The Ugly Campaign to Use Derrick Bell Against Barack Obama

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Breitbart.com and its allies are engaging in the sort of guilt-by-association tactics and race-baiting that the right once rejected.



As Breitbart.com, Fox News, and parts of the conservative blogosphere try to tarnish President Obama's reputation by publicizing the fact that he once hugged a controversial Harvard Law School professor, a few voices on the right are making the pragmatic case against the attack. Says Don Surber, "Many conservatives are driving themselves crazy over Barack Obama's past. This did not work in 2008 and it will not in 2012. In 2008, there was more and better ammo against Barack Obama. If his association with the Weather Underground and Jeremiah Wright could not sell him as a radical how can a video that shows him hugging a college professor prove that he is some sort of Manchurian Candidate for the Black Panthers now that he is in the fourth year of his presidency?" Indeed, Obama critics are foolish to spend their time on this particular story.

But Breitbart.com's items and the allied commentary it has inspired are problematic for reasons that transcend their political utility. The whole "Oh my God, Obama hugged Derrick Bell" line of attack is a glaring example of the guilt-by-association tactics that conservatives are quick to decry in different circumstances. Implicit in the coverage is the notion that humans ought to be judged not by their words and deeds -- or in this case, the record Obama has amassed over four years as president of the United States -- but by the beliefs of their most controversial acquaintances. Hugging a professor after introducing him at a rally is supposed to reflect on the beliefs of the person who did it decades later. It's blinkered logic, and we're all worse off if we accept it.

Most Americans want to live in a country where handshakes, hugs, or friendly introductions between a student and a professor signal respect for one's elders or even mere community courtesy -- a society where a hug isn't thought to signify a decades long embrace of the scholarship completed by the person around whose body your arms are fleetingly wrapped, but a warm, friendly gesture. The Breitbart.com approach is to turn every last human gesture into evidence in an ongoing character trial conducted by the most zealous members of an ideological tribe. Little evidence is required to establish guilt, there is no statute of limitations, and every convict happens to belong to a different political tradition than the prosecutor and judge.

The people in charge of Breitbart.com belong on a 1990s college campus chanting "the personal is the political" and fighting with their far-left analogs. Instead they're running a popular conservative Web site, which tells you just how intellectually bankrupt movement conservatism has become. The rank and file used to claim that guilt-by-association and race-baiting are abhorrent. The most discerning now oppose such tactics by arguing that they're merely ineffective. And this is to say nothing of the execrable ways that the site has distorted Professor Bell's beliefs and failed to accurately convey his biography and impact on the world.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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