Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

JonBenét Ramsey murder: Would the media have been obsessed with it if she'd been black?

Representative Doug Lamborn has learned the very hard way that using a too-colorful term can put a politician in a very sticky situation.

And now I've gotten pulled into the tar baby mess, too.

Two years ago, Ari Armstrong, all-time libertarian and sometime linguist, came to the defense of Jon Caldara, the Independence Institute honcho who got bitch-slapped by the left for using "bitch slap" -- a term that Armstrong pointed out such liberal outlets as, well, Westword had used liberally.

And now Armstrong has done the same for Lamborn and "tar baby," with his "Lamborn strikes the 'Tar Baby' Tar Baby" column, which lists other people, most of them liberals, who have used the term, and challenges David Sirota's suggestion in Salon that "Lamborn's choice of words shows how the fringe right is mainstreaming racist language."

Armstrong writes:

What's amazing about the phrase "tar baby" (as others have noted) is that in today's world of political character assassination a politician strikes a tar baby merely by uttering the phrase.

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."

....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....

Over at the left-leaning Westword, the term has been used by Alan Prendergast (and again) and editor Patricia Calhoun...

Armstrong cites my use of "tar baby" in "What a Circus!," my July 26, 2001 column that bitch-slapped Boulder for getting mired in the then-five-year-old JonBenét saga.

Here's an excerpt from that column: politically correct Boulder, there's no animal more exotic than a tar baby. And JonBenét Ramsey, the little girl who would have turned eleven next month if she'd been guarded more closely, just won't go away. "Once you touch this case, you're stuck," says Dan Caplis, the talk-show attorney who recently acquired his first legal connection to the case.

"It sticks to everyone it touches," says Tom Miller, a former attorney who just got out of his legal connection to the case. "There's, like, this slime."

Context counts. I used "tar baby" in the "sticky situation" sense of the term -- which evolved from a story that Joseph Campbell traces back to centuries ago in India. But had JonBenét Ramsey been black, I would have thought twice about using the term "tar baby" in connection with the case, because the racist connotation would inevitably have come up. (By the same token, I'll avoid using "calling a spade a spade" in certain columns.)

Evidence suggests that Lamborn did not think before he uttered the words "tar baby" while discussing America's first African-American president with Craig Silverman. But what does Lamborn really think... when he does?

As for my use of "tar baby" in that column, no, I wouldn't have used the term if JonBenét Ramsey had been black. But that raises another question, one that points out why these conversations about racism in this country are always useful, if painful: If JonBenét had been a little black girl, would the case still have become a national obsession?

That's a media tar baby.

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