Just ask Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn. As of the moment of this writing, the top Google hit for "tar baby" is a USA Today article, "GOP lawmaker apologizes to Obama for 'tar baby' remark."
Here's what he actually said regarding the debt-ceiling debate, reports the Denver Post's Allison Sherry: "Now, I don't even want to be associated with him. It's like touching a, a tar baby and you get it . . . you know you're stuck, and you're part of the problem now, and you can't get away."
Lamborn quickly apologized for using the phrase. But that hasn't stopped the left from blistering Lamborn.
Because she is an expert in linguistic analysis, Sherry helpfully adds, "Though the term is often defined as a sticky situation, it carries some historic usages that are racially insensitive."
According to David Sirota, "Lamborn's choice of words shows how the fringe right is mainstreaming racist language."
As Westword's Michael Roberts reviews, even the free-market Wayne Laugesen says Lamborn shouldn't have used the phrase.
But what does "tar baby" actually mean, and is it racist? Or (as usual) is the hard left manufacturing outrage to smear a Republican officeholder for partisan purposes?
The Wikipedia entry is actually useful here. It notes a tar baby entraps "Br'er Rabbit" in the classic story. But that's hardly the origin of the symbol.
Wikipedia also references Joseph Campbell, and thankfully I happen to have a copy of his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces on my desk. On page 87, Campbell describes "the celebrated and well-nigh universal tar-baby story of popular folklore." Cambell in turn references a 1930 article by Aurelio Espinosa and some other works.
Here's how Espinosa opens his 1943 follow-up article:
In my Notes on the Origin and History of the Tar-Baby Story... I examined and studied one hundred and fifty-two versions of the tale. In subsequent articles I have continued to affirm my belief in the India origins of the tale in the sense that India is as far back as we can trace it, and that it is not of African origin as some have believed. I have now in my possession two hundred and sixty-seven versions...
No doubt the term "tar baby" has been used by some with racist intent. But obviously Lamborn does not fall in that category. And lots of ordinary words and phrases have been used to convey bigotry, but that doesn't mean we must eradicate all that language. Rather, we should seek to eradicate the underlying bigotry, where it exists.
A "tar baby" in its oldest and widest use means simply something that entraps you if you start to fight or mess with it. It is now the perfect self-referential phrase.
But is Sirota right that Lamborn's use of the term "shows how the fringe right is mainstreaming racist language?"
Well, let's look at some other examples.
In 2004 John Kerry, that veritable champion of the "fringe right," used the phrase (and took flak for it).
On August 31, 2003, the Denver Post's hard-left columnist Jim Spencer wrote, "Last week, those same leaders started looking to the United Nations to pull them free of a Middle Eastern tar baby."
On July 3, 2006, the Denver Post's center-left columnist Bob Ewegen wrote, "Mighty clever fox, that Brer Owens seems to be. First, he appears to sucker Brer Romanoff into tangling with that political tar baby, 'immigration.'"
On March 9, 2002, the often-left-leaning Denver Post editorial board wrote, "When the House Civil Justice and Judiciary Committee voted 7-2 on Thursday against creating a special panel with subpoena powers to investigate Columbine, it was only the latest public agency to decline hugging this tar-baby issue." On April 14, 2002, it wrote, "Meantime, a parade of public officials has pirouetted out of the path of a tar baby they'd rather not dance with..."
Over at the left-leaning Westword, the term has been used by Alan Prendergast (and again) and editor Patricia Calhoun.
(Update: Here's another little irony: while Sirota wrote his screed for Solon, another left-leaning writer, David Corn, used the term "tar baby" in an article for Salon several years ago.)
So I'll go ahead and hold my breath waiting for Sirota to denounce Joseph Cambell, Jim Spencer, Bob Ewegen, the Denver Post, Alan Prendergast, and Patricia Calhoun for helping the "fringe right" mainstream "racist language."
Or he could just stop smearing Republicans over make-believe issues.