Friday, October 19, 2007

The Governor is the One Making More of "Coolies" Than Necessary

You know: I thought that the Governor's splaying open Tennessee consumers to more poisonous Chinese products was a lot more noteworthy than his regressive use of the term "coolies" with respect to Chinese people. So, I was prepared to give Phil Bredesen a pass after arguing that his particular choice of words was ill-advised and unnecessary.

But today he spouted off defensively at the Tennessean and with an attitude that I have always considered one of his greatest weaknesses: landed condescension towards honest criticism. This is not a battle that he needed to fight. It really is something that he could have buried with some kind of formulaic acknowledgement that none of us always chooses the most effective ways to communicate and in this instance it was his turn to choose poorly, given that some in his audience did not catch his drift.

It really does not matter how popular the Governor is or how his popularity might inflate his self-importance or his promise as player on the national stage. He is not above criticism for an unfortunate or undiplomatic choice of words, especially if he wants to be a player on the national stage.

There is one simple two-pronged test here: does calling Asians "coolies" advance general respect and admiration for the Chinese he is courting and does it advance his economic mission in China? In his curt response to the Tennessean he defends his choice of words by appealing to the context of the compliment in which they appeared. But would it have been any less of a compliment to have not referred specifically to "coolies"?

In the end this has nothing to do in my mind with toeing a politically correct line. It has to do with using the shrewd and even-keeled judgment that should be expected of leaders even after the two bone-headed presidential terms of George W. Bush. Governor Bredesen's words do not reflect a wise or careful selection. If they are not discriminatory, then they are at best indiscriminate.

And those of us who dare to demur rather than go along quietly--whether at the Tennessean or elsewhere--deserve none of his scorn nor any other person's minimization of some fair questions.

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