A classic "Bloom County" cartoon of the 1980s has Opus the penguin sitting on a park bench watching a host of people pointing out things about each other that they find offensive, till they all realize, "Life is offensive!" At which point they all run off screaming in horror. Opus sums up the spectacle thus: "Offensensitivity."
Offensensitivity is something afflicting many in our society, and it's an especially volatile combination with cultural illiteracy. Just ask new White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. His first outing went well by many accounts; however, one thing he said set off the easily tripped alarms of the race-baiters of the American left. Snow was responding to a question about the surveillance issue, and he said:
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 nor deny.
The race-baiters immediately set to work pretending to be outraged about Snow's use of the phrase "tar baby" and hoping it would, well, tar the White House with imputed racism. One group fortunate enough to be listed by Google News, styling itself "Think Progress" (they apparently left off "While Wishing to Oppress"), provides an excellent example of the attempt to gin up controversy; the comments are exemplary.
The problems with this issue are many:
One: The figure of the tar baby comes from American lore, as Snow even pointed out to one particularly ignorant press member who asked him to "put into English the phrase, 'hug the tar baby.'" In point of fact, it hails from African-American lore, the famous Brer Rabbit tales from which we've also kept "Don't throw me in that briar patch!" They're wonderful tales that impart object lessons with good humor and memorable imagery.
The tar baby was a trap devised by Brer Fox to catch Brer Rabbit, and once the rabbit got his paws on the tar baby, he was stuck. It was made of exceptionally sticky pitch, so the more Brer Rabbit tried to extricate himself from it, the more stuck in it he became. The tar baby became an apt metaphor for a situation that you can't get yourself out of once you get involved in it; the lesson is, don't get involved in it at all, stay away.
Two: Snow used the "tar baby" imagery explicitly with that object lesson in mind. Even if certain people have used the phrase "tar baby" as a racial slur, Snow certainly was not and should not be held accountable for others' misuse of a term that he knew well and used in the proper context. In this sense the "tar baby" issue is just like the "niggardly" controversies (a "Think Progress" poster made this point, although of course to mean Snow was just as "racist" as the persons who said "niggardly") in which people who used words in their proper contexts are punished for having small-minded ignoramuses in their audiences who didn't know those words and couldn't think of anything better than to misconstrue them in a racial context.
Three: By using African-American lore in a White House press corps briefing and expecting, however wrong he was, that the press would recognize it, Snow is legitimizing it — well, it is already legimitate; I mean signaling that it is legitimate Americana, suggesting it is something all Americans should know, recognizing its cultural importance. That is 180 degrees removed from the racist tinge the race-baiters wish to give it.
Four: Tony Snow has used this imagery before, as have numerous other opinion writers. Google the terms "Iraq" and "tar baby," for instance; you'll find the proper, contextual use of the phrase spanning the range of American political opinion (over 53,000 hits, too).
Five: Finally, doesn't it seem a rather small-minded, racist way of thinking to equate "tar baby" with a smear against blacks since tar is, you know, so black? That's as stupid as suggesting the term "sugar daddy" ought to be regarded a smear against whites, since refined sugar is so white.