Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Snow's Sticky Situation

New White House mouthpiece Tony Snow had his first briefing yesterday. He was rolling along fine with the usual spin (ie: good polls matter, bad ones don't) when Snow stepped in it...

A reporter asked Snow about why the White House was reluctant to talk about the NSA's phone-record database program. Snow said:

SNOW: 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 nor deny.

Um, excuse me, Tony?

We all know what Snow meant, and there was no racist intent or context going on there. But, you would think any seasoned journalist and TV personality would, in effect, have scrubbed that phrase from their vocabulary…

Maybe Tony should consider having this play in the background during his briefings from now on if he's going to be busting out the folklore...

It might just be because I first heard the phrase tarbaby in its derogatory context, but I always find it jarring when I hear it used like this.

It also makes me question the mindset of a person who would use the phrase. Clearly Snow is technically correct in his usage, but when experienced speakers like Snow choose to use a touchy phrase like that, there is a reason—even if subconscious—in my opinion. Especially when you consider he's fresh from FOX.

This usage strikes me as a deliberate use of a politically incorrect phrase in a situation where the speaker can then defend himself for being correct, innocent, and beyond reproach, while accusing his attackers of being "overly politically correct." It's not really about race, it's about scoring points on "sensitive" liberals and others that will be tweaked by this. Limbaugh has made a nice living doing exactly this.

Unless you are telling the story of Brer Rabbit, one should avoid "hugging the tar baby" of hugging the tar baby, but no tough FOX manly-man is going to follow those rules... Can't you just picture Hannity or O'Reilly getting all indignant and try to project over something like this? "I used the term correctly. Maybe you have a problem and that's why you heard it a different way..."

Problem is, Snow doesn't work at FOX anymore.

Good. His blood is already in the water as far as I'm concerned…

[h/t The Carpetbagger Report]

UPDATE: It hasn't been that long since a much less-public figure than the White House Spokesman used this phrase and had to apologize for it [link]. How 'bout it Brer Tony?

Hmm. I like that. From now on, I think I'll refer to Snow as Brer Tony, and maybe throw that old timey fiddle in as a hotlink too...


Mike said...

"We all know what Snow meant"

Speak for yourself, Furious.

I, for one, have *no* idea what it means.

Lil help?

BenC said...

I had no idea either... Maybe I'm just young. Go to wikipedia and search "tar baby", that was enough help for me.
Mmm... I can just smell the FOX machismo

PG said...

I don't think "tar baby" is automatically offensive. Toni Morrison used it as a title and intends the metaphor of the Brer Rabbit story (the young black man sees the beautiful black woman whom he loves as the creation of the white man to entrap black men).

And as Mr. Furious pretty clearly was alluding to the old incident in which someone used the term "niggardly" and lost his job, I'll say that I don't think people with tiny vocabularies or limited knowledge of African folklore should be the arbiters of others' speech. I think that if Snow had called someone a tar baby, that would be offensive (indeed, it is only as such a direct derogation that the phrase can be an insult) or even if the DC employee had referred to a black person as a "niggard" with the obvious potential for mishearing.

In all other cases, let us give the benefit of the doubt and the free flow of the English language. Personally I would like to see the references to African culture gain greater, not less, currency in American society.

Mr Furious said...

I took this over to an open thread at Balloon Juice, and it "ballooned" into a 250-comment thread. One thing became clear...not everyone is familiar with both or even one of the connotations of "tar baby"

I said "we all know" because I knew, and I had read three stories on it by the time I wrote my post, and felt I didn't need to make a long post longer by rehashing that. In addition, I got so caught up over at Balloon Juice, and I never checked back in here. Sorry.

Ben, is right, Wikipedia sums it up nicely, includes the links to the MN councilman that got in trouble, and the Random House style guide that recommends not using the term in public speaking...

pg, I was referring to the guy in MN who got a bunch of flack for using tar baby, not the mayor's aide who said "niggardly."

Anyway, as I stated in my post I don't think Snow was being racist. In addition, I don't think people that use the phrase are racist.

I DO think that a professional spokesperson for the freaking White House should be aware of what that phrase might mean, and use it with care, if at all.

tim maguire said...

It's hard to believe he put as much thought into the phrase as you suggest (he'd had to have been planning ahead of time to say it), but it's such an unusual term that it's also hard to believe it just popped out as the most appropriate phrase for the sentiment.

Hard to figure. Maybe challenging delicate liberal sensibilities is second nature to him and just happens without thought. If so, it'll be a short and stormy career as Press Secretary.

Mr Furious said...

Hard to figure. Maybe challenging delicate liberal sensibilities is second nature to him and just happens without thought. If so, it'll be a short and stormy career as Press Secretary.

Exactly! I think it slipped out because he was comfortable with it, not because it was racist or deliberately targetted at sensitive liberals. He probably would have waited until it wasn't his first day to try that.

My contention is that he comes from an atmoshere (FOX) where they are insulated form the real world. It's an echo chamber and one resistant to input from outside and to being told what's appropriate. The operate as an organ for the paranoid white male in the country, and as such, they are beyond sensitivity, they revel in insensitivity at times to appeal to those who feel reverse-discriminated against.

I don't think Snow is a racist or even a bully and/or dick like Hannity or O'Reilly, but if you hang around those guys long enough...