Thursday, August 4, 2011

On the (In)Offensiveness of Doug Lamborn

If you’re like me, you’d never heard of Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn until he took to the airwaves recently and proclaimed the following:
Even if some people say, “Well the Republicans should have done this or they should have done that,” they will hold the President responsible. Now, I don’t even want to have to be associated with him. It’s like touching a tar baby and you get it, you’re stuck, and you’re a part of the problem now and you can’t get away. I don’t want that to happen to us, but if it does or not, he’ll still get, properly so, the blame because his policies for four years will have failed the American people.
He was referring, of course, to the process of negotiating the recent debt ceiling agreement with President Obama.

But the “tar baby” reference raised more than a few hackles. The knee-jerk left immediately went apoplectic, accusing Rep. Lamborn of employing a racial slur about the President of the United States. Equally predictably, the right also went ballistic, taking umbrage at the umbrage-takers. The term, they note, derives from the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris. The tar baby is a ruse constructed by Brer Fox to catch Brer Rabbit: the more the latter struggled to get away, the more he was ensnared. The term has come to be associated with that kind of sticky situation. But it has also been used as a racial slur, derived in part, no doubt, from the color association, and in part from the fact that Harris gives his eponymous character a dialect that would make Stepin Fetchit cringe.

It is clear that Rep. Lamborn didn’t pay sufficient attention when Mitt Romney, Tony Snow, Virginia Foxx, and John McCain all got in trouble for using the phrase. In all of these instances the term was apparently intended to be devoid of racial overtones: only Foxx’s comments—“the Democrats have a tar baby on their hands and they simply can't get away from it”—could even arguably have been construed as a willful slur on an African-American.

The same could not always be said, however: in 2002, the head of the Redstone Area Minority Employees Association—associated with the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama—issued a press release declaring that a US Army GS-14 manager had described an African-American woman, an Information Assurance officer with a PhD in Systems Engineering, as a “tar baby.” An article posted on the site suggests that “Tar-baby seems to be the slur of choice at Redstone Arsenal,” although two of the three incidents described involve using the term in its metaphoric, non-racial sense: a “sticky situation” from which it is increasingly difficult to extricate oneself rather than as a demeaning term for a member of a racial minority. Still, Oxford American Dictionary editor-in-chief Erin McKean told Time in 2006 that “What's really important is not etymologically what it means, but the effect it has”; she said that the next edition of her dictionary would note that the term can have derogatory connotations. By contrast, there is no such indication at Merriam-Webster’s site.

Representative Lamborn has been described as the most conservative member of Congress, a distinction in which he apparently takes particular pride, telling the Colorado Springs Gazette that “to be called the most conservative member of Congress is a distinct honor.” But to be conservative is by no means inherently to be racist, although there is, of course, some overlap.

Moreover, the fact that “tar baby” can be a racial slur doesn’t mean that it always is: witness words like “coon” or “spade,” which are offensive in some contexts but not in others. Representative Lamborn should have known better than to use potentially inflammatory language which would distract from his message. But I am willing to take him at his word that he intended no disrespect by the phrase. He apologized in a personal letter to the President, and posted this notice on his website:
Congressman Doug Lamborn (CO-05) today sent a personal letter to President Barack Obama apologizing for using a term some find insensitive. Lamborn was attempting to tell a radio audience last week that the President's policies have created an economic quagmire for the nation and are responsible for the dismal economic conditions our country faces. He regrets that he chose the phrase “tar baby,” rather than the word “quagmire.” The Congressman is confident that the President will accept his heartfelt apology.
John McWhorton, a contributing editor to The New Republic and an expert at both race relations and linguistics, told the Denver Post that Lamborn was “clumsy” in using the term, but that calling it racist was an “overstatement”: “It's not the most graceful statement in the world, but to fashion it into just shy of calling the president something worse is feeding into drama.” That reading comports with my own. Indeed, I am completely satisfied that Lamborn intended no racial disparagement. Apology accepted; time to move on, right?

Not so fast.

I’m perfectly willing to grant Rep. Lamborn a pass on “tar baby,” but let’s look at what he actually said and apparently actually intended. “Now, I don’t even want to have to be associated with him.” This is what a member of Congress says about the President of the United States? More to the point, Lamborn’s apparent intention with the “tar baby” line is more or less explained in his subsequent narrative: “you’re stuck, and you’re a part of the problem now and you can’t get away.” Whoa, wait a minute. We’re not talking about the negotiations anymore. We’re talking about assigning blame for the inevitable disaster sown by this awful deal.

And it’s not me saying the so-called compromise in which Obama gave away a couple trillion dollars in federal spending and nearly two million jobs in exchange for a box of sporks and a 6th-round draft choice is a turkey: there’s simply no other explanation for Lamborn’s commentary. He’s part of the problem. Of course, I’d argue that people like Lamborn have been part of the problem for a long time, and that hasn’t changed. He was, after all, one of those who eviscerated the stimulus package, making it smaller than it needed to be, and loading it down with tax cuts, which no economist who doesn’t work for a conservative think tank believes are a good source of economic catalyst.

No, Rep. Lamborn’s role hasn’t changed. But our perception has. He has power now; he’s a member of Congress, and his party is in power in his chamber. He bears responsibility. But he doesn’t want that. It would be conjecture to wonder why, but it’s pretty clear that the answer is tied up in politics rather than policy.

Maybe he’s a loyal American and wants things to get better, but realizes that should that happen, much of the credit will redound to President Obama, perhaps ensuring his re-election, which, in his mind, would be a bad thing. He’d still rejoice in the strengthened economy, even if someone else got the approbation. You know, like a grown-up would. More likely, given his party’s utter intransigence on anything touching on revenue, all the while crowing about fiscal responsibility and bemoaning the deficit, Rep. Lamborn is willing to sacrifice the national economy in order to get his party back into the White House—this is the strategy suggested implicitly by Mitch McConnell and pretty much explicitly by Donald Trump.

Lamborn’s dilemma is that now people have seen him in a position of some authority. He now owns something of the success of strategies that work, but, importantly, something of the failure of those that don’t. And the debt deal is a catastrophe, as even the financial markets recognized: the stock market faltered when there was no deal, then dropped like a rock when there was one (the Dow Jones Industrial Average—Big Business in its purest form—plummeted over 265 points Tuesday). That’s the “tar baby”: partial ownership in both a sluggish economy and a broken political system, both made worse by a bad “compromise” and by the puerile posturing that got us there. That stuff gets all over your hands. And Congress’s spiffy new 14% approval rating is going to be hard to wash off.

Mr. Lamborn wants power without responsibility. He’s a Creon when we need an Oedipus. That’s a fair assessment of today’s GOP in general, and of the Tea Party in particular. And it’s a lot more problematic—and ultimately more offensive— than a clumsy locution.

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