Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Tony Snow: Nice and Zippy and Crypto-Racist?

I just watched Tony Snow's first press conference as White House Press Secretary. One of the correspondents called him "nice and zippy," which got a chuckle among the reporters. I found him a bit smarmy, but at least he seemed intelligent and willing to actually answer questions, unlike that drone McClellan. The redoubtable (and cranky) Helen Thomas took advantage of his openness a bit, monopolizing him for a few minutes (click for video) with a back and forth that basically amounted to "why is the president breaking the law by illegally wiretapping Americans?", "the terrorist surveillance program is not law-breaking", "yes it is." She was a bit overearnest and he was a bit condescending (talking to her like a dotty grandmother), but I'm sure a lot of viewers were cheering her on.

One of Snow's strangest locutions, used in reference to the NSA surveillance program (which he refused to comment on), was "I don't want to hug the tar baby." I only really knew the phrase from the Toni Morrison novel and thought it was just racist Southern slang, so I had to look up its etymology.

It comes from Uncle Remus' tale "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story." In the story, Brer Rabbit is tricked into hitting a doll covered in tar. As he struggles with the doll he gets stuck in the tar and trapped by Brer Fox, who is waiting nearby. The phrase is used along the lines of "quagmire," where the more you struggle the more stuck and trapped you are.

According to the Random House dictionary,

The expression tar baby is also used occasionally as a derogatory term for black people (in the U.S. it refers to African-Americans; in New Zealand it refers to Maoris), or among blacks as a term for a particularly dark-skinned person. As a result, some people suggest avoiding the use of the term in any context.

I would go further than that, arguing that it is known primarily as a derogatory term and its connotations are so strong that it is used about as innocently as the deliberate malapropisms (or wicked homonyms) "niggardly" and "coonhound." Yeah, yeah, those scoundrels take shelter beneath raccoons and Scandinavian etymology, but the "accidentally" evoked imagery is so unpleasant that most people have excised them from polite usage.

Anyhow, I'm quite sure indeed that the Bushies don't want to hug any tar babies.

Nice one, Tony. Almost as good as when Bush Sr. called his half-Mexican grandchildren "the little brown ones."

Tags: news and politics, bush, surveillance, wiretapping, tony snow


  • At 12:51 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Oh for the days when you could really get into Song of the South and no one gave you shit for it. (I think that's a young Tony on the right, there.)

  • At 12:59 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…


  • At 12:04 AM, Anonymous Big Bill said…

    Having grown up in a lily white hillbilly area, it is sad that white and black college boy activists interpret every aspect of poor white rural culture as oppression--particularly when there was no one around to oppress in southern Missouri and Arkansas except us poor white trash.

    I do hate to bust your PC bubble, but to hillbillies "I haven't seen you in a coon's age!", "coonhounds" and "coon hunting" had nothing to do with race.

    Fortunately the rich blacks and other liberals who came to the Ozarks from St. Louis, Kansas City and Chicago seemed to understand and accept this cultural diversity, they understood and accepted that other peoples and cultures use language differently, and they did not cop a rich folks cultural imperialist attitude on us like y'all do.

    But America was lot more accepting back then. Folks in the Bible Belt did not drive smokers out into the snow the way liberal Yankees love to do. That would have been just downright inhospitable.

  • At 12:38 AM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    I'm not going to answer for Solomon's reference to "coonhounds" above. That one doesn't bother me. I'll just point out that:

    A) Tony Snow is a middle-class kid from a suburb of Cincinnati.
    B) Regardless of his upbringing, he's not a poor hillbilly, he's a White House press secretary.
    C) He's had years on TV and really should know better.

    I'll be sensitive to your cultural baggage if you'll be sensitive to mine. In particular, shouldn't the spokesman for an institution that represents all of us be as sensitive to my cultural baggage as yours?

    On the other hand, I wasn't particularly offended by "tarbaby." I mostly thought it was a funny example of the press secretary putting his foot in his mouth right away. He is after all a profoundly stupid man. I could be mistaken, but I doubt there are many people who use "tarbaby" seriously as a racial slur anymore (unless Tony starts a revival). Its offensiveness is almost quaint. It'd be like someone said "Bagel Dog," "Front Wheeler," "Gabardine Stroking Monkey," "Goldberg," "Ikey-Mo," "Mocky," "Pastrami Eater," or "Sheeny." First I probably wouldn't know what the hell they were talking about. And if I ever figured it out, I'd just be amused.

    Seriously, I want you guys to start calling me Gabardine Stroking Monkey. That can't possibly be real.

  • At 12:43 AM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Though it just occurred to me: is there a meaning to "coonhound" I don't know? I literally only know it as a dog that hunts raccoons.

  • At 1:22 AM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    A dog that hunts coons? Can't think of any crypto-racist connotations there. I was trying to think of etymologically innocent terms that evoke unpleasant, racist imagery (chicanery? maybe not). Sorry for having such a niggardly imagination.

    I'm not offended, per se. It's more that it was interesting to watch Snow's train wreck of a performance. This slippage (and his face fell so amusingly when a reporter later asked him what the phrase meant, and he twigged that it was going to be a mini-scandal) indicated that he's used to using insensitive language because he's used to talking exclusively to South Will Rise Again-ers.

    If you talk to white southerners, the language used is often pretty shocking. It's full of code words and willfully insensitive words and phrases. If our commenter Bill wants to go around talking about coons, that's his prerogative, but I doubt he's going to make a lot of African-American friends that way. The simple fact is, the innocence of that word is long since gone.

    But usually, of course, the language is not used naively. Usually it's rebelliously naughty or aggressive.

    As a friend emailed me last year, "we all know what Churchill meant when describing Ghandi as a 'Half Naked Fakir' and it was not 'unclothed mendicant ascetic monk'."

  • At 1:27 AM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Btw, I didn't believe that those terms you used were real, but according to wikipedia, they are indeed. Bizarre. (and somebody had some cathartic, Tourettes-ey fun compiling that list)

    It also has the following definition of coon:

    (U.S. & U.K) a black person -[90] from the practice of using hunting dogs trained to track "coons" (raccoons) to track runaway slaves.

    You can see why coonhound is a term not remembered fondly by a lot of people.

  • At 12:09 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    "Coon," yes. "Coonhound" I've never heard as a slur.

  • At 1:13 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Right, but the etymology of "coon" involves coonhounds hunting for runaway slaves...

    Anyhow, I hope that's the last time I type "coon" for a long time. You Gabardine Stroking Monkey.

  • At 3:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    a coonhound is simply a breed of dog recognized by the akc.

    see here CoonDawgs.com

    i've never heard the word used in any other negative ways.

  • At 2:39 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Right, I'm not saying it's a slur, I'm just saying - oh never mind.

  • At 12:46 AM, Blogger Ian said…

    You do realize any word that has a negative meaning will eventually be used to describe a minority or discriminated class of people. Try to change our language or figure out what is right or wrong every couple years to make people feel better is pointless. The way you use that particular word is what is important don't get caught up in anything else.

  • At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Sildenafil Citrate said…

    I have not see that video clip, but I will go to the website you said it is and watch it, it will be interesting and kind of funny looking at Helen Thomas monopolizing him

  • At 12:08 PM, Anonymous Viagra Online said…

    I think Tony Snow had been one of the best press secretary that the White House ever had, he really made himself clear on what he was speaking.


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