Thursday, July 1, 2010

And you thought Senator Douglas Henry's recent gaffe was bad

State Senator Douglas Henry
A recent gaffe by State Senator Douglas Henry that started as a defense of Hispanic Nashvillians - and Arizonans - reminds me of a historic Tennessee anecdote from a governor's race fifty-nine years before Henry was born.

First, about Henry's gaffe.  It occurred on June 4, 2010, in the chamber of the Tennessee State Senate, when Henry simultaneously stood up for his Hispanic constituents while stumbling over those of Middle Eastern descent.  Henry was voicing his opposition to the legislature's resolution commending Arizona on its recent immigration law, and he started out by pointing out how Phoenix is one of the top five safest cities in the U.S.  He then turned to describing the hard-working Hispanics in his Nashville district, but at the same time, Henry also implied that the Arizona law might have made more sense if it had targeted Middle Eastern immigrants - who "people might say well they're going to throw bombs and blow people up."  For Henry's exact words, go to Pith in the Wind, or view the video on the legislature's web site.
Tennessee Governor William G. Brownlow, 1805-1877
The historic echo of Henry's gaffe comes from immigration politics in the 1867 Tennessee gubernatorial campaign.  Opposition against incumbent William Gannaway "Parson" Brownlow was brewing in the German immigrant community, based on Brownlow's loud nativism, frequently expressed in his family's newspaper, the Knoxville Whig.  An opinion in Brownlow's defense, published in the German-language Nashville newspaper the Tennessee Staatszeitung (the "Tennessee State Gazette"), pointed out that Brownlow in fact opposed immigrants, but not of the German kind:
I heard a Conservative German yesterday sharply criticize Brownlow's Knownothing past. A bystander asked, what have the Germans always got against Brownlow? Did he ever insult the Germans like [gubernatorial challenger Henry Emerson] Etheridge who once spoke of "a pack of dirty dutchmen," and on another occasion spoke of "d-----d dutch intruders"? No, Brownlow has never criticized the Germans. True, he has reviled foreigners, he has expressed the opinion that it would be better if they were to drown on the other side of the Atlantic, and so on. But by foreigners, Brownlow meant Greeks and Arabs and the like. He never said anything against the Germans. They are his best friends.
I wonder whether the writer intended for his German audience to be comforted or horrified.  Ironic wit, perhaps?

Henry isn't Brownlow, and his comment can't be equated to the description of Brownlow's views.  Furthermore, Henry said what he said in the context of standing up against the "Praising Arizona" resolution, and earlier this session he stood up for translations of the written drivers' license exam (my wife took the Spanish-language written test way back when, so I appreciate that).  Henry was also the only Senate vote against an immigration enforcement law that passed in 2007 but has so far proven to be so useless to the state that it has boasted only one formal charge after more than two years in effect.

But Henry's gaffe was a gaffe nonetheless, and one that was at the expense of Tennesseans and Arizonans of Middle Eastern descent - unless, perhaps, Henry was using irony in the style of the Staatszeitung writer.

Henry faces challenger Jeff Yarbro in the upcoming elections.

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