White House Press Secretary Tony Snow's Tar-Baby

Think Progress and Crooks and Liars both note White House Press Secretary Tony Snow’s use of the term ‘Tar-Baby” at a press conference yesterday.

CBS REPORTER: Why not declassify [the NSA’s call records database]? I mean, the President did talk about the surveillance program a day after the New York Times broke that story. This would seem to affect far more people and it did sound like the President was confirming that story today when he was answering questions.

SNOW: If you go back and look through what he said, there was a reference of foreign to domestic calls. I am not going to stand up here and presume to declassify any kind of program. That is a decision the President has to make. I can’t confirm or deny it. The President was not confirming or denying. Again, I would take you back to the USA Today story to give you a little context. Look at the poll that appeared the following day […] something like 65% of the public was not troubled by it. Having said that, I don’t want to hug the tar baby of trying to comment on the program… the alleged program, the existence of which I can neither confirm or deny.

John Amato even links to three stories (1, 2, 3) that, he says, show people have been fired for using the term. I read those three stories, and no one gets fired…

That’s where Amato and TP lost me. Snow’s use of the term, while open to debate about it’s suitability for the occasion, is in keeping with the established definition of the term, and in character with Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories.

Is the term used as a derogatory term for black people? Occasionally, yes. Is more commonly used otherwise? Absolutely, as Kim Pearson’s examination details. In fact Toni Morrison has a Nobel prize winning novel tittled Tar Baby, which was a modern take on the fable.

The only instance in my life I can recall hearing “tar-baby” spoken in public as an insult was in the Saturday Night Live “Job Interview” skit featuring Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase trading racist terms as part of a word association game gone awry.

All that’s somewhat besides the point. The question is was the usage racist, or was it perceived to be racist. Snow explained himself during the press conference and address the issue much more expansively, in a roundabout way, seven years ago in his column about David Howard and the word “niggardly.”

(JWR – Feb. 1, 1999) DAVID HOWARD COMMITTED A POTENTIALLY FATAL CAREER MISTAKE on Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. The then-head of the Washington, D.C., Office of Public Advocate, while talking to colleagues about budgetary matters, used the word “niggardly.”

Before long, a retinue of hot dogs and race-baiters took to the street corners, demanding swift justice. On Jan. 27, they won. Howard apologized for his language and then resigned.

Note several things: The word “niggardly” has no etymological relationship to the “N”-word. Howard used it appropriately.

More importantly, nobody ever accused Howard of racism. He’s a restaurateur who gave up his career to promote the candidacy of the District’s new mayor, Anthony Williams. Nobody ever accused him of lacking commitment. Some mayoral aides describe him as “the glue” of Williams’ election campaign. Nobody ever accused him of bilking the public. He worked long hours and took a pay cut to work for the city. Nobody ever accused him of insensitivity. He has lived in the city for 16 years. Nobody who endured through the Marion Barry era can be bereft of hair-trigger racial sensitivities.

Nevertheless, Howard is gone and, worse, the mayor lauded his decision, citing the need for people to exercise appropriate discretion when talking. If this episode doesn’t capture the sublime weirdness of our age, nothing does. David Howard got fired because some people in public employ were morons who a) didn’t know the meaning of “niggardly,” b) didn’t know how to use a dictionary to discover the word’s meaning and c) actually demanded that he apologize for their ignorance.

Our language makes us all susceptible to being suckered by the votaries of division and derision. The English tongue features more words and nuances than any other. Bigots regularly appropriate everyday words for vile uses. But do their abuses mean that nobody can use such locutions as “chink in the armor,” “a nip in the air,” “spic ‘n’ span” or “cheese and crackers?”

Some people are arguing that in the current case the answer to that last question is, “yes.” Basically they’re asking Snow to apologize for his expansive vocabulary; used correctly, and their misunderstanding of the reference.

As the folks at The Straight Dope note;

Sure, you don’t want to offend anyone deliberately, but there’s a fine line between not being a jerk and examining every word you speak for nuances that might be misinterpreted by people who don’t understand them.

While Snow may want to clarify, he’s got no reason to apologize.

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