Perhaps some of you might have heard that Barack Obama has been "pallin' around with terrorists," such as William Ayers of the Weather Underground, or that he listened while his minister criticized America, or that some guy from the same city as him is going to go to jail. Such are the McCain campaign's charges. You might also notice that these are attempts "guilt by association" (here we call it "bad company"). To many, such a tactic is wrong on its face. Rather than discuss the substantive policy questions that ought to be driving the current Presidential race, we have to sit through endless stories about who met with whom when where and how. It certainly is dumb, and it makes all of us dumber. Here's a well known leftish blogger:
So Palin’s "palling around" accusation is no more true than her boast that she "told congress ‘Thanks, but no thanks’" on the Bridge to Nowhere, or that she had the Alaska Permanent Fund divest from Sudan. But it seems to me that pointing out factual errors gives this line of argument too much credit: guilt by association, even when the association happens to be real, is a silly charge.
It's not a silly charge, however. Whether the charge is true is certainly important. As important as that, however, is whether the charge is relevant. Relevance, in fact, is what makes the difference between a fallacious guilt by association charge and a legitimate one. It's not, in other words, simply a matter of the form of argument. The content–who is the associate, how long? how important? etc.,–makes all of the difference.
It turns out, I think, that Palin's charges are false or at best misleading. Ayers is, in fact, a rather prominent person in Chicago politics–he even pals around with such mainstream figures as Richard M. Daley, our longtime mayor. Besides, Ayers isn't in jail, and he doesn't seem to be currently a terrorist. Besides that, he, in his civic role in Chicago politics, "palled" around with Republicans as well.
All of this, of course, makes a huge difference as to the relevance of the charge. If Sarah Palin, for instance, "palled around" with members of a treasonous secessionist political party, I think that would indeed be relevant. The same would be true for John McCain. If he palled around with people who advocated assassination as a policy, or who defrauded thousands of people of their life savings, we might have reason to question his judgment.
So, while whether such charges as these are true matters a good deal. But it matters just as much whether they have any relevance to stuff that matters. Sometimes they don't.