So many sensitivities, so little time


By: Michael M. Bates

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who wants to be president, made a big mistake the other day. No, I’m not referring to his use of the term “tar baby” in front of Iowa Republicans last weekend. I’m referring to his subsequent apology.

Romney was talking about the disastrous Big Dig in his home state and said politically it’d be best for him to “just get as far away from that tar baby as I possibly can.”

Practically everyone knows what the phrase “tar baby” means. A quick check of several online dictionaries shows the definition provided by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English language is typical. The expression means a situation or problem from which it’s virtually impossible to disentangle oneself. It’s derived from an old Uncle Remus story by author Joel Chandler Harris.

So reasonable people realize precisely what Mitt Romney meant. There are, of course, unreasonable people. Some of them are fueled by the hypersensitivity of the times and go out of their way to be offended. Or at least act as if they’re offended.

The Boston Herald found a handful of them. The head of the area NAACP claims the governor is “completely disconnected with reality in terms of racial sensitivity. He just does not get it.” A former local TV reporter is quoted as saying, “Words like tar baby and pickaninny are deeply rooted in the segregation of America.”

What in the world does “pickaninny” have to do with Romney’s use of tar baby? Nothing, evidently, but it may help to confuse the matter.

Does anyone in his right mind genuinely believe that Mitt Romney was sending out some sort of racist signal by using the phrase tar baby? One man who doesn’t is the minister of the Nation of Islam in Boston. He told the Boston Globe: “I don’t believe he was making a disparaging remark, and if he was, I’d be the first person to call him.”

Like other politicians, Mr. Romney has become sensitized to the hypersensitivity of others, even if they’re few in number. So he issued an apology through the obligatory spokesperson. The gov was unaware that anyone could find the term objectionable, but if anyone does he is extremely sorry.

Rolling over merely to placate the professional annoyed is a tactical error. The public in general and Republicans in particular are more than a little tired of apologizing to everyone for everything even when there’s nothing to be sorry for.

Certainly there are instances when a public act of contrition is absolutely necessary. Mel Gibson’s deranged remarks come to mind. Being slightly inebriated doesn’t begin to explain his contemptible invective.

But there are times when repentance is uncalled for because no transgression has occurred. That’s the Romney situation and, by bending to the demands of irrational critics, he’s demonstrated a lack of political courage that doesn’t serve him well.

There’s a huge double standard that exists in this regard. In July, a black Illinois state senator who’s also a minister used his pulpit to decry his political opponents. Chicago CBS 2’s Mike Flannery played an excerpt last week from the Democrat’s tirade:

“You got some preachers that are House N-word. You got some elected officials that are House N-word. And rather than them trying to break this up, they gonna fight you to protect this white man (Chicago Mayor Richard Daley).” The senator later told Flannery that the N-word is a term of endearment and neither derogatory nor offensive.

And you know what? He’s gotten away with it. A patently odious word apparently isn’t offensive if the person saying it speaks with what the hypersensitives see as moral authority.

So far, I’ve not seen reported in the media a single demand from anyone that the senator express regret for his words. No one is complaining that he just doesn’t get it or that he’s using terms deeply rooted in segregation. Nor did they when the sainted John Kerry – he was in Vietnam, you know – publicly used “tar baby” three years ago.

That’s what I call a double standard. Mitt Romney and other Republicans who want to be president are aware of it. But they don’t need to cave in to language hijackers looking for innovative new ways to play the victim.

This column by Michael M. Bates appeared in the August 3, 2006 Oak Lawn Reporter.

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