Briar patches and tar babies

Yesterday, while talking about how the Simpson-Bowles report avoided really confronting rising medical costs (and thus dodging 90% of the actual long-term deficit problem), Kevin Drum included a familiar turn of phrase (my emphasis):

I get it. No one wants to dive back into that briar patch right now. But that’s too bad.

I’m pretty sure he meant to say “No one wants to punch that tar baby right now”. Brer Rabbit tricked his enemies into throwing him into briar patch, but he himself got tricked into punching the tar baby. In Congress, the inexorable rise of medical costs are a tar baby, the third rail, quicksand, etc., but I don’t think they’re a briar patch. If they were, we’d happily frolic in their thorny arms, scamper down their forbidding tunnels, etc…

Tar baby

This reminds me of a mini-argument I heard between two married friends recently. He had made reference to either a tar baby or a briar patch while he was at work, and she thought that was a pretty bad move. She felt it was insensitive at best, and at worst might make one’s co-workers think one is an incorrigible racist.

I leapt to the defense of the reference, my reasoning being that there’s nothing inherently racist about the stories themselves. I think both parables are clever and illustrative, and it’s a loss to mark them as off-limits because they were brought to the attention of white America by somewhat or very racist messengers. Still, I eventually came around to her position that in a business meeting you probably don’t have the opportunity to make a clear distinction between the story itself and the racist cloud that surrounds it.

No one in the comments on Kevin’s article cared a whit about tar babies or briar patches… What say you?

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