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.