Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Macacas, Youtube, and the Question of Respect

Though I live in Pennsylvania (and voted for Bob Casey & Joe Sestak), the big Senatorial race for me was really in Virginia. As most readers know, during the summer, George Allen called S.R. Sidarth, a young worker in his opponent's campaign, "macaca." He didn't seem concerned that the same person happened to be carrying a video camera, and probably didn't imagine that the event being filmed would immediately be seen by millions on news shows, talk shows, and of course, on video sharing sites like Youtube (go ahead, watch the video again, you know you want to). It's possible that this will go down as the first "Youtube" election, just as 2004 was the first "blogged" election -- though notably, the blogosphere (dominated by liberal blogs) didn't seem to make a difference in the outcome of 2004, and I'm sure it's an open question as to whether Youtube had any real impact in the tight Senate races in places like Virginia and Montana.

"Macaca" was one of those strange insults you don't know what to do with at first. As with many ethnic slurs, it was unclear at first that it even was a slur (remember rat-eater?), since it isn't a word commonly used to describe (or insult) people from the Indian subcontinent. That isn't really new; ethnic slurs thrive on ignorance, and often misdescribe the people they are aimed at.

As people looked up various possible definitions of the word macaca, they discovered that none of them are complimentary. Like most South Asians in the U.S. (see Abhi's post at Sepia Mutiny, and the reactions to it), I immediately registered "macaca" as an insult, though I wasn't surprised that many others didn't see it that way. Eventually the mainstream consensus seemed to be that it was in fact an ethnic insult, and the next question for most South Asians was, "will this matter to anyone?" Will anyone else be as offended by this as we are? More is at stake in that question than first appears. Behind it is a deep anxiety about acceptance and integration, about being equally valued and respected in American society. Everyone is on board (usually) if a public figure makes a remark that could be construed as hostile to other, more settled minority groups -- the hostile response to Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade this summer was essentially unequivocal. And Trent Lott's political career was derailed by a comment relating to Jim Crow. But are Virginians, and Americans in general, going to care about "macaca," and share a sense of grievance with a newer, smaller, and less visible minority community? As the macaca story gathered steam, there was almost a sigh of relief as the answer appeared to be "yes." And now, if Jim Webb's slim lead holds following a probable recount in the coming days, it will be hard not to see it as a decisive factor in the election.

* * *
But did "macaca" really make a difference? One CNN pundit suggested, based on exit polls, that "macaca" may well not have been finally as important to voters as issues such as the war in Iraq -- 56% of voters said they did not think George Allen was a racist. But it's hard to argue with the huge swing in the polls that followed the initial comment -- even if in the end, exit poll results suggest that other issues may have been more prevalent in voters' minds. In a race as close as this, it did make a difference.

There was a bit of gallows humor following the "macaca" gaffe that the use of racial slurs might actually help George Allen, but that turned out to be totally false: Virginia is changing. There are now a decent number of South Asians in Virginia -- 77,000 -- and a significant subset of them are voting American citizens. Assuming that the vast majority were voting for Webb, there are certainly enough desis there to have affected the final tally of the election in Webb's favor (if the current 3000 vote margin holds after a recount). Other stats: according to the U.S. census in 2000, 4.3 percent of Virginia's population is Asian. And close to 600,000 Virginia residents (8.5 percent, with a total state population of 7 million) are foreign born, well above the national average. Virginia is looking less like the "southern firewall," and more like a mid-Atlantic state like Pennsylvania or Maryland. Urban counties are very blue, suburban counties will be purple (currently leaning blue), and the sparsely populated rural counties will be very red.


Ganesh said...

I actually find the VA results thus far disheartening. Here's a man who kept a noose in his office, called black n*ggers in his youth, played the good 'ol Southern boy and worshipped the Confederate flag (even though he was from Cali), voted against MLK day, and in the end actually called a desi kid a monkey -- yet, despite all of this, 1,150,000 Virginians voted for him. That's disheartening.

12:34 PM  
ana beynaam said...

Amardeep, I was also very interested in the Virginia senatorial race, as I was in the Oregon gubernatorial race here, and for precisely the reasons that you have elucidated here.

And Ganesh, I agree, it is disheartening. To me it is indicative of the divides, and a denial of what Deep said is valuing and respecting various groups in American society. To me it would be even more disheartening if people from the groups Allen has openly insulted voted for him.

1:10 PM  
Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

Another thing I find fascinating is the ballot initiatives. Raising minimum wage initiatives have won everywhere. Banning same-sex marriage initiatives have lost everywhere. Abortion rights have won everywhere, but barely. Stem cell research funding won, barely. What is going on here? Its almost like people pressed some buttons arbitrarily. Its hard to read the thought process behind all of this.

4:03 PM  
Amardeep said...

Suvendra, I thought the gay marriage ban actually passed in Virginia.

But you're right about the strange patterns with initiatives and ballot measures. I increasingly think these attempts to sidestep representative government are counter-productive. As Fareed Zakaria put it (thinking of all the ballot measures in California), there can be such a thing as too much freedom, too much direct democracy.

As for the small margin that Ganesh mentions: it doesn't bother me. When Bush won in 2000, everyone thought, "well, he just squeaked by Gore by like 300 (dubious) votes, he's going to govern with some humility." And then he went on to be willfully and aggressively partisan, and top-down in his governing style. What matters is if you win. If Webb wins, even by .3 percent or less, people will remember "Macacagate," Youtube, and the role South Asians played in this election.

4:10 PM  
Ganesh said...

Small margin? My citing of 1.15 million people was the 49% of Virginians who voted for Allen. There's nothing quite small about over a million people in one state voting for a man with a known racist past.

I completely agree that in terms of power politics, the only result that matters is that Webb won, but my point was that with 1.15 million of our fellow citizens voting for a person with strong evidence for being a racist, we all lose.

5:02 PM  
pied piper said...

Amardeep, you're completely right about Virginia changing. And it's not by any means the only state -- by 2008, North Carolina and Virginia will both be bona fide battleground states. Colorado, Montana, and Nevada, though much smaller, are already there. These are developments to be celebrating and, more importantly, organizing and encouraging along. As a friend of mine from Pennsylvania and I like to say, it's much better to fight them over there, so we don't have to fight them over here. ;)

Generational changes will delegitimize what Ganesh finds disheartening soon enough, and the fact is that we can and will always find things to be disheartened about. Progressives have a choice: we can either fixate on the half-empty (and at this point, it really is only half) part of the glass, and thereby build it up and make it larger than life -- that's the traditional left response -- or we can instead build the change we want to see in the world, recognizing that it's much better to spend our time trying to win converts and allies than to fight heretics and enemies.

I find the Virginia race to be an exciting and completely welcome development -- hopefully the shape of things to come -- would Allen's gaffe been a negative 15 years ago? Even 10 years ago? And let's not kid ourselves -- after so many years of Republican gains in the Northeastern states (COUGHPatakiLiebermanRomneyGiulianiBloombergEtcCOUGH), it's not like things have been completely rosy up north.

8:34 PM  
Chandra said...

"the sparsely populated rural counties will be very red."

Really? That's why Macaca Allen got 50% of the vote? You are right that Fairfax made a difference because Webb was behind Allen until they started counting DC suburbs. But the rest of Virginia is still pretty racists and that's very clear (and not just about macaca but Allen causual use of the N word during his college days and after).

But Mass, on the other hand, seems to shredding it's racisim with the new black governer.

2:49 PM  
Kerim Friedman said...

If you look at the VA voter polling breakdown from CNN it is pretty clear that the voting broke down on ethnic lines. 58% of whites voted for Allen, while 85% of African-Americans and 68% of Asians voted for Webb.

7:41 PM  
Archana said...

Two interesting things I thought about Macaca-gate and posted about at the time: 1) the most offensive part for me was the slur in combination with "Welcome to America." In a crowd of white rural Virginians, our Macaca friend must have stuck out like a sore thumb, and was an easy target because he didn't "look" American. It's disturbing that Allen would want to play the politics of exclusion like that with an American citizen but he took the easy shot. 2) Jim Webb's wife is Asian-American, and my deep-down suspicion is that Allen was trying to use racial codes like "Welcome to America" to call attention to that fact and paint Jim Webb as an inauthentic American in a room full of people who were probably feeling pretty anti-immigrant and anti-India/China these days. Just a hunch... But I agree with you, Amardeep, in the end, it looks like America did care about the incident - whether it tipped the scales or not - and that South Asians really made a difference.

12:02 PM  
Chandra said...

Here is macaca himself:

Apparently Allen clearly knew what he was doing and Webb actually won in the district where Allen played the race card!

11:48 PM  

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