What Is Ayn Rand’s “New” Novel, “Ideal?”

Ideal by Ayn Rand
A new publication of a work of one of the 20th century’s most read (and most controversial) novelists is big news. Ideal is the work at issue; Ayn Rand is the author. So what is Ideal?

Ideal is not new; it was written in 1934 and revised as a play over the next year or two. (The play wasn’t produced until 1989.) What’s new is the publication of Rand’s early novelization of the story.

The play was published in 1983 in The Early Ayn Rand. The new publication contains the novelization which preceded the play—and which is substantially less polished—as well as a reprint of the play. The oddity, then, is that the “new” work is in rougher shape than is the previously published version of the work.

What, then, is the purpose of publishing an older version of the same basic story? Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand’s heir, suggests two main reasons in his introduction to the new work. First, a publication of one of Ayn Rand’s earliest works, and in two different versions at that, may offer valuable insights into her intellectual and literary development. Second, a novel offers a reader a complete, self-contained experience in a way that a play cannot.

On this latter point, Peikoff explains:

By itself, a script is not a work of art or a genre of literature. Novel and play alike, being complete, enable you fully to enter and experience the world they create. But the script by itself does not: it omits the essence in this context of literary art; it is written for perception (to be heard from a cast of actors seen on a stage), yet by itself it is detached from any such perception.

As an indication of just how substantially Rand revised the play relative to the preliminary novel, consider Peikoff’s description of a section:

In Chapter 3 of the novel, the central character is Jeremiah Sliney, an ignorant, dialect-speaking farmer. On her typescript, even before she started the play, AR slashed out the whole chapter, with ruthless lines signifying emphatic rejection. . . . Dropping Sliney from the play, she instead took the name of a son-in-law of his, who had been an incidental character, and made him the scene’s central character. In this reincarnation, Chuck Fink [the new character] has an ideological identity: he is a member of the Communist Party.

By any standard, that is a major change. Yet the “new” publication contains the original text, despite Rand’s rejection of it. Peikoff writes, “Despite [Rand]’s deletion of Slinky, I have left him in the novel just as he was in its first draft.” Peikoff puts readers on notice, then, that this novelization does not reflect a polished, final work that Rand herself approved. Rather, it reflects a work in progress.

Why did Rand develop the material into a play rather than into a revised novel? I had assumed that the reason had something to do with Rand’s anticipation of getting a play produced. But Peikoff suggests literary reasons. First, Peikoff suggests, the beauty of the central character is integral to the story, and that is probably better shown than described. Second, the play format seems to have allowed Rand to introduce a wide array of minor characters more perceptually and therefore more briskly.

What is Ideal about? Peikoff offers a good summary in notes published with the 1983 version:

[Ideal is] a story in which a famous actress, so beautiful that she comes to represent to men the embodiment of their deepest ideals, actually enters the lives of her admirers. She comes in a context suggesting that she is in grave danger. Until this point, her worshippers have professed their reverence for her—in words, which cost them nothing. Now, however, she is no longer a distant dream, but a reality demanding action on their part, or betrayal.

“The theme is the evil of divorcing ideals from life,” Peikoff writes there.

That is a theme well worth contemplating in novel form, even if the novel in question does not reflect Ayn Rand in mature literary form.

Rowling Said to Pen Potter-Universe Film Trilogy

Image: Daniel Ogren
Image: Daniel Ogren

According to Cinemablend, J. K. Rowling herself is adapting her Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them for a trilogy of films, the first of which is set to arrive in 2016. “The story is expected to pick up some seventy years before Harry Potter set foot in Hogwarts, and would follow fictional Fantastic Beasts author Newt Scamander during his exploration of the subject,” Cinemablend reports.

I confess that after the inflation of the Hobbit films to a ridiculous total length, I’m worried about the adaptation of even scrawnier source material for a trilogy. But, given Rowling’s direct involvement with the project, perhaps she’ll come up with a rich enough story line to actually merit the extensive film treatment. (I’ll see them regardless; I’m just wondering how much I’ll enjoy them.)

Incidentally, this would be a great time to more fully master the Potter universe by reading my lit-crit book, Values of Harry Potter. You can read more about it at ValuesOfHarryPotter.com.

Denver Post Readers Reply to ‘Tar Baby’ Op-Ed

Today the Denver Post published several replies to my ‘tar baby’ op-ed.Here I briefly reply to the letters critical of my piece.

First, though, I point out that the Post piece is very short — around 500 words — and it draws on thousands of words I’ve written on the matter. So I want to summarize my previous work:

Lamborn’s “Tar Baby” Saga Continues
I briefly reply to the Associated Press’s assertion that Congressman Doug Lamborn used the term “tar baby” to refer to President Obama. He did not. I also briefly reply to Wayne Laugesen and Patricia Calhoun, arguing that “neither of those writers pays sufficient attention to the fact that the tar baby story arises fundamentally from African folklore. Any racist use of the term manifests ignorance of that tradition.”

Yes, Let’s Do Throw Lamborn In the Briar Patch
I point out the irony of a MoveOn protester a) invoking the same African folklore, and b) calling to throw Lamborn “in the briar patch,” which in the story actually saves the rabbit.

More on the African Roots of the Tar Baby Motif
I offer even more evidence that the “tar baby” story came from African folklore.

MoveOn Smears Lamborn for Invoking African Tar Baby Folklore
This is my longest piece on the matter in which I offer extensive evidence for the African roots of the “tar baby” story and reply to David Sirota’s hypocritical smears against Lamborn.

Lamborn Strikes the “Tar Baby” Tar Baby
In my first piece on the matter, I do two main things. First, I firmly establish that the term “tar baby” comes from African folklore, and I show that it has been commonly used in the culture to refer to a sticky situation. I offer specific examples of left-leaning writers from theDenver PostWestword, and Salon using the term — all without receiving so much as a breath of criticism.

So let’s turn to the Denver Post letters.

Sherry Steele finds value in my historical perspective, but she thinks I fall into “blame it on the left or blame it on the right.” But she misses my point, which is that the shrill left’s smear campaigns against Lamborn are precisely that, which is why those critics neglect to slam left-leaners for using the same term. My point precisely is that we should debate substantive issues, not smear the opposition.

(Some people seem to mistakenly think that I am a conservative or a Lamborn supporter generally. I am neither.)

Dennis Hansen claims that my “ranting” is “narrow-minded and illogical” — without offering a single argument to that effect.

Kenneth Valero first suggests that Lamborn used the term tar baby “against” Obama, but that’s false. In his original statement, Lamborn uses the term to refer to getting “stuck” in “the problem.” Those who continue to ignore that context are simply being willfully dishonest.

At least Valero recognizes that “tar baby,” in fact, derives from African folklore, though he says it has fallen into “corruption.” My response to this is what it was in the op-ed: “Surely we ought not let ignorant racists push us to obliterate cultural knowledge of important African folklore.” Letting racists steal the term “tar baby” is letting the racists win, something I refuse to do.

Doug Sovern claims I ignore “the usage of the term in the U.S.” But I have provided many references to U.S. usages of the term to refer to a sticky situation.

Sovern notes that some with the Tea Party have unfairly attacked Obama. But he misses my point, which is that the left is picking out Lamborn to smear over a make-believe offense, while ignoring many other actual insults.

(And, for the record, I have criticized those who likened Obama to a Nazi, saying, “Obama is obviously not a Nazi, so tagging him with a swastika is wrong.”)

Sovern claims “context is everything,” yet he ignores the context of Lamborn’s original remark.

Sovern also claims “the Nazis were conservatives,” which is ridiculous. The very term is an abbreviation of the National Socialist German Workers’ party.

Brandon Reich-Sweet grants, “Yes, ‘tar baby’ does come from a legitimate African folk tale. However, the term has been used as a slur against black people.” I discuss that very fact in my op-ed, yet I return to the point that we ought not let racists steal a perfectly legitimate term.

Ken Lambdin claims, despite all the evidence, that “Lamborn’s comment was racist.” Some people are just determined to see Republican office holders as racist, because that’s a lot easier than debating them on the issues. Dehumanizing the opposition, as the left is attempting to dehumanize Lamborn, is the strategy of cowards.

In addition to these criticisms, Gary Reed and Lou Schroeder offer supportive comments of my piece.

My case holds. Using the term “tar baby” to refer to a sticky situation is perfectly legitimate. That is how Lamborn used the term, and that is how I resolve to continue using it.


Dean Barnett commented on August 14, 2011 at 2:42 PM:
Gee, Ari, if there was any reason to think Lamborn knew any of this when he said it, you should have added that to the mix. But since he apologized, in writing, I’m guessing he didn’t know this, which would make him the sort of thoughtless person who really shouldn’t represent Coloradans

Ari Armstrong commented on August 14, 2011 at 2:56 PM:
Dean, As is obvious from Lamborn’s initial comments, he did know that the standard meaning of “tar baby” is a sticky situation. He used the word “stuck.” Whether he knew anything else about the folklore tradition is quite irrelevant. But, somehow, Dean, I doubt very seriously that Lamborn’s “tar baby” comment is the origin of your dislike for Lamborn. Instead, the left is seizing upon this innocuous term to smear somebody they already wanted to smear. On the political level, this is fundamentally about the left (groundlessly) smearing Republicans as racists heading into the 2012 elections. -Ari

Lamborn’s “Tar Baby” Saga Continues

As of the moment of this writing, the story topping the Denver Post‘s “Denver & the West” section is yet another Associated Press hit piece against Congressman Doug Lamborn for saying “tar baby.”

The AP repeats an outright lie and a distortion. The lie is that Lamborn called Barack Obama a tar baby. He did not. He used the term tar baby to refer to getting “stuck” in “the problem” of the debt-ceiling negotiations. The distortion is that the term is “racially denigrating” and therefore taboo. While some ignoramuses have abused the term, its origins is African folklore, and it refers to a sticky mannequin. For details, see my reviews:

“MoveOn Smears Lamborn for Invoking African Tar Baby Folklore”

“More on the African Roots of the Tar Baby Motif”

The AP’s story appears in the very paper whose left-leaning writers have used the term “tar baby” on several occasions — without receiving any of the left’s manufactured outraged now directed against Lamborn.

And yet, to the leftist crusaders and their media enablers, the facts simply do not matter. This is about character assassination and partisan politics.

Thankfully, Sunday’s Denver Post editorial pages published my op-ed on the matter. It begins:

The critical points to understand about the tar baby flap are these: “Tar baby” comes from African folklore. Congressman Doug Lamborn used the term to refer to the debt-ceiling negotiations, not the president. And the nationwide smear campaign against Lamborn follows the left’s typical path of character assassination and guilt by association. …

My research on the topic has been cited by other media outlets as well.

On August 4, the Colorado Springs Gazette‘s Wayne Laugesen mentioned my posts, and on August 3 Westword‘s Patricia Calhoun (who has herself used the term “tar baby” in an article) did as well. Unfortunately, neither of those writers pays sufficient attention to the fact that the tar baby story arises fundamentally from African folklore. Any racist use of the term manifests ignorance of that tradition.

On August 4 I also appeared on Peter Boyle’s radio show for an hour to discuss the matter.

Though this point is obvious, it may be worth repeating here: just because I defend the use of the term “tar baby” to refer to a sticky situation, that doesn’t mean anything goes. For example, if a politician called somebody “the N-word,” he would be justly castigated.

But lumping together “the N-word” with the tar baby of African folklore is ludicrous. And smearing a well-intentioned politician for referencing the tar baby is grotesquely unjust.

Yes, Let’s Do Throw Lamborn In the Briar Patch

John Schroyer writes the following about MoveOn’s protest of Congressman Doug Lamborn for saying “tar baby:” ”Let’s throw him in the briar patch!’ one man yelled, to the amusement of the crowd.”

Initially I was struck by the oddity of Lamborn’s critics invoking the same African folklore for which they were lambasting Lamborn.

But, returning to Joel Chandler Harris’s version of the stories which he picked up from the African oral tradition, it struck me that throwing Lamborn in the briar patch is precisely the right move.

Let us recall that, in the tar baby story, the fox captures the rabbit in the sticky tar-baby trap. The story ends on an ambiguous note; the audience is left wondering whether the fox eats the rabbit.

But a bit latter on we learn that the rabbit outsmarts the fox, true to the trickster form of the rabbit (often a spider in Africa). The rabbit begs the fox not to throw him in the briar patch. But in fact that’s precisely where the rabbit wants to end up! When, wrongly thinking the action will greatly harm the rabbit, the fox throws him in, the rabbit runs free.

So throw Lamborn in the briar patch! That is after all the only just conclusion to this sad saga.

See also:

More on the African Roots of the Tar Baby Motif

MoveOn Smears Lamborn for Invoking African Tar Baby Folklore

Lamborn Strikes the “Tar Baby” Tar Baby

More on the African Roots of the Tar Baby Motif

Yesterday I wrote an article blasting the left for smearing Congressman Doug Lamborn for using the term “tar baby,” a reference to African folklore.

This morning Peter Boyles invited me on his show (630 KHOW) for an hour to discuss the matter; see the online recording.

On the air, Boyles mentioned the African “gum baby” as a precursor to the American “tar baby.” (The original sort of tar was made from pine pitch and so closely related to gum.) I thought I’d track this down.

Google pointed me to a Kansas publication The Pitch, where Gina Kaufman writes:

While coauthoring African Tales of Anansiwith her father, Mackey discovered “Anansi and the Gum Doll,” the African ancestor of Joel Chandler Harris’ “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby.” The dialect written into the Brer Rabbit stories is actually a remnant of the oral tradition of Ghana, and the wiley Brer Rabbit is the descendant of a trickster spider…

This tipped me off to the book, Framing Identities: Autobiography and the Politics of Pedagogy. That work (by Wendy Hesford) states the following (page 170):

The tar-baby image appropriates an African folktale. The basic elements of the tale are that a trickster approaches a figure made of tar, rubber, orj some other sticky substance. The trickster speaks to the figure and holds it until it can be apprehended. Versions of this folktale have been reported from the Guinea coast area, the Congo, and Angola, and are repeated throughout Africa. See, for example, “Anansi and the Gum Doll” and “Brer Rabbit” (Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend).

I see that book remains for sale, though I’d have to buy a bound copy to read it. But, by now, the fact that the tar baby story comes from African folklore is incontestable.

MoveOn Smears Lamborn for Invoking African Tar Baby Folklore

It seems that the phrase “tar baby” has become something of a tar baby for me as well. Yesterday I waded into the debate over CongressmanLamborn’s use of “tar baby.” Peter Boyles read the piece and invited me on to his radio show to discuss the matter tomorrow at 7 am. So, in preparation, I’ll do some more poking around (despite my busy schedule).

It seems like I should be spending my time addressing our nation’s crushing debt, the high unemployment rate, Lamborn’s ties with the hard anti-abortion right, or any other real issue. Lamborn’s use of the phrase “tar baby” is an issue only because of the pathological codependency between the left’s outrage mongers and their lap dogs in the sensationalist media. In a sane world, in which the left focused on issues instead of character assassination, and the media devoted its resources to reporting real news, Lamborn’s comment never would have raised a blip.

Yet I poke another limb into the “tar baby” tar baby here. In doing so, I draw inspiration from an oriental tale in the ancient tar-baby or stickfast motif about Prince Five-weapons. The story is recounted by Joseph Campbell on pages 86-88 of his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this story the tar baby is an ogre. After failing to smite the ogre with arrows and other weapons, the prince “struck the ogre with his right hand. His hand stuck right to the ogre’s hair.” The prince proceeded to stick each of his limbs into the ogre, then finally the prince landed a blow with his head, getting that stuck as well.

The ogre is impressed by the prince’s bravery, thinking him “some man of noble birth… [f]or although he has been caught by an ogre like me, he appears neither to tremble nor to quake!” The ogre asks the youth why he is not afraid.

The prince answers:

Ogre, why should I be afraid? for in one life one death is absolutely certain. What’s more, I have in my belly a thunderbolt for weapon. If you eat me, you will not be able to digest that weapon. It will tear your insides into tatters and fragments and will kill you. In that case we’ll both perish. That’s why I’m not afraid!”

The ogre releases the prince. So let’s see if we might find a thunderbolt or two.

David Sirota’s position is that “tar baby” is “an obviously racist term.” (He uses this term writing this for the publication Salon, which has also featured an article with left-leaning commentator David Corn using the term “tar baby.”) But, according to Sirota, Lamborn’s use of the term is especially bad “because he explicitly used the term to describe a black person.”

Is Sirota’s claim true? No. It is obvious from context that Lamborn is referring to the “problem” of the debt-ceiling controversy. He is definitely not saying that Obama is a “tar baby” because he is black, and to pretend otherwise is to libel Lamborn. In his original comment, Lamborn used the word “stuck,” clearly invoking the historically correct (as opposed to the racist) usage of the term “tar baby.”

Let us pause to note how the left is helping to destroy the very democratic openness it claims to champion by employing the tactics of smear, slander, and character assassination. If we want our elected officials and candidates to speak openly with their constituents, then we can’t try to crucify them for innocently using an innocuous phrase.

As I’ve reviewed, the cultural origins of the tar-baby motif are very old, very widespread, and very diverse. Back in the ’40s Aurelio Espinosa found the oldest examples to come from India.

Obviously “tar baby” as an English phrase originated in the English-speaking world, and it was the term first used by African slaves to describe a legend from old African folklore. The “tar baby” story originated in Africa, and it was brought to the United States by slaves. So the notion that invoking African folklore inherently reveals racism against African Americans is frankly absurd. One might as well claim that wearing African-style scarves is racist.

Here’s how Peter Addo describes the origins:

Most of the Stories referred to as Brer Rabbit are actually Anasne Stories brought to the Americas by the African American Slaves introduced here Centuries ago. In an attempt to keep their Culture alive in this Strange and forbidden place they found themselves, they tried against all odds to keep alive the few songs and stories about the homeland they would never see again. It was something they could remember and so they held on to the Ananse the Wise Trickster figure they were all familiar with from the Land of their birth.

Here the act of Story Telling was a very important part of their Lives since it was by this Oral Tradition that History was kept alive and transmitted from one generation to another. Secondly all the Ananse Stories ended with Specific Messages, Morals or Advice, Proverbs or a Very Wise Saying. What they had then was an Instrument of transmitting Knowledge, Morals, Ethical Values, and an Instrument of sharing but also Preserving their Common Values in a new Land. Thus the very close similarity between the Ananse Stories of Africa and the Brer Rabbit Stories.

A review in USA Today — another paper now lashing Lamborn — refers to “the tar baby in Afro-American folklore.”

In his autobiography, President Theodore Roosevelt writes that his uncle Robert Roosevelt wrote of the “Br’er Rabbit” story before Joel Chandler Harris popularized it with Uncle Remus. I haven’t been able verify Roosevelt’s claim about the publication of the work, but his comments make clear that the stories predated Harris. (I used Wikipedia to help run down some of these links.)

Even those critical of Harris’s work recognize the African origins of the stories. Consider this 2009 commentary by the Associated Press:

[B]lack authors like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker — who was born in Harris’ hometown of Eatonton —- have denounced the author and say he stole the stories unjustly. … For Curtis Richardson, who is one of several regular storytellers who perform at the Wren’s Nest, being black in a museum that celebrates such a controversial body of work can be tough. Richardson said he refused to tell Harris’ version of Tar Baby stories until he researched their roots back to West Africa and the Caribbean. Now he tells the older versions as a way to honor the stories’ heritage and skip the modern associations with racism.

Turning to “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story,” Harris himself supposes that the story originated in Africa. (We may note that in his introduction Harris uses race-loaded language properly off-limits today.)

The premise of the story (in Harris’s account) is that a fox is trying to catch a rabbit. The fox mixes tar and turpentine and fashions it into a “tar baby,” a sort of mannequin. Note that the important characteristic of tar is that it is sticky, not that it is black. The rabbit ambles by and, thinking the tar baby is a real person, wishes it a good morning. Of course the tar baby fails to reply. The rabbit mistakes this as rudeness and grows irritated. Incensed, the rabbit strikes the tar baby, getting entangled with it. Interestingly, the story ends on an ambiguous note; Uncle Remus says the story has no ending. Maybe somebody helped free the rabbit, but maybe not.

So what is the theme of the story? The rabbit makes two basic mistakes. First, he misconceives the nature of what he’s dealing with. As a consequence, he develops totally unrealistic expectations regarding that thing. In misplaced anger, he lashes out, becoming ensnared by the thing.

Interestingly, the story is a perfect metaphor for those calling the tar baby inherently racist. They fundamentally misunderstand what a tar baby is. They lash out in anger over an innocent use of the term. And now they are ensnared in a controversy that makes them look like illiterate partisan hacks.

If we take the story as metaphor for the racist American South, then the most sensibly reading is that the rabbit represents the African American, while the tar baby represents a trick by white oppressors. (Wikipediasuggests this reading.)

How, then, did the term “tar baby” get caught up with racist overtones? Quite simply that comes from ignorant and illiterate racists fundamentally misunderstanding what a “tar baby” is. But surely we ought not let ignorant racists destroy a meaningful story from African folklore!

The basic mistake is to think that “tar baby” refers, not to a sticky and ensnaring problem, but to a black person. Consider, for example, the existence (pathetically, still on the market today) of “tar baby soap.”Bernie Mac, the brilliant comedic actor who sadly died in 2008, wrote of his childhood, “Kids called me ‘tar baby,’ ‘spooky juice.’ I was scary.”

There is nothing inherently racist about the African concept of the tar baby. The racist overtones arise only from sheer ignorance. Again, I decline to let ignorant bafoons ruin a perfectly good cultural symbol.

Of course, none of the background about the tar baby matters to the hysterical left. Participants with the hard-left MoveOn protested at Lamborn’s office. One fellow said Lamborn should be tossed in the briar patch — because apparently it’s racist for Lamborn to invoke African folklore but perfectly acceptable for his critics to do the same.

I wonder why MoveOn declined to protest the Denver Post or Westwordwhen left-leaning writers for those papers used the term “tar baby.” (Seeyesterday’s post for details.)

Unthinking critics have created an unfortunate feedback loop. John Kerry, Mitt Romney, and John McCain have all used the term “tar baby.” The two Republicans apologized for it. But the journalists covering these stories apparently have never bothered to wonder whether they actually had anything to apologize for. But now it’s a tradition: if you’re a Republican and you innocently say “tar baby,” that makes you a racist and you must immediately apologize. And never mind the facts.

Well, I say the true racism is to smother references to important African folklore in an attempt smear political opponents.


Anonymous comments on August 4, 2011 at 7:42 AM:


I appreciate your precise approach to this issue. You have definitely honed your sword. Great research. Joseph Campbell has been played and replayed on PBS. The left must approve of his tar-baby definition.

You have also brilliantly illustrated how the left has us all sidetracked on non-issues.
The left, including Sirota and his ilk, are hyper sensitive. They see racism everywhere, even when it does not exist.I do believe there is a pill for this condition of hyper racial sensitivity and other delusions.

For the good of humanity, maybe Sirota should find a new career rather than pedaling snake-oil? The problem with this type of distracting snake-oil is that it is poisonous.


Anonymous comments September 19, 2011 at 1:37 PM”
funny… for quite a while I’ve been calling out Sirota on a variety of topics for his “snake oil” sales tricks and rhetorical spins. Thought I was the first and only, but evidently not.

Lamborn Strikes the “Tar Baby” Tar Baby

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.”

Lamborn quickly apologized for using the phrase. But that hasn’t stopped the left from blistering Lamborn.

Because she is an expert in linguistic analysis, Sherry helpfully adds, “Though the term is often defined as a sticky situation, it carries some historic usages that are racially insensitive.”

According to David Sirota, “Lamborn’s choice of words shows how the fringe right is mainstreaming racist language.”

As Westword‘s Michael Roberts reviews, even the free-market Wayne Laugesen says Lamborn shouldn’t have used the phrase.

But what does “tar baby” actually mean, and is it racist? Or (as usual) is the hard left manufacturing outrage to smear a Republican officeholder for partisan purposes?

The Wikipedia entry is actually useful here. It notes a tar baby entraps “Br’er Rabbit” in the classic story. But that’s hardly the origin of the symbol.

Wikipedia also references Joseph Campbell, and thankfully I happen to have a copy of his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces on my desk. On page 87, Campbell describes “the celebrated and well-nigh universal tar-baby story of popular folklore.” Cambell in turn references a 1930 article by Aurelio Espinosa and some other works.

Here’s how Espinosa opens his 1943 follow-up article:

In my Notes on the Origin and History of the Tar-Baby Story… I examined and studied one hundred and fifty-two versions of the tale. In subsequent articles I have continued to affirm my belief in the India origins of the tale in the sense that India is as far back as we can trace it, and that it is not of African origin as some have believed. I have now in my possession two hundred and sixty-seven versions…

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.

But is Sirota right that Lamborn’s use of the term “shows how the fringe right is mainstreaming racist language?”

Well, let’s look at some other examples.

In 2004 John Kerry, that veritable champion of the “fringe right,” used the phrase (and took flak for it).

On August 31, 2003, the Denver Post‘s hard-left columnist Jim Spencer wrote, “Last week, those same leaders started looking to the United Nations to pull them free of a Middle Eastern tar baby.”

On July 3, 2006, the Denver Post‘s center-left columnist Bob Ewegen wrote, “Mighty clever fox, that Brer Owens seems to be. First, he appears to sucker Brer Romanoff into tangling with that political tar baby, ‘immigration.'”

On March 9, 2002, the often-left-leaning Denver Post editorial board wrote, “When the House Civil Justice and Judiciary Committee voted 7-2 on Thursday against creating a special panel with subpoena powers to investigate Columbine, it was only the latest public agency to decline hugging this tar-baby issue.” On April 14, 2002, it wrote, “Meantime, a parade of public officials has pirouetted out of the path of a tar baby they’d rather not dance with…”

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

(Update: Here’s another little irony: while Sirota wrote his screed forSolon, another left-leaning writer, David Corn, used the term “tar baby” in an article for Salon several years ago.)

So I’ll go ahead and hold my breath waiting for Sirota to denounce Joseph Cambell, Jim Spencer, Bob Ewegen, the Denver Post, Alan Prendergast, and Patricia Calhoun for helping the “fringe right” mainstream “racist language.”

Or he could just stop smearing Republicans over make-believe issues.


Wayne Laugesen commented August 3, 2011 at 11:31 AM:
Great column, Ari. You nailed it, as usual. — Wayne Laugesen

Amie commented August 4, 2011 at 1:01 PM
The difference between the incidents given is that it was used towards a person of color not a situation. To refer to a man as a “tar baby” is different than referring to a particular situation as a tar baby. Big difference!!

Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 1:03 PM
Amie, You are simply misstating what Lamborn actually said. Please see my follow-up: http://bit.ly/oK016g

Anonymous commented August 4, 2011 at 1:34 PM
This is a copy of my letter to Wayne and it applies to you too Ari: Wayne, Your comment about the 3 little pigs is far reaching. Tar baby is and was a derogative term used against people of color. It’s a term used to belittle them and encourage hatred. You can continue attempting to defend Mr. Lamborn or you can fess up and admit that such a mean spirited term easily rolling of his tongue is unacceptable.
The fact that others have used it doesn’t make it the right thing to do. You know that.
In today’s climate of increasing hate and acceptance of bigotry any and all innuendos, whether intentional or not need to be stopped immediately.
Pat Hill

Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 1:39 PM
Pat, Your claims are complete nonsense, and they reveal a basic ignorance about the origins of the tar baby. The tar baby is an African folktale! Please read my two follow-up articles:



Amie commented August 4, 2011 at 2:13 PM
Ari – you are going to defend him regardless of the IMPACT that was felt. Please google Intent vs. IMPACT? It is the IMPACT that matters.
“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. – He was using the term to describe President Obama not a certain situation. And why is MR. Lamborn deleting comments from his Facebook page?

Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 2:16 PM
Amie, Your argument is again complete nonsense. If it’s “the impact that matters,” then the logical course would be to repeal the First Amendment. What matters is motivation. In your reading of Lamborn’s comments, you are conveniently neglecting the terms “stuck” and “the problem.” I imagine that if Lamborn’s staffers are deleting Facebook comments, its because some posters are libeling the guy. -Ari

Anonymous commented August 4, 2011 at 2:26 PM

You missed the entire point of my email – which being – the term is used negatively. The roots of the term are irrelevant. It’s the current conception of the word that is. Even the N word wasn’t quite the connotation that it is today. You are trying to find excuses for it and there just aren’t any. Pat (and please, I don’t call you words nonsense, irregardless of what I think of them, I’d appreciate the same courtesy).

Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 2:32 PM
Pat, In calling your arguments nonsense, I am making a factual assessment, and one I stand by. The roots of the term are extremely relevant, for they reveal that the racist misuse of the term is an aberration based on fundamental ignorance of the folklore. As I’ve indicated, the real problem is obliterating important African folklore simply because a few idiots abuse it. And, as my examples make clear, the term has been widely used in its proper meaning up to the present day. (Please note that I may decline to continue posting back-and-forth that does not significantly advance the debate.)

James Howald commented August 4, 2011 at 2:55 PM
When I taught composition to freshmen at USC, it was always a struggle to get them to accept that the associations their audience would bring to their choice of words was every bit as important as what they meant when they wrote them. A skilled communicator considers connotation as well as denotation, even though connotation may be more slippery. Lamborn’s statement was a mistake because it got people talking not about his point but about his personality and his choice of words. He failed to get the spotlight on Obama, and directed it at himself instead. If you are in public life, you need to able to manage the discussion. Lamborn made a rookie error, although he’s no rookie at this point.

Anonymous commented August 4, 2011 at 3:02 PM
The term has also been used even more widely as a racial slur. The existence of one (literature) does not negate the existence of the other (racial slur). They both “are,” and both are valid.

If Lamborn was giving a presentation on literature and used the term, no foul. But the fact is, Lamborn used it from his podium as a US legislator to describe our Black President.

Lamborn is a duly-elected representative of his district and constituents, which include not only readers of Br’er Rabbit but also African-Americans. He failed to fulfill his obligations to all. He offended his consituents. Period.

Ignorance is not an excuse, nor do I personally buy that he didn’t know exactly what he was saying. Racial code words abound since we have elected a Black President. But I digress.

Bottom line: Lamborn should have known better. Is ignorance of a racial slur an excuse to use it? Not at all. Just like ignorance of the law is not an excuse to break that law.

Using Lamborn’s logic, the same would be true of this scenario:

Lamborn runs a red light, seriously harming a pedestrian. It was unfortunate, yes; intentional, no. He should not be held accountable as he wasn’t aware that running a red light was against the law. And further, “If there’s reasonable people, they’ll know this was totally unintentional on my part.”

Although mighty creative, Lamborn’s argument is laughable. And I’m sure Lamborn even in his lawyer days, having presented that argument, would have been laughed right out of court. And the Judge, being a reasonable guy, wouldn’t give two bits that Lamborn felt he was being “unreasonable.”

Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 3:06 PM
The claim that Lamborn called Obama a tar baby is simply a lie, and I will not post any additional such lies on this page.

Anonymous’s analogy to striking a pedestrian with a car is so strained, so ridiculous, that it demands no rebuttal.

Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 3:29 PM
Please allow me to soften the above comment. I’ve carefully explained why the claim that Lamborn called Obama a tar baby takes Lamborn’s actual statement out of context (again, observe the words “stuck” and “the problem”). Given I’ve done that, I’m really not interested in posting additional comments here that continue to take Lamborn’s comments out of context. I really do need to extricate myself from the “tar baby” tar baby at some point! But I apologize for coming across as overly heated, and I do appreciate people reading my posts, even (or perhaps I should say especially) when they disagree. Our mutual goal should be to reach valid conclusions through reasoned review and debate.

Anonymous commented August 4, 2011 at 4:03 PM
Analyzing Lamborn’s remarks from an English grammar point of view: I don’t even want to be associated with him. It’s like touching a, a tar baby. The word “him” in this sentence refers back to President Obama, and “a, a tar baby” refers back to “him” which refers back to President Obama. If any of the White, male presidential candidates in 2008 were president now, Do you think Lamborn would have chosen that phrase, “tar baby”? Neither do I. Just as we no longer refer to “Little Black Sambo”, “tar baby” is passé. And actually I’m beginning to think that only men and/or politicians use this term. I have NEVER heard it in conversation–except when I lived in the Detroit area where it was used by Whites as a racial slur along with the word “Sambo”.

Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 5:46 PM
Dear Anonymous, Why do you think it’s remotely fair to quote only part of Lamborn’s comments? In context, he obviously means the tar baby remark to refer to getting “stuck” in “the problem.” As is abundantly obvious to anyone who has given a live presentation, it is impossible to always state all of one’s points with absolute, crystal clarity. That is simply the nature of extemporaneous speaking.

Why are you so determined to take Lamborn’s quotation in the worst possible light? Those who assume, without evidence, that Lamborn is a racist simply want to see Republicans as racists, and no amount of evidence to the contrary will persuade them.

As to how you’ve heard the term used, that reveals nothing about the essential meaning of it. But, for what it’s worth, I’ve never personally heard the term used with racial overtones, and I’ve offered numerous examples of it being used in its legitimate meaning.

Thanks, -Ari

Anonymous commented August 5, 2011 at 7:08 AM
Schizophrenics often suffer from paranoid delusions. They see things that don’t exist.

We need a new term, racialphrenics. Basically a type of schizophrenia in which the victim sees racism when it does not exist. Characterized by a hyper sensitivity to their surrounding resulting in racial delusions.

Anonymous commented August 5, 2011 at 9:27 PM
Seems like some folk’s day just isn’t complete till they’ve been offended….just say’n.

Anonymous commented August 6, 2011 at 1:57 PM
Ari perhaps you have not studied black history. Hot tar was poured over slaves and then they were covered with feathers and displayed to the rest of the plantation to invoke terror. The term “tar baby” invokes memories of this practice and should not be used toward any black person let alone the President of the United States.

RUKM commented August 6, 2011 at 5:50 PM
Thanks for your in-depth study of the origin and use of “tar baby”. I appreciate it. Of course, Lamborn was referring to the debt-ceiling “crisis” and not to a person. But, don’t expect any logic from the fringe left!

Ari commented August 8, 2011 at 7:56 AM
Tar and feathers is most associated with upstart colonialists targeting disfavored public officials. Clearly it is not an inherently racist term. And, obviously, tarring and feathering has nothing to do with a tar baby. Or should we simply ban tar and its term?

What’s a Horcrux?

On the same day Atlas Shrugged came out in theaters, the seventh film of the Harry Potter series arrived on DVD. I’m very interested in both films; see my reviews of Atlas I and Hallows I.

Central to the plot of the Potter novels is the Horcrux, an object of great evil that manifests the major characteristics of the villains: viciousness toward others, an obsession with physical objects, and a pathological fear of death. I released a short video further explaining the Horcrux:

For a more detailed account, see my book, Values of Harry Potter.