The incident occurred the week before but didn't hit the wires, or whatever they're called these days, until August 14, and the whole thing exploded in the press and other news media on Tuesday, August 15 - Republican Senator George Allen has said what? He's in an increasingly pesky reelection campaign - still ahead by quite a bit but things keep shifting. And he's considered one of the front runners for the Republican nomination to run for president against whoever the Democrats settle on in 2008.
The New York Times sets out the problem quite succinctly here -
If Senator George Allen of Virginia is thinking of running for president in 2008, as is widely believed, what he said in a little town in southwestern Virginia several nights ago may haunt him.
"This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is, he's with my opponent," the Republican lawmaker said on Friday night at a rally in Breaks, next to the Kentucky border. "He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great."
Mr. Allen, a Republican running for re-election to the Senate, was singling out S.R. Sidarth, a 20-year-old volunteer for Mr. Allen's Democratic challenger, James Webb. Mr. Sidarth's mission was to trail Mr. Allen and videotape his speeches, in the hope they would yield grist for the Webb campaign.
But it was Mr. Allen who supplied grist for his rival with his use of the term "macaca," a genus that includes numerous species of monkeys found in Asia.
Mr. Allen said Monday that he meant no insult, that he was sorry if he hurt anyone's feelings and that he did not know what "macaca" meant, according to the Washington Post, which reported about the incident today.
Mr. Sidarth, who is of Indian descent, was not convinced. "I think he was doing it because he could, and I was the only person of color there, and it was useful for him in inciting his audience," Mr. Sidarth told the Post.
The senator's communications director, John Reid, said in an interview today that Allen campaign workers had good-naturedly nicknamed Mr. Sidarth "Mohawk" because he would not disclose his name and the sobriquet seemed appropriate for Mr. Sidarth's hair style.
Perhaps, Mr. Reid suggested, "Mohawk" morphed into "macaca," with results that turned out to be regrettable.
After his initial use of the term, Mr. Allen went on to urge the crowd to "give a welcome to macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."
Unfortunately, Sidarth was born in Fairfax County, right there in Virginia.
And what's this "macaca" business? Asian monkeys?
The Times is being kind.
As noted below, it's a coded racial slur seemingly well understood in the South. No one who wasn't an "insider" was supposed to get it. But that's just not how things go these days. And this wasn't supposed to hit the national media. The whole thing is on tape and all over (see it here) - CNN and all the rest run it and people talk about it. And folks use Nexis and Goodle these days on who uses this odd term, and how it has been used in the past. There's nowhere to hide.
The Times quotes Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, saying that this "verbal gaffe" would probably not keep Allen from being reelected to the Senate, but if he runs for president the word "macaca" will hurt him, "not only because it is offensive on its face but also because it fits into a long pattern of insensitivity by Allen on racial and ethnic matters."
Sabato knows the guy - he was student council president at the University of Virginia when Allen was class president there thirty years ago. And the Times notes that Allen opposed a state Martin Luther King holiday back in the eighties, and when he was governor he issued that 1993 proclamation honoring Confederate History Month, and he kept a Confederate flag in his home and all the rest.
Of course George Allen has been discussed in these pages before - April 30 here - and he seems like a dumbed-down version of George Bush (imagine that), just another Texan good ol' boy, except he grew up out here in Palos Verdes Estates while his father was with the Los Angeles Rams, and his mother is French. It's kind of funny that when his father coached the Washington Redskins Nixon used to call up the elder Allen and tell him what plays he ought to run - although there's no evidence the senator's father ever did that. Small world.
He's one piece of work, and the buzz last spring was the Ryan Lizza profile of the younger Allen - George Allen's Race Problem -
At the time of the profile Ezra Klein said this -
But, while Allen may have genuflected in the direction of Gingrich, he also showed a touch of Strom Thurmond. Campaigning for governor in 1993, he admitted to prominently displaying a Confederate flag in his living room. He said it was part of a flag collection - and had been removed at the start of his gubernatorial bid. When it was learned that he kept a noose hanging on a ficus tree in his law office, he said it was part of a Western memorabilia collection. These explanations may be sincere. But, as a chief executive, he also compiled a controversial record on race. In 1994, he said he would accept an honorary membership at a Richmond social club with a well-known history of discrimination - an invitation that the three previous governors had refused. After an outcry, Allen rejected the offer. He replaced the only black member of the University of Virginia (UVA) Board of Visitors with a white one. He issued a proclamation drafted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans declaring April Confederate History and Heritage Month. The text celebrated Dixie's "four-year struggle for independence and sovereign rights." There was no mention of slavery. After some of the early flaps, a headline in The Washington Post read, "Governor Seen Leading Virginia Back in Time."
But Kevin Drum suggested Allen would get a pass -
Potentially worse, Allen comes off as a garden variety of sadist, a high school bully and vandal who hurled his brother through a glass door when he wanted to stay up past his bedtime, cracked another brother's collarbone for the same offense, and so tormented his youngest sister that she wrote a memoir packed with instances of his cruelty and thuggishness. It's grotesque stuff, and considering the perpetrator is being seriously considered as the chief executive and primary symbol of our country, Lizza's article is a definite must-read.
The press corps is a sucker for "authenticity," and it's something that both George Bush and John McCain have cleverly exploited - because for most reporters, speaking in complete sentences or having smart ideas about policy are way less important than being a "straight talker" or "comfortable in your own skin." But just as McCain's embrace of Jerry Falwell has shown him to be a wee bit less of a straight talker than his handlers claim, Allen's "authenticity" also turns out to be barely skin-deep.
... Allen may reasonably claim that what he did as a teenager four decades ago shouldn't be held against him now. But the consistent evidence in Lizza's piece that his red state good 'ol boy shtick is little more than a personal invention, carefully cultivated and maintained through the years, should at least give the press corps pause as they cover his campaign. They've gotten suckered by this act before, and both McCain and Allen are currently gearing up to sucker them again with the same song in a different key. Caveat emptor should be their watch phrase this time around.
But the senate race in Virginia turns out to be a classic of the sort Drum feared.
As noted in these pages here, running in Virginia against the incumbent George Allen, is one James Webb - the former Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, the best-selling author (Fields of Fire from 1978), and a former United States Marine Corps officer decorated for valor in the Vietnam War. He's left the Republicans. He's running as a Democrat. And the dynamic is clear - Allen is the tobacco-chewing good ol' boy wannabe, son of the famous football coach, with the confederate flags all over, be challenged by the done-everything, intellectual and writer and lawyer and man of action. The "I don't read nothin' much" never-in-the-military Man of the Old South, who went to high school out here in chic Palos Verdes and cut classes a lot, is ahead. Webb likes to point out that when he was fighting in Vietnam, Allen - emphasizing his middle name, Felix - was spending his summers at an exclusive dude ranch, pretending to be a cowboy. But it's not going that well.
Will this little incident change things? Probably not.
But the Washington Post is certainly annoyed -
The Post has no idea what the word means, but Jeffrey Feldman does -
"My friends, we're going to run this campaign on positive, constructive ideas," Sen. George F. Allen told a rally of Republican supporters in Southwest Virginia last week. "And it's important that we motivate and inspire people for something." Whereupon Mr. Allen turned his attention to a young campaign aide working for his Democratic opponent - a University of Virginia student from Fairfax County who was apparently the only person of color present - and proceeded to ridicule him.
Let's consider which positive, constructive or inspirational ideas Mr. Allen had in mind when he chose to mock S.R. Sidarth of Dunn Loring, who was recording the event with a video camera on behalf of James Webb, the Democratic nominee for the Senate seat Mr. Allen holds. The idea that holding up minorities to public scorn in front of an all-white crowd will elicit chortles and guffaws? (It did.) The idea that a candidate for public office can say "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia!" to an American of Indian descent and really mean nothing offensive by it? (So insisted Mr. Allen's aides.) Or perhaps the idea that bullying your opponents and calling them strange names - Mr. Allen twice referred to Mr. Sidarth as "Macaca" -- is within the bounds of decency on the campaign trail?
We have no inkling as to what Mr. Allen meant by "Macaca," though we rather doubt his campaign's imaginative explanation that it was somehow an allusion to Mr. Sidarth's hairstyle, a mullet. Mr. Allen said last night that no slur was intended, though he failed to explain what, exactly, he did have in mind. Macaca is the genus for macaques, a type of monkey found mainly in Asia. Mr. Allen, who as a young man had a fondness for Confederate flags and later staunchly opposed a state holiday in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has surely learned too much about racial sensitivities in public life to misspeak so offensively.
That's a good question.
I did some Google searches to find out what it meant. As it turns out, the question is not if 'macaca' is a racist term, but which of the three definitions of the word 'macaca' did George Allen intend when he used it?
Here are the three choices:
1. 'Macaca' - French : racist slang; similar to English 'nigger,' used to describe Arabs.
2. 'Macaca' - English : racist slang; similar to 'nigger' used to describe Arabs.
3. 'Macaca' - English : racist slang; used by American white supremacists in 'insider' talk about African-Americans.
Which one is it?
And there are some other points, like whether the word was used intentionally -
And was 'macaca' a word he learned from his mother, but did not understand? Hardly -
So far, George Allen's campaign is saying that the word was Allen's mispronunciation of 'Mohawk,' but reasonable people can discount that answer. The word 'macaca' (three syllables) is no closer to 'mohawk' (two syllables) than are the words 'Madison' or 'Mac n' Cheese.' And since Allen pronounced the word twice in a short period of time - each instance with emphasis, as if he was setting up 'macaca' to be the keyword that everyone would hear - we can conclude without hesitation that his use was conscious. He used the word because he chose to use it in advance at that moment and to make sure that everyone in the audience heard him use it. 'Macaca,' in other words, was the keyword in his communication strategy to handle the situation of a campaign staffer from his opposition following him around with a video camera.
The conclusion - George Allen used a white power word in a stump speech -
This is another potential misinterpretation of the events. Since George Allen's mother was raised in France and French-speaking Tunisia, some have surmised that 'macaca' might just be a nonsense word he had heard from his mother, but did not understand. This cannot be true, however, because it has been shown that George Allen studied French and did quite well. The idea that he would not understand a word used by his mother, but use it twice in a campaign stump speech - this makes no logical sense and can be discounted.
It's a white power thing. It will serve him well in Virginia. It's a no-no nationally, perhaps.
George Allen's used 'macaca' at his campaign stop (1) consciously, (2) specifically in order to signal to people who knew what it meant, and (3) with the goal of showing that he was not intimidated by the staffer from his opponent's campaign attending his campaign events.
The entire statement was designed to humiliate the person in question by drawing attention to them and insulting them with a coded racial slur - all with the intention of showing confidence in response to intimidation from his opponent.
It is likely that George Allen did not believe many people would understand what was being said, except for 'insiders' already familiar with the word 'macaca.'
George Allen used a white power word in his stump speech. And he did it on purpose.
And he apologized and still claims he knows nothing -
Reached Monday evening, Allen said that the word had no derogatory meaning for him and that he was sorry. "I would never want to demean him as an individual. I do apologize if he's offended by that. That was no way the point."
Asked what macaca means, Allen said: "I don't know what it means." He said the word sounds similar to "mohawk," a term that his campaign staff had nicknamed Sidarth because of his haircut.
Yep, it's one of those apologies where it not his mistake for what he said. But he's sorry, really, that the other guy was too dumb to understand him, and of course he graciously regrets there was a misunderstanding (you know how these folks are, of course). Oh, and by the way, someone on his staff came up with the nickname. It wasn't even him, but, then, he's a big man and will say these regrets himself, even if some low-life staffer who screwed up.
Heck, maybe he really is presidential material.
Hell, his audience got it, and that's what mattered.
Ah, this is one guy and an isolated incident.
Would that it were, but it isn't an isolated incident. All you need is reminders, which James Wolcott of Vanity Fair lines up here.
He notes that Conservative New York radio talk show host Bob Grant once said on the air that then-New York mayor David Dinkins reminded him of a "men's room attendant". (See this.) Don Imus of MSNBC's Imus in the Morning one said of the black journalist Gwen Ifill, now moderating PBS's Washington Week in Review -"Speaking of reporter Gwen Ifill, he's said, 'Isn't the [New York] Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.'" (See here.) Mickey Kaus's at SLATE.COM recently said this - "Congresswoman Maxine Waters had parachuted into Connecticut earlier in the week to campaign against Lieberman because he once expressed reservations about affirmative action, without which she would not have a job that didn't involve wearing a paper hat." And there's the cover of the latest Weekly Standard here - Al Sharpton as a Driving Miss Daisy faithful retainer "who dares not look his master in the eye."
It's just the latest in a series.
Washroom attendant. Cleaning lady. Cafeteria worker. Chauffeur.
Notice a pattern?
No matter what height of prominence a black person reaches, conservatives will always find a way to reduce him or her to low-paid, low-status, low-skilled caricatured servitude. That's their idea of cutting black personalities down to size and putting them in their place. Whatever uniform they wear, it's still a monkey suit in the eyes and mouths of the white-makes-right contingent, which should make it no surprise that Senator George Allen, adopted son of the Confederacy, would reach back for a race-baiting jibe as his beanball pitch.
And see Digby at Hullabaloo here -
What's he talking about? Lee Atwater, the last generation's Karl Rove. And the New York Times's Bob Herbert, who is their black editorialist, on October 6, 2005 discussing a 1981 interview with Lee Atwater in which he explains the GOP's Southern Strategy -
There is some debate as to whether George Felix Allen was making a deliberate slur or whether he was just repeating his French mother's phrase for "dirty Arab" without fully realizing what he was saying (or thinking nobody would know what he was saying.)
I don't think so. I think this is racist code of the worst sort. Allen isn't just another southern good old boy who can't tell the difference between his family heritage and racism. He chose to become a neoconfederate long after it was out of fashion, in defiance of accepted norms of his time and he has built his good old boy reputation partially because of it. He didn't inherit his brand of racism - he chose it.
The evidence suggests that "macaca" is a slur that American white supremacists have adopted from European white supremacists to apply to dark skinned people. And what this means is that George Allen is conversant in the language of white supremacists and he uses that language in his conversation. And while it's impossible to prove, I believe he used that word deliberately because it is a word that a racist like him would know that "certain" people would correctly identify.
It's right out of the Lee Atwater playbook, at whose knee Mary Matalin, Allen's biggest supporter, studied.
There's more here but basically -
You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.
And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me - because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
People do put two and two together. And George Felix Allen may have inadvertently set up the real issue here, that the Civil War of the 1860s never really settled anything. The South fights on, and they're stronger now than any time since that business at Fort Sumter.
That was Atwater, even as he was trying to say that racism was dying, helpfully explaining that the GOP mantra of "tax cuts" was another way for a candidate to say that you didn't believe in government hand outs to black people. (Too bad nobody listened to him at the time and figured out a way to fight that, but it's too late now.) But what he really revealed was that racism had just gone underground. "Macaca" is as abstract as it gets - to anybody but a white supremacist who knows exactly what it means. It's just one of the newer code words for "nigger, nigger, nigger" and Allen, who kept a noose in his office for years, is the type of guy who would know it.
George Felix Allen is the most disgusting serious candidate for president this country has produced in many decades. The fact that he's backed by a large number of powerful mainstream Republicans for the nomination shows what that party really is, even now, after all this time.
On April 10, 1861, Brigadier General Beauregard, in command of the provisional Confederate forces at Charleston, South Carolina, demanded the surrender of the Union garrison of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Garrison commander Major Anderson refused. On April 12, Confederate batteries opened fire on the fort, which was unable to reply effectively. At two-thirty in the afternoon on April 13, Major Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter, evacuating the garrison on the following day.
For some, those were the days. And it's not over yet.
Phillip Raines, whose words and photographs have often appeared in these pages, explains it best -
And that is what we're dealing with.
Was it racist slang - used by American white supremacists in 'insider' talk about African-Americans?
That's it, that's why he said it, and back-peddling and saying he didn't know what it means is just another way of him saying "Aw shucks, I was just funning." As a native born southerner immersed in a culture of racist and class supremacy I can assure the readers of Just Above Sunset his true sentiments were drawn out by the videographer as provocateur. He thought he was speaking in code, and racist will create a feeling of inclusiveness by sharing their racism with other people, usually quietly, by saying something like "between you and me… nigger, you know."
It's better explained by example -
I was in Mississippi visiting my wife's relatives. Atlanta is in the south, but Mississippi is Deep South, making Atlanta look socially transitional between Boston and Jackson. A cousin-in-law was skinning a deer under the carport after a Thanksgiving morning of hunting. He was mid-twenties, a lawyer, a nice looking guy even in a camouflage jacket and red hat. The family, in general, likes me, though I'm somewhat of an oddity. A city boy, a sax player, a leftist - a lot of things they aren't - but with a fundamental basis of behavior that I'm there to get along and have a good sense of humor as long as right wing politics aren't brought up. Then I'll fight, won't take it, and will definitely call a spade a spade (it's a shovel reference, not cards or color, though it's a metaphor morphed into that).
Knowing that as a city boy I didn't hunt I couldn't share in the happiness of bagging a deer in the first few hours of hunting season, there was a still desire from him for an inclusiveness. He shifted the conversation to the general inferiority and faults of blacks - the laziness, the stink, the inferiority, and most threatening, the dangerous potential of violence to take from those that have - to take the white women, take the money through armed theft, take the TV right out of the living room if you don't lock up. The thematic subtext of his chatter was "now that it's just us I will show you my unspoken hatred like a secret, bare myself in intimacy, and you can admit the same to me."
He was disappointed that I didn't take my cue and admit that I hated them too, collectively though I might, as a musician, mention there are some good ones. I've seen this scenario again and again my whole life in the South. I changed the subject to different knives for different tasks of dressing out the deer. He offered a thin slice of leg muscle for me to taste raw, but I declined, saying I was a hippie vegetarian for too long and raw meat didn't settle with me, hurt my teeth somehow. But a point that's important was this guy was educated, had summoned up enough concentration to pass the bar and would most likely run for judge one day (he was just the type), but at his core and despite his path to wealth, success and power, he would always be a white supremacist, even if he became adept at hiding it. A hundred years ago he might have sent his mother a postcard of a lynching and written on the back, "Ma, there is one less of these here to hurt you," as was on the majority of post cards in the lynching exhibit I saw at Emory.
It is a fact that all southern born men struggle with racism. Most dismiss the struggle and only a few pursue racial enlightenment and sort out the incidents that reinforce racism for a higher path. Like blowing up frogs with firecrackers (like our sitting president did as a kid), it is an outlet for meanness - and that somehow feels good and empowering. And trust me, again as a native-born southerner, that even as southern men are taking over the highest offices in the land, repeatedly, deep inside, there is a voice that is claiming a small victory in the ongoing civil war between the north and the south, and its conservatism. It offers one more opportunity to have a dose of that meanness - like it's a satisfying drug whose effects last for days. Kindness is a weakness, unless it's towards your momma.
To understand where this is coming from you have to understand that Bill Montgomery - who blogs as "Bilmon" - is a journalist who specializes in finance - economics and corporations and interest rates and trade and all that sort of thing. He goes on assignment to all the international economic forums and all, and clearly explains the implications of what's happing, which is no small feat. He knows his stuff, and he knows all sorts of things about statistics. He thinks this business with what George Allen said is an example of reversion to the mean -
That's the most idiosyncratic explanation of this incident out there.
As a 16th generation Virginian, I'm proud that the Old Dominion has blessed the nation with such political and intellectual giants as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It doesn't mean I'd ever actually want to live in that reactionary armpit of a state again, but still, I'm proud.
It almost - almost - makes up for George Allen…
… Macaca? What the fuck kind of kindergarten insult is that? Is that the best the idiot could come up with? What's next? Boogerbrain? Doodoohead? Harry Flood Byrd could think up better racial slurs in his sleep.
I think this is a political example of the statistical phenomenon known as mean revision - in which a string of unusually high data points is often followed by a string of low ones, bringing the trend back towards the long-term average.
If you look at it that way, it's no surprise Virginia politics has been churning out dimwitted racist assclowns for the the better part of the past 200 years. It takes a heap of mean reversion to compensate for Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Mason and Monroe.
But now that the state has given us Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and George Allen in such quick succession, it's pretty clear the pendulum has swung too far. Virginia is almost down to the Texas level now, which is about six standard deviations below the mean. It's time for something better - or at least a little better, like Jim Webb.
Of course, Allen's latest crack makes it clear that even a Macaca (whatever the hell it is) would be a big improvement.