaire. Raised money on behalf of Obama before Obama went to Harvard. Anti-semite. Hostile to Israel. Too much for here. Look him up.

    Obama is a fraud and is very dangerous. Be careful. All of this information is avialable through legitimate sources.

  5. Associations do matter. That’s why Obama’s repeated disavowals of the rhetoric of Jeremiah Wright and the crimes of Bill Ayers are so important – and why they’re on record. That’s why it’s also important to scrutinize the nature of the relationships in question. Obama and Ayers were not intimate friends – they were colleagues. Ayers’ relationships with countless professors and politicians on all sides of the political spectrum are no different. Obama’s association with Wright was closer, longer, and thus it is potentially more damning, which is why the media justifiably demanded Obama address those specific aspects of Wright’s rhetoric that were distasteful. And he did.

    It could not be more clear how Obama feels about the statements/activities of both these men. He is repulsed by them.
    Mr. Obama is a good, non-violent, patriotic man with a healthy, loving family. He is arguably the most normal person who has ever run for president – the most non-average thing about him is his intelligence.

    Thus I ask you: what IS the standard here, if not “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?” What could possibly make Obama trustworthy in the eyes of those who make these attacks again and again? Would they be appeased by a public trial in which Obama proved that he was a) not a terrorist b) did not hate America nor c) did not hate white Americans?

    No, because only the most ignorant and hateful of them find possibilities a, b, or c remotely plausible – and nothing would convince them because they do not seek to be convinced.

    There is no proposed standard of “guilt” for very good reasons – the accusations are not designed to be defensible. They are designed to whip up resentment and mistrust. Nothing more or less.

    There is no equivalent demand on the right that McCain demonstrate that his own associations with a racist pastor or with Charles Keating be similarly “cleared up” before the right is willing to trust him. Why? Because this is transparently a politically motivated set of attacks, not a fair effort to understand two men’s actual beliefs through the lens of their associates. Every reasonable person understands this to be true.

    When one considers the recent McCain speeches/ads in this light, they do indeed belong beside the worst kind of McCarthyism. They are repetitive, egregious smears that have no place in a constructive debate between two men whose devotion to public service and to their country is not in any serious doubt among sober, normal people.

    That’s why they only serve to make McCain look bad in the eyes of undecideds, even as they energize some small (sad) portion of McCain’s base. They are the last desperate gasps of a man who knows he has lost.

    The applicability or lack of applicability of a logical fallacy will do nothing to change that.

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