Argumentum ad angelum

The following startling piece of reasoning may put us into new fallacy territory.  Glenn Reynolds, also known as Instapundit, writes:

RANK ANTISEMITISM in the Democratic congressional primary in Memphis:

"Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen and the JEWS HATE Jesus," blares the flier, which Cohen himself received in the mail — inducing gasps — last week.

Circulated by an African-American minister from Murfreesboro Tenn., which isn't even in Cohen's district, the literature encourages other black leaders in Memphis to "see to it that one and ONLY one black Christian faces this opponent of Christ and Christianity in the 2008 election."

Well, that just makes everybody look good. Jeez. I like Steve Cohen a lot, and not just because he once gave me some absolutely amazing John Fogerty tickets (to the Mud Island show that was his first appearance after a decade of not touring). But even if I didn't, this would be absolutely disgraceful. Perhaps Barack Obama should make a point of condemning this.

UPDATE: Why should Obama weigh in? Because he promises an uplifting new kind of politics and this is an ugly old kind. Because Steve Cohen is one of Obama's supporters, and political loyalty is supposed to run both ways — unless you're Hillary, anyway, and Obama's supposed to be the anti-Hillary. Because otherwise Obama's big appeal — I'm a black candidate who's not like Al Sharpton! — will be a fraud. And, of course, because it's the right thing to do.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Okay, the "fraud" bit was a bit strong. But it is the right thing to do, and it's the kind of thing that a guy promising a new uplifting kind of politics ought to do. Trust me, if the racial angle were pointing the other way, this would be getting a lot of attention, especially if it could be tied to a Republican. And I say this, remember, as a guy who went after Trent Lott for a lot less.

Let me get this straight.  First, an African-American minister having no relation to the Obama campaign sent around an antisemitic flier about a supporter of Barack Obama–and this not because he is a supporter of Obama; Reynolds therefore adduces that Obama needs to condemn this specific instance of antisemitism.  Why?

1.  Obama promises uplifting politics, and this is not uplifting;

2.  Cohen supports Obama;

3.  Otherwise Obama will be no different from Al Sharpton;  

4.  It's the right thing to do. 

How to understand this?  The second update merely softens the "fraud" allegation but it doesn't retreat on the basic argument.

 1.  The first reason is a curious kind of ad hominemad angelum–against the angel.  Because Obama claims to be against such politics, he will be held responsible for every instance of them, regardless of their relation to him.  His failure to act will be a sign of hypocrisy. 

2.  The second one suggests that Obama is rather not an angel, but some kind of horrible friend for not coming to the defense of his supporter. 

3.  The third resembles the first in that it holds Obama responsible for the dastardly deeds of others.  But this is more specific in that it stresses only the actions of other African-American people.  That's a very odd position to take, for no one expects Glenn Reynolds to denounce every instance of white people behaving badly.   

4.  The fourth only works on the theory that it's always right always and everywhere to do what is right.  Everyone knows that.  But why is it the right thing in this particular case?  I think the first three reasons were meant to establish this.  But they didn't.  

We saw this sort of argument a few weeks ago.  Richard Cohen had demanded Obama disagree more with someone's daughter's friend.  That failure, in Cohen's mind, results in Obama's embracing the ideas of someone who supports him.  We might have termed that argument an argumentum ad amici amicum–argument against the friend of a friend.

These arguments share the strained relevance of the ad hominem argument, but they carry one step further by replacing the attack the character of the arguer with an attack on the views of people in some (very distant) way associated with the initial arguer.  This loose association serves then as justification for the demand that the initial arguer vociferously condemn the actions or words of the loosely associated persons or risk confirming the initial suspicions.  When the pool of possibly associated individuals as large as Reynolds makes it, this becomes a rather difficult task.

via Crooked Timber and Sadly, No