Tag Archives: William Ayers

Don’t be negative

A guest op-ed in the Washington Post (by Vanderbilt Political Science Professor John G. Geer) makes the obvious point that "negative" ads are not ipso facto bad (a similar point was made more effectively I think by Jamison Foser at Media Matters, discussed by me here).  They are more likely, the author correctly argues, to provide information to the voter than "positive" ads.  This need not necessarily be the case, but it seems in fact to be the case (the author has empirical research to support this claim). 

My problem with this op-ed, however, is another.  In all of the discussion of "negative" ads, the author fails to distinguish between "attack" ads and "critical" ads.  One might make finer-grained distinctions, as I am sure someone has, but these will suffice for the moment.  Let's say a "critical" ad makes an argument against an opponent's position on some or other issue.  An "attack" ad consists argument free character style attacks.  Those, as anyone can see I think, are clearly different.

A defense of the one kind of negative ad, need not be a defense of the other.  I would argue in fact that defending critical ads entails rejecting "attack" ads as "politically informative."  So this, for instance, strikes me as a false equivalence:

And Obama's not innocent, either. While McCain's running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, blasted the Democratic nominee for his rather thin ties to a seemingly unrepentant member of the Vietnam-era Weather Underground, Obama responded with an ad reminding voters of McCain's role in the "Keating Five" savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s. Recent data from Nielsen suggest that the campaigns have aired roughly the same number of negative ads. Even Karl Rove, who knows a thing or two about attack ads, has declared that both sides have gone too negative.

The thin links between Obama and Ayers made by the McCain campaign and Fox News are dishonest and misleading.  Obama's linking McCain to the Keathing Five is another matter.  McCain was a member of the Keating Five (otherwise it would have been four), he intervened on Keating's behalf, had a tight relationship to Keating and helped, in a legislative way, Keating commit fraud.  He was in fact officially reprimanded by the Senate for that.  The Ayers and Keating allegations are not, in other words, in the same logical category.  It would be very helpful, I think, to keep them distinct.

Association by guilt

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.