Stepping in "macaca"

With his Confederate-flag-draped past, Sen. George Allen is in trouble for using a term for monkeys -- and a racial slur elsewhere in the world -- to ridicule a dark-skinned man at a campaign rally.

Published August 16, 2006 12:45PM (EDT)

On the campaign trail, Sen. George Allen can be a marvel to behold. He'll do nearly a half dozen stump speeches a day, shake a few hundred hands, and be ready for more. With his stiff boots and square sideburns, he comes off as easygoing. Down home. Macho. Red blooded. He tosses around the football and dips tobacco. The people love him in southern Virginia. He speaks their language.

He'll talk about the "real America," the one without homosexuals, movie moguls or Ivy League professors who want to ban guns and burn flags. He'll talk about an America where people have "values" and don't run away from the terrorists when the fighting gets tough. At his best, he begins to inhabit a symbolic fantasyland, becoming the lead cavalryman in a two-century-old culture war between North and South, city and countryside, the New York Times and the local church. He becomes a walking, talking American flag with a clear shot for the White House in 2008.

He is so good at it that he can get carried away. And like so many other talented people, he can sometimes lose control. That's when George Allen the senator is revealed as George Allen the man, the unruly jock who likes to act tough and intimidate -- maybe to a fault.

Last Friday, it all began innocently enough at another outdoor rally with a hundred or so people just a few miles from the Kentucky border. As is the habit of both campaigns, Allen's Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, had sent a 20-year-old volunteer named S.R. Sidarth to cover the campaign event with a camcorder. Sidarth, an Indian-American who was born and raised in Virginia, affirmed in an interview with Salon on Tuesday that he had introduced himself to Allen and his staff earlier last week. They all seemed to be getting along well, Sidarth thought at the time.

Then Allen took the microphone. "My friends, we are going to run this campaign on positive constructive ideas," Allen said, before pointing in the direction of Sidarth, who stood in the crowd, the only nonwhite person on the scene. "This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is: He's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere."

In three syllables, ma-ca-ca, Allen burst a hole in his front-running Senate campaign, and possibly sank his chances for a 2008 run at the White House. He uttered sounds from another time and place. No one seemed to know what he meant. Was the senator speaking Latin? Did Sidarth have a funny middle name? Five days later, Allen, whose campaign did not return Salon's calls Tuesday, continued to plead ignorance about letting loose the utterance, as if he had suddenly been taken over by an evil spirit and spoken in tongues. "I don't know what it means," Allen said of the word in an interview with the Washington Post on Monday.

But those three syllables do not often come together by accident. In fact, George Allen may well have been the only one at the rally whose family background would have introduced him to the word "macaca."

Though he doesn't like to use it, the senator's full name is George F. Allen. He gets the middle initial from his grandfather, Felix Lumbrosso, a French-Italian who was incarcerated by the Nazis during World War II. Felix raised Allen's mother, Etty, in Tunisia, a French protectorate in North Africa. As a child, Allen's grandparents lived near the family home, and Etty spoke five languages around the house. Allen makes no secret of his heritage on the campaign trail. "I have my grandfather's bloodlines," he said at a recent swing through a suburb of Richmond. "My grandfather is French-Italian. I have about one-sixteenth Spanish in me."

In North Africa, the word "macaca," often spelled "macaco" or "macaque," is far more than a string of random syllables. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word dates back to the mid-1600s, as a Flemish approximation of the Bantu word for monkey in the Congo and southern Gabon. The word migrated north, taking on all the racist connotations that followed African colonization. By the early 1800s, Jacko Maccacco, a famous fighting monkey, could be found on display in Westminster Pit, a notorious London arena for dog fights. The word had entered the common vernacular, and it eventually became a racist shorthand for blacks.

Today, the word is used mainly by two groups of people: scientists studying African and Asian primates, and bullies looking to insult others for the color of their skin. An online dictionary of ethnic slurs lists "macaque" as a French and Belgian word for black North Africans. In the Oxford Spanish Dictionary, "macaco" and "macaca" carry the colloquial meaning of "little devil," "Chinaman" and "ugly person." Anthropologists who study Brazilian street slang have noted that the police will call the local kids "macaco," or monkey, in reference to their African heritage. Robin E. Sheriff, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, has written that the purpose of it is to demonstrate "interpersonal domination" and signal "the historically entrenched structures on which that domination is based."

Even though Allen maintains he had no idea what he was saying, he still managed some grudging remorse. "I do apologize if he's offended by that," Allen said of Sidarth, in Monday's interview with the Post. "That was no way the point." Allen's campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, initially argued that no apology was necessary, saying, somewhat absurdly, that Allen really meant to say "mohawk," in reference to Sidarth's hair. But "mohawk" doesn't sound much like "macaca." And Sidarth's haircut does not resemble a mohawk. Sidarth, meanwhile, is still waiting for a personal phone call. "I think Sen. Allen owes it to me," he told Salon on Tuesday.

In a statement provided to CNN Tuesday, Allen admitted that he "made up a nickname for the cameraman," though he said it was "in no way intended to be racially derogatory" and reiterated that his comments "have been greatly misunderstood by members of the media."

To understand the full import of Allen's gaffe, it is worth taking another look at the video, which will live for eternity on the Internet and in political attack ads. It is not just a matter of what Allen says, but very much a matter of how he says it. He has singled out one member of the audience, a 20-year-old volunteer whose ethnicity already distinguishes him in a former bastion of the Confederacy. Allen is smiling. He is enjoying himself. It is exceedingly difficult to see Allen as doing anything other than connecting with the crowd by attempting to humiliate another human being -- to make him feel like an outsider, like he doesn't belong, like he will never belong. "Let's give a welcome to macaca, here," the senator crows. "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."

The performance strongly suggests Sheriff's definition of "interpersonal domination" at work. Allen is being a bully.

In an interview Tuesday, George Allen's youngest sister, Jennifer Richard, told Salon that both her mother and grandparents spoke multiple languages around the house when they were kids. "My mom speaks French to me. She spoke Arabic," Richard said. But she said she knew nothing about the word "macaca." Later in the day, she asked her mother, who she said also did not recognize the word.

But Allen's penchant for aggressive machismo and bullying are not isolated to that single example. He was known in college and high school as an alpha male jock, a football player who trucked in Confederate flags and cockiness. In 2000, Richard wrote a book, titled "Fifth Quarter," about her childhood relationship with her father, who was also named George Allen, a head coach of the Los Angeles Rams and later the Washington Redskins.

She says she remembers the family home to be "rough and tumble." "There was like an indoor football game going on at all times," she said. In an essay in Washingtonian magazine, Richard recalled one scene from her childhood when her mother ripped the phone from her father's hand to dress down a reporter. "A vaincre sans peril on triomphe sans gloire," Etty told the reporter. Translation: If one wins without danger, one triumphs without glory.

Richard's book also contained some cartoonish, though alarming, accounts of violence at the Allen home. Richard remembers George, her older brother and the future senator, dragging her up the stairs by her hair. She remembers George breaking his brother Gregory's collarbone. She remembers George throwing her brother Bruce through a sliding glass door. At one point in the book, which was marketed as nonfiction, she says George spoke about dentistry as a perfect profession, because he wanted to be paid to "make people suffer." Those anecdotes have dogged Allen as he tries to reintroduce himself to the American people, showing up recently in a scathing New Republic profile this spring.

On Tuesday, Richard said she no longer stood by the memories she had included in her book. The New Republic, she said, had used anecdotes that were taken out of context and that may not even be accurate. "The book is a dramatization," she explained. The dentist quote, for instance, was meant to be humorous, not sadistic. "This is a 16-year-old boy," she said, describing her brother at the time. George never broke his brother's collarbone, she now says. "I have been corrected by my mom and my brother Greg." She also disavowed her account, on page 43 of the book, that her brother George held her over the railing at Niagara Falls, instilling in her a fear of heights. "I think in a childhood realm I would have thought that that happened," Richard explained. "But as an adult I can't see the logistics of that happening."

Whatever the truth of George Allen's childhood, it is clear that he has been trying in recent years to turn over a new leaf in public. Ryan Lizza, the author of the New Republic piece, asked Allen about the Confederate flag pin he wore in his senior photo at a tony California high school. Allen responded by mentioning the funding he is seeking in Congress for historically black colleges. Lizza asked about Allen's initial opposition to Martin Luther King Day, the noose he once hung on a ficus tree in his law office, and Allen's support of a Confederate History and Heritage Month that did not mention slavery. Allen deflected all the questions, while hinting that he was a changed man. He said he recently went on a "civil rights pilgrimage." He cares about genocide. He recently passed an anti-lynching resolution.

This new person is the one Allen wants America to see. But it is far from clear if that is the person he is. Political scientist Larry Sabato, who remembers Allen as a tough-guy jock back when they were undergraduates at the University of Virginia, said he thinks the gaffe last week shows the real candidate. "In these unguarded moments, Allen does show his true self," said Sabato, who now teaches at the university. This sort of mistake, said Sabato, may not sink Allen's reelection chances this November, but it will certainly hamper any bid for the White House. "Republicans when they weigh their chances in 2008 are going to be increasingly hesitant about Allen. He comes with a lot of baggage that they don't need."

In the end, it doesn't matter how many fancy consultants or slick campaign ads a candidate pulls together. American democracy is still at its roots about meeting the people, shaking their hands, and submitting to endless interrogations from a hostile press. The system is designed to weed out the weak and the shifty. It is a system that undid Gary Hart in 1987, when he was caught with a 29-year-old blonde, Donna Rice, walking into his Washington townhouse amid rampant rumors of his infidelity. It is a system that may have unfairly broken Ed Muskie in 1972, when he appeared to cry at an outdoor rally before the New Hampshire primary as he denounced the right-wing Manchester Union Leader for printing slurs about him and his wife.

It is a system that Sen. George Allen, one of the most able campaigners of his generation, may not be able to survive. The video of him uttering a century-old slander tells us something. When you face the American people, sooner or later, they are going to figure out who you really are.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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2006 Elections Virginia