Let’s say you had a friend who starting going to lodge meetings. At this lodge, anti-Semitic remarks and jokes are made routinely by known neo-Nazi sympathizers. Suppose also that, after telling you all about this anti-Semitism, your friend returned to the lodge, not once, not twice, but on numerous occasions week after week. You might reasonably infer one of three things: 1) your friend is a neo-Nazi; 2) your friend inexplicably tolerates heavy doses of anti-Semitism; or 3) your friend puts up with anti-Semitism because he believes he can benefit from the folks at the lodge in some way.
When you ask your friend about his continued association with the lodge he doesn’t offer any alternative reasons. So, it is still not unreasonable for you to infer that it’s either 1), 2), or 3)—none of which are very good (as in upright) reasons for consorting with neo-Nazis. Indeed, you would have every reason to question this association until which time your friend offered a more satisfactory explanation. Perhaps his response to you is: "It’s none of your business."
But surely his possible embrace of neo-Nazi doctrine is your business if you’ve made a commitment not to be friends with anti-Semites. So, his dealings with the lodge might give you reason to discontinue your relationship with him. In fact, you may – justifiably – decide not to be friends with him anymore at all until he explains his association with a group you find so unsavory—maybe even immoral. You have your principles after all.
Now, weeks have turned to months have turned to years—twenty years, let’s say. Your former friend returns to you after those many years and says: "I’d like for you to write a letter of recommendation for me." You see, there’s this great job he’s trying to get. But you reply: "I’d like to write that letter for you, but I still have so many questions about that neo-Nazi lodge."
"Don’t worry about that," he replies. "That’s water under the bridge. I stopped going to that lodge a couple of years ago." At first, he doesn’t tell you he stopped going because he had disavowed the beliefs he may have once had in common with the lodge membership. He doesn’t tell you he stopped going because he no longer found the lodge useful in furthering his career (though you do suspect the lodge had recently become a career liability). In fact, he doesn’t give you any good reason at all and – apart from some hemming, hawing and disavowals that seem too little, too late – he is unable to tell you whether he ever shared the views of the lodge all those years he was a member.
So, in the absence of any good explanation, do you have a duty of any sort to write him that letter of recommendation? At best, you have incomplete information. At worst, your friend is either an anti-Semite and/or an opportunist.
Nevertheless, people eventually come along and say that because you have refused to write the letter and because you question your former friend’s association with the lodge, you have committed a fallacy. "That’s guilt by association" they say. But is it? Why would one go to a lodge for twenty years unless he either wanted to draw from the wellspring of neo-Nazi fraternity, or expects some type of personal gain? (No alternative theory about your former friend – like going under cover for the FBI or Southern Poverty Law Center – seems to make much sense.)
The people who are accusing you of "guilt by association" are not only being rash. They, themselves, should be questioned for their want of skepticism; ready, as they are, to sign that letter of recommendation without further reflection. That is, if they suspend their questions about your former friend’s possible extremism and eagerly recommend him for the job, then you are right to question their scruples, too. After all, they’re putting pen to paper on his behalf. They have refused to ask the tough question: Doesn’t people’s desire for personal gain sometimes get them to hide their most cherished beliefs when it seems expedient? It’s been known to happen.
As you move forward this election season with serious questions about the goings, doings and core beliefs of political candidates – including their records, past associations (not to mention the kind of political opportunism that comes with the territory) – don’t let people make you feel as if you’re doing something wrong. You’re not. You’re doing the best you can with what information you have, none of which requires you make leaps of faith. And when too many questions linger, sometimes – sadly perhaps – appearances are all you have to inform your judgment.
Finally, we should also remind ourselves that when these kinds of questions come up in campaign ads, it is part of a healthy national conversation and a thorough democratic process. While it can get unpleasant, even ugly, it’s all the by-product of a society that values and protects free speech—warts and all. Your questions, as well as those raised by partisan enemies, represent healthy skepticism … even if that skepticism eventually translates into a vote for someone that captures your trust more than your imagination.