Mitt Romney

Toni Morrison, Fighting the Good Fight Against PC

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Good for the Boston Globe's David Abel. After Massachusetts' gorgeous Gov. Mitt Romney called the Big Dig a "tar baby," Abel balanced a report on the predictable outrage with quotes from Toni Morrison. The author of Tar Baby? She doesn't think Romney did anything wrong.

Reached at her home near Princeton University, where she teaches, Morrison called the expression "antiquated" and one that's "attractive to some people, when they begin to search for hints of racism."

She described it as a "forbidden word" that she sought to restore to its original meaning, one that illuminated an old African tale about the connection between a master and slave.

"How it became a racial epithet, I don't know," she said. "It was my attempt to rescue the phrase from its low meaning. I wanted to annihilate the connotation and return the meaning to its origins. Apparently, I haven't succeeded."

She added: "I suppose it should be avoided because it could be offensive to some people."

If there was a video, this would be accompanied by a surely dramatic and metaphor-laden eye roll.

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  1. Well, she’s being a bit disingenuous claiming not to know how it became a racial epithet, but in the “things jackasses claim to be offended by” department it falls somewhere between the word “niggardly” and the “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

  2. What, that giant discussion about Song of the South and not one mention of it here? I’ve never known Reason to miss an opportunity to link to itself (no offense).

  3. Perhaps if the Big Dig backers hadn’t been so niggardly on safety issues…

  4. Cost overruns reaching the moon, constant leaks threatening to flood some tunnels, giant slabs of concrete falling from the ceiling and crushing people to death . . . yeah, the phrase “tar baby” is what we need to focus on here.

  5. Jeff P.,

    Racist pig.

  6. Which is worse – being “outraged” about the use of “tar baby”, or being outraged by the outrage?

  7. Which is worse – being “outraged” about the use of “tar baby”, or being outraged by the outrage?

    Being outraged by the use of “tar baby.” Outrage over issue-clouding stupidity is a virtue, not a vice.

    Say, I’ve got a great idea–let’s take some of the money earmarked for tunnel repairs and spend it printing racial sensitivity pamphlets! THAT should help prevent future deaths!

  8. Dan T.,

    Racist pig.

  9. Pro Libertate,

    Racist pig.

  10. yeah, the phrase “tar baby” is what we need to focus on here.

    Isn’t there some verse in Revelations that says Armegeddon’s just round the corner when the superficial becomes important and the important superficial? Or words to that effect?

    Damn! I’ve got the Spooks. Hellfire and Brimstone is round the corner!!! Aaaaahhhhhh!

  11. Which is worse – being “outraged” about the use of “tar baby”, or being outraged by the outrage?

    The worst is being outraged by the outrage at the outrage. That would make you a liberal bedwetter.

  12. Considering he was referring to the Big Dig, and not a person, I think it was obvious it was not intended as a racist remark. Anyone who can’t see that needs to extricate his head from the tar baby of his own backside.

  13. I’d say that it’s pointless to argue over whether or not people “should” be offended by a certain term.

    A better point might be that a community leader should know better than to use a term that will possibly offend a good number of people.

    This goes double for anybody who uses “niggardly” in conversation…you’re just trying to start trouble by making yourself a victim of PC when people who are not up on their knowledge of antiquated words naturally take offense.

  14. This goes double for anybody who uses “niggardly” in conversation…you’re just trying to start trouble by making yourself a victim of PC when people who are not up on their knowledge of antiquated words naturally take offense.

    So smart people must censor their vocabularies to avoid inadvertently offending the dumbasses? Bullshit. However offended you might be by the word “niggardly,” rest assured I am twice as offended by your willful ignorance in an era where libraries and the Internet make the world’s knowledge available for free.

  15. you’re just trying to start trouble by making yourself a victim of PC when people who are not up on their knowledge of antiquated words naturally take offense.

    You hear that everybody? You have to start not using words as they are meant to be used in order to avoid “offense”. Who cares if people don’t know the word? It “sounds” offensive! How DARE you know the English language?

  16. Yeah, Romney should have just used the proper term for the Big Dig, “Mongolian Clusterfuck.”

    (Why “Mongolian”? Why not?)

  17. How DARE you know the English language?

    Your use of the drug-war-propaganda word DARE offends me deeply. Cut it out or I’ll tell Mr. Cavanaugh you’re being rude.

  18. Dan has a point. Who ever uses the word niggardly except on occasions like this? If you use an obscure, outdated word, it’s your fault if you get misinterpreted.

  19. So smart people must censor their vocabularies to avoid inadvertently offending the dumbasses? Bullshit.

    You don’t have to, no. But don’t use an antiquated word that you know many people will misinterpret and then whine about it when they do.

    I doubt any “smart” person would use that term when there are other words that mean the same thing that people are more likely to understand. Unless, of course, they want to prove what “dumbasses” their audence is for not being familiar with a word that is almost never used today.

  20. You don’t have to, no. But don’t use an antiquated word that you know many people will misinterpret and then whine about it when they do.

    No, instead of whining about it I will explain what the word means. If the person continues whining after learning the truth, then I know that person is the type of nit-picker who goes out of his way to look for reasons to find offense, which in turn means this person and his opinions are not worth worrying about.

  21. Speaking of being a dumbass, I guess I should have changed by posting name back!

  22. Speaking of being a dumbass, I guess I should have changed my posting name back!

  23. So smart people must censor their vocabularies to avoid inadvertently offending the dumbasses? Bullshit.

    In my experience, smart people try to use words that their audience understands. It’s generally the less smart, but trying to sound smart, people that throw out antiquated words like “waiting on tenterhooks” in everyday conversation.

  24. I think we should reclaim Porchmonkey.

    Porchmonkey 4 Life!

  25. It would actually be good economics to be niggardly with this tar baby, but I guess it’s too late for that.

    Anyway, on the positive side this keeps Romney out of the White House. As for Massachusetts, I can’t see him losing a single vote over this.

  26. By the way, how old should a person be before I’m expected to only use words I’m sure he’s heard before? We can reasonably expect a five-year-old to expand his vocabulary; what about someone who’s ten? Fifteen? Twenty-one? What is the list of properly easy words people can be allowed to use without guilt? How far down do you think everyday English should shrink to ensure nobody gets their widdle feelings hurt?

  27. No, instead of whining about it I will explain what the word means. If the person continues whining after learning the truth, then I know that person is the type of nit-picker who goes out of his way to look for reasons to find offense, which in turn means this person and his opinions are not worth worrying about.

    Wouldn’t it be “smarter” just to say “cheap”, “frugal”, or “miserly”?

    I guess it depends on whether your aim is to communicate an idea or to prove you’re smarter than the person you’re talking to.

  28. Mo, you’re arguing with a former English teacher. You have no chance.

  29. I guess it depends on whether your aim is to communicate an idea or to prove you’re smarter than the person you’re talking to.

    Nice switch on the purpose, Dan. Did you think no one would notice that you said:

    you’re just trying to start trouble by making yourself a victim of PC

    Which is it Dan? Which odious reason for using proper words can you ascribe here?

  30. Wouldn’t it be “smarter” just to say “cheap”, “frugal”, or “miserly”?

    I dunno. Being politically correct is what got us the Big Dig in the first place.

  31. Romney should keep antiquated terms like “Tar baby” under his hat. terms like that just aren’t 23 skidoo these days.

  32. At what age can a person reasonably say “My vocabulary is big enough, thank you, and I’m through with this silly edumacashun business, so the onus is on YOU to make sure your every word is one whose definition I’ve already absorbed?”

  33. “Niggardly” as an adjective is not “antiquated”. In fact, I bet most people around here knew the meaning of the word without being told. It doesn’t take a college education to know it. Read a bunch of books, and you’ll learn it soon enough. Just because the word isn’t colloquial at this instant doesn’t mean it couldn’t pop back into usage. It doesn’t even have the same roots as the offensive word that everyone is so scared of.

    It’s one thing to knowingly offend someone, and something else entirely to be knowingly offended. When the whole “niggardly” spat first took place, many of the people making the most noise knew what the word meant from the beginning. I’m not fond of the heckler’s veto in the first place (it will lead us to the LCD of “offensiveness”, which is a scary thought), but when the heckler is wielding his veto when he’s not really offended, well, who is the bad guy then?

  34. Maybe you guys are right. Next time I see a parent with a child who appears to be mentally disabled, I’ll ask them what it’s like having a moron or idiot for a kid.

    If they get angry, I’ll give them Jennifer’s email address so she can explain what dumbasses they are for taking offense.

  35. At what age can a person reasonably say “My vocabulary is big enough, thank you, and I’m through with this silly edumacashun business, so the onus is on YOU to make sure your every word is one whose definition I’ve already absorbed?”

    Of course the onus is on the speaker to use words that his or her audience or conversation partner will understand.

  36. I call bullshit on this entire story. I hang around a pretty crass group of people. In my life I have heard every single racial, ethnic, or religious slur known to man. But I have never, ever, in my entire life heard a black person refered to as a “tar baby”. It simply isn’t a racial slur. Period. And its not even an aniquated term! Everybody is familiar with the Uncle Remus stories (which are based on a collection of African American folklore for god’s sake). The “tar baby” and the “briar patch” from that story have both entered into everyday lexicon as metaphors to describe certain situations. As an aside, I’ve been watching some Romney speeches and its a pretty good bet he’s going to our next President.

  37. “Moron” and “idiot” are words that have directly offensive connotations. Saying such words would mean that you were being knowingly offensive. No misinterpretations would be necessary on the part of the listener.

    If I choose to believe that the word crapulent means that I think you’re being scatological, then I’m an idiot and a moron for not knowing English and not taking the trouble to look the word up. Just in case, you know.

  38. Of course the onus is on the speaker to use words that his or her audience or conversation partner will understand.

    That’s the most condescending thing I’ve heard in a long time. Congratulations.

    I’m seriously impressed by Toni Morrison. I can’t really think of any single author who’s benefited more from PC than that particular hack, and here she is, decrying the overracialized pseudo-reaction. Surely everyone can agree if even Toni Morrison agrees.

  39. Daddy,
    Was there ever an Uncle Remus?

  40. “Tar baby” is a racial insult? What the hell?

    Does that make me a racist?

  41. I call bullshit on this entire story. I hang around a pretty crass group of people. In my life I have heard every single racial, ethnic, or religious slur known to man. But I have never, ever, in my entire life heard a black person refered to as a “tar baby”. It simply isn’t a racial slur. Period.

    With all due respect, it is a racial slur, albeit a very, very arcane one. You’d have to go back pretty far in time (say, 19th Century)to wring any pejorative power out of the word.

    Perjorative status depends on time and context. Another example would be “cracker,” which is racially pejorative now, but originally was a designation more of geographic and socioeconomic status within the white “race,” rather than outside of it.

    That being said, Ms. Morrison must be low on sales, as even I as a black male wouldn’t have thought “racial” in the context of the Romney’s statement. Furthermore, since the remark was in relation to a construction project that is a big welfare state overrun mess, it is actually quite a witty remark from a libertarian perspective (if you understand the meaning of the Br’er Rabbit story).

    I gave up reading fiction a long time ago, so angry black earthmother feministas like Morrison only upset me when they crawl out of their caves to sniff for honorary degrees and TV face time. I might be less condemnatory in my remarks if she looked good on a greased pole in a thong …

  42. I’d like to introduce another perfectly useful word that is likely to set off the easily-offended-people-with-limited-vocabulary but is one that is very much needed to be given widespread use…especially on web logs:

    NIGGLER (n.): One who obsesively harps on petty details.

    I first used this word in a law class when we were discussing the “niggardly” debate. Anyone who has ever gone to law school knows how fitting this word is in such an environment.

  43. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone,” it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many things.”

    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

    from “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll

  44. If they get angry, I’ll give them Jennifer’s email address so she can explain what dumbasses they are for taking offense.

    Dan – Jennifer’s way more busy than I am. Give them mine and I’ll email them a picture of me with my nuts out* and the caption: LEARN ENGLISH YOU OVER-SENSITIVE DICKWEED.

    *I apprecitate that sending them a picture of my genitals is probably unnecessary, but I’m hoping that it might work in the same way as a quick shock (e.g a pinch) followed by a nugget of knowledge. And yes, don’t worry, my balls are shocking.

  45. I take it that Mr. Pot is going to call Mr. Kettle something else, just to be on the safe side.

  46. I might be less condemnatory in my remarks if she looked good on a greased pole in a thong …

    I am so sick of these bigoted, ignorant stereotypes. The poles are NOT GREASED!

    Does that make me a racist?

    Not just a racist, but a racist with a suck-ass server. No offense. Ninth attempt to post this-here remark of mine.

    Maybe you guys are right. Next time I see a parent with a child who appears to be mentally disabled, I’ll ask them what it’s like having a moron or idiot for a kid. If they get angry, I’ll give them Jennifer’s email address so she can explain what dumbasses they are for taking offense.

    Dan, do you really not see the difference here, or are you being a troll?

    I will say that there’s nothing wrong with using the word “idiosyncratic,” and if someone thinks they’re being called an idiot, that merely proves that they are one.

  47. Mo,

    Come on, “waiting on tenterhooks” is still pretty commonly used. Just google it.

  48. I’m first offended by the big dig itself, then offended by the misinterpretation. Its not like he referred to the big dig as the Tar Babies’ tar baby.

    Other fun words likely to get the PC crowd’s undies in a wad: hoary, cockshy and toothsome.

  49. As a rule of thumb, I tend not to worry about offending morons.

  50. Until reading this post and the comments, I had no idea that anybody thought the phrase “tar baby” was supposed to be rascist.

  51. “tar baby” and “niggardly” are perfectly crumulent words.

  52. Anybody who loves a good time – a story, a song, dancing and a wee drop – can be a cracker. The word is rooted in the Irish and Scottish “craic“.*

    Even our African-descended brothers can enjoy the craic. I give you The Atlanta Black Crackers of the old Negro American League.

    Kevin

    *Unless you believe those who say that the Gaelic tongues picked it up as a loanword from an English dialect, respelled it, and loaned it back long after it went out of use in Blighty. 🙂

  53. Cromulent?

  54. yes, cromulent. sorry, i haven’t channeled ee cummings enough to learn to spell…

  55. What’s the etymology for that word? It’s slang for “peachy keen”, right? I’m not seeing it in my OED.

    To be fair, I must explain “crapulent”. It means “relating to the drinking of alcohol or drunkenness”. The word derives from the late Latin “crapulentus ‘very drunk’, from the Latin crapula ‘inebriation’.”

    In other words, Crapulentus is available as a handle. And, in all probability, the domain name crapulentus.com is there for the taking, as well 🙂

  56. I also have to call Bullshit on Mrs. Morrison’s reference to the term “tar baby” as “antiquated”. Perhaps amongst kids under the age of 25, who were raised on video games instead of books and have little or no knowldege of Uncle Remus, Mr. Toad, or even Alice in Wonderland one could make such a case. But this was not a Britney Spears concert. The vast majority of people over the age of 30 and certainly Romney and most of the people in that room are well aware of the Uncle Remus stories and the tar baby in particular. Indeed I’d be willing to wager the ratio of people who know of the tar baby vs those who have read Morrison’s craptastic novels to be something in the order of 100:1. And the ultimate irony of all this is that the Tar Baby is a black creation. Indeed, the Uncle Remus tales are probably the most signifignant contribution African Americans as a group have ever made to American literature. Perhaps that is the reason for Morrison’s slur. Professional jealousy.

  57. “Isn’t there some verse in Revelations that says Armegeddon’s just round the corner when the superficial becomes important and the important superficial? Or words to that effect?”

    No.

  58. To be fair, I must explain “crapulent”. It means “relating to the drinking of alcohol or drunkenness”. The word derives from the late Latin “crapulentus ‘very drunk’, from the Latin crapula ‘inebriation’.”

    Piss off, Pro Libertate. Who the hell do you think you are, using big words that have to be “explained” rather than “instantly understood by your audience?”

    “Oooh-oooh, look at me! I’m Pro Libertate and the lowest common denominator isn’t good enough for me because I’m soooooo smart!”

    Nobody answered my earlier question regarding how old a person should be before she can say “nobody is ever allowed to use a word I don’t understand,” so I’ll answer it: the cutoff age is 25. And I am well over 25, so don’t use any words I don’t already know. Damn your egocentric obfuscations.

  59. “I am so sick of these bigoted, ignorant stereotypes. The poles are NOT GREASED!”

    Well mine is…

  60. “I give you The Atlanta Black Crackers of the old Negro American League.”

    I have one of their hats!!!

  61. “The word derives from the late Latin “crapulentus ‘very drunk'”

    Right. Like in shit-faced.

  62. Jennifer, I don’t care a whit what horrific schemas you have for me, just so long as you do not cast me into that patch of Erica arborea in close proximity to our current location.

  63. I was once told by an old gentleman of northern Florida – southern Georgia that the term “cracker” derived from “whipcracker”,…a name given to mule-drivers in the early 1800’s in that part of the country. Don’t know for sure if he knew what he was talking about though.

  64. implacable,

    I’m a Floridian, and that’s what I’ve always heard. It makes some sense, if you know Florida/Georgia history. Not that it couldn’t be completely wrong. As far as I know, it’s just folk etymology and has no definitive proof.

    Bill Ray,

    Indeed.

  65. I call bullshit on this entire story. I hang around a pretty crass group of people. In my life I have heard every single racial, ethnic, or religious slur known to man. But I have never, ever, in my entire life heard a black person refered to as a “tar baby”. It simply isn’t a racial slur. Period. And its not even an aniquated term! Everybody is familiar with the Uncle Remus stories (which are based on a collection of African American folklore for god’s sake). The “tar baby” and the “briar patch” from that story have both entered into everyday lexicon as metaphors to describe certain situations. As an aside, I’ve been watching some Romney speeches and its a pretty good bet he’s going to our next President.

    Comment by: FatDrunkAndStupid at July 31, 2006 11:07 AM

    I think you’re making Ms. Morrison’s point: as a racial epithet, it’s antiquated. I think it was dated in 1981, when Morrison published the novel, Tar Baby (which is why she gets to comment on the phrase).

    As a metaphor for a sticky situation that you can’t get unstuck from, it’s useful, not antiquated and not racist (and Morrison also uses it as the metaphor in the novel, as well as in the antiquated sense).

  66. As a New Englander, I’ve reached the point where even if Romney had referred to the Big Dig as a “wetback smasher” I wouldn’t fucking care. The thing’s cost has racked up billions in overruns, it’s been a leaky, creaky mess since it opened, there’s evidence that Bechtel engineers knew about the ceiling problems as early as seven years ago, if the Dig’s not fixed traffic in Boston will soon get so bad it’ll literally be impossible to drive anywhere in the city . . . and these jackasses think the most important matter here is two words uttered by the governor in a moment of frustration?

    All right, I exaggerated–if he’d actually said “wetback smasher” I would make scathing remarks about what a rude and loathsome man he is. But he didn’t. He said something which in context was obviously not meant as a racial epithet, and these people who insist on pretending it is clearly have far more free time than IQ points.

  67. PL & implacable,
    Having lived in NW Florida for a stretch this is also what I heared. However, according to Etymology Online kevrob is correct:

    Cracker, Southern U.S. derogatory term for “poor, white trash” (1766), is from c.1450 crack “to boast” (e.g. not what it’s cracked up to be), originally a Scottish word. Especially of Georgians by 1808, though often extended to residents of northern Florida.

    “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.” [1766, G. Cochrane]

  68. He should have called it a “construction holocaust.”

  69. I didn’t except some kind of Remus Inquisition.

  70. Shite! Romney will never be elected President. He barely survived the use of the word “unbecoming” to refer to the behavior of his (female!) opponent in the last Governor’s election. He might just be far enough away from 2008 to have his use of “tar baby” fade from the elctorate’s memory. But I bet he’ll use some equally offenseive word or phrase between now and ’08.

    He apparently has a bad case of a variant of Tourette’s.

  71. wtf is wrong with “unbecoming” referring to someone’s behavior?

  72. I dunno, Wingnutx. Maybe some people feel it discriminates against women who have trouble reaching orgasm. Even if it doesn’t it sounds like it might, so everybody clearly needs to avoid saying that word.

  73. wingnutx,

    “Unbecoming” with the implication that he meant “unbecoming of a woman“. That was the gambit being played against Romney. Weak? Sure. Pathetic? No doubt. Did they try it, anyway? Heck yeah!

  74. Jennifer,

    You think that Romney was actually hexing his opponent? Some sort of unsexing curse? Man, politics ain’t for the faint of heart.

  75. I automatically associate it with “conduct unbecoming of an officer”.

    I guess if I ever get court-martialed I can just accuse them of sexism 🙂

  76. You think that Romney was actually hexing his opponent?

    As a matter of fact, I do. And as a woman (thus giving me Official Victim Status, especially now that the evil Cavanaugh has posted a horrible picture of me, damn him to hell), my feelings about a word trump the word’s actual definition. Therefore, the following words must NEVER be used in my presence:

    –unbecoming
    –comely
    –community
    –intrepid (sounds like ‘tepid,’ which leads naturally to ‘frigid’)
    –“She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain”
    –mountain (reminds sex fiends of boobs)
    –hill (implies women are flat-chested)
    –anything in Latin
    –anything else I care to add, now and forevermore

  77. Can he say “cumquat”?

    How about “eggplant”?

  78. Jennifer, whilst you are a comely and seminal member of this community unit, your intrepid atempts to make mountains of molehills, et cetera, is unbecoming and makes everyone here think you might be an overly sensitive niggler.

  79. No and no, wingnutx. Nor can you refer to a seven-day period as a “week,” because that sounds like “weak,” which a lot of misogynists claim women are. And no mention of months, which leads to evil speculation about women’s hormonal cycles.

    Also, those round things in the middle of the street are not to be called “manholes,” but “gender-neutral sewage personnel transport facilitators.”

  80. Misogynist (n.): A man who hates women as much as women hate each other.

  81. Stop oppressing me, Eryk.

    By the way, only women can say “oppressed,” “oppression” or “oppressing,” because when men say it it sounds like something sexual, which is inherently oppressive.

  82. period as a “week,”

    You are subliminally insinuating that wymmyn’s periods make them weak. How dare you.

  83. OK, it’s almost midnight here so I need to get to bed and dream of new ways to oppress you and all the other women in the world (except the ones who look good in tight leather and one other look I shall not name). I bid you a good night’s rest and remember to always keep your head slightly lower than that of your man/owner.

  84. I need to get to bed and dream of new ways to oppress you and all the other women in the world (except the ones who look good in tight leather and one other look I shall not name).

    Thus implying that I don’t? Sexist oppressive pig.

  85. By the way, it is also sexist to imply that I DO look good in tight leather, because that objectifies me or something.

  86. Ssshh woman, didn’t I tell you I’m trying to sleep?

  87. Btw, I may have left out an important fact from the “unbecoming” incident: his (female!) opponent for the Governorship was a total dog. Ridden hard, put away wet.

    Ooops, did I say that out loud?

  88. More than you could possibly want to know about the origins of the word Cracker.

    I may be in trouble with Jennifer. My name is a modern form of the Gaeilge name Caoimhghin, rough translation, “born good-looking.” IOW, comely.

    Kevin

  89. “But don’t use an antiquated word that you know many people will misinterpret and then whine about it when they do.”

    But what if I simply refuse to care if the mouth-breathers are flummoxed by my lexicon?

  90. My name is a modern form of the Gaeilge name Caoimhghin, rough translation, “born good-looking.” IOW, comely.

    With hard work you can overcome your tragic accident of birth.

  91. By the way- I have been referring to the War on Iraq as “Operation Tar Baby” for years. What are the odds that I shall desist?

  92. It delectates me to fulminate against capricious sesquipedality.

    Also, for the first time in at least 30 years, I have a craving for Cracker-Jack.

  93. Jennifer:

    Steady application of beer and pizza over the last 30 years seems to have solved this “problem.” 🙂

    Kevin

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