Topic: Society

Tar Baby Ethics and Senator McCain
(3/28/2007)

Now that John McCain is running for president, he apparently will use whatever definition of "wrong" that will risk the fewest potential votes. Answering questions at a town hall meeting in Iowa, the Arizona senator was referring to federal involvement in custody cases when he said, "For me to stand here and say I'm going to declare divorces invalid because of someone who feels they weren't treated fairly in court, we are getting into a tar baby of enormous proportions and I don't know how you get out of that." Then some human Geiger counter of political correctness hyper-sensitivity informed McCain that "tar baby" is a term that some people consider a racial epithet, so he gave reporters a quick mea culpa: "I don't think I should have used that word and I was wrong to do so."

No, McCain was wrong to so cravenly give in to the semi-literate, self-righteous ignoramuses who would strip the language of every useful metaphor, allusion and phrase that "someone" might find offensive, regardless of whether any offense was intended or could be reasonably perceived. "Tar baby" refers to anything that one becomes stuck in or to as a result of contact or involvement, and refers to an Uncle Remus fable in which a rabbit (no, not a Rabbi…don't be offended, now!) gets stuck to a life-like doll made of tar. Somewhere, sometime, some people have used "tar baby" as a racial insult to blacks. That's not the word's fault; you don't hear about people being afraid to use the word "princess" because it has been used to describe a negative Jewish stereotype. Well, not yet, anyway: let's wait and see what McCain apologizes for next.

Nobody whose language ability rises above a grunt could ever think that McCain was making a racial slur, could they? Even one completely unfamiliar with the story or the term (which is to say, someone who needs to bone up on American literature, folk tales, cultural references and basic vocabulary) couldn't possibly think that Senator McCain used the term with any racial connotations at all. Would anyone really think he meant to say, "…we are getting into an African-American of enormous proportions and I don't know how you get out of that."

I don't think so.

But McCain apologized anyway. His logic, like all of us who capitulate to this dictatorship of the verbally challenged, is that it's just not worth the battle; better to lose a useful means of communicating an idea than lose support, a friend, a job, or a reputation. That may be, but somebody has to have the guts to let the language bullies know that they are the unethical ones, and that the solution for people who misunderstand literary allusions like "tar baby" and words like "niggardly" is not to attack the speaker or writer who actually has some knowledge, but to get an education. One would have thought that Senator "Straight Talk" would be such a champion, but as we learned last time around, during the South Carolina primary campaign, McCain's willingness to shoot straight and take the heat depends on his poll numbers.

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