Jim Webb on "towel-heads and rednecks"

In an interview with the Washington Post, George Allen's challenger has a not exactly "macaca" moment.

Published October 19, 2006 12:48AM (EDT)

In the midst of a race in which racial insensitivity has become something of a defining issue, what exactly was Jim Webb thinking when he used the phrase "towel-heads" in an interview with the Washington Post?

The phrase appears late in Libby Copeland's long profile of Webb in Wednesday's paper -- the same paper, coincidentally, that carries the editorial board's endorsement of Webb over Virginia Sen. George Allen. In the profile, Webb is complaining that Hollywood movies have long mocked the Scotch-Irish and vilified the poor white Southerner when he says: "Every movie needs a villain ... Towel-heads and rednecks -- of which I am one. If you write that word, please say that. I mean, I don't use that pejoratively, I use it defensively. Towel-heads and rednecks became the easy villains in so many movies out there."

Webb is right, of course. Arabs are frequently vilified in films, among them "Rules of Engagement," a 2000 movie criticized for its "blatantly racist" treatment of them. Webb wrote the story on which that movie was based, but his version was set in Latin America. Paramount apparently made the decision to relocate the movie to the Middle East. Webb said in a 2000 interview that he didn't agree with some of the changes "Hollywood" made to his story, and for a time he demanded that his name be removed from the project. But he said a couple of scenes that bothered him -- one involving U.S. troops in Vietnam, another involving the Vietnamese community in the United States -- were subsequently "edited down," and he put his name back on the film, as "executive producer" rather than as a screenwriter, after he saw a screening. If Webb had a problem with the way the finished product treated Arabs, he didn't mention it in that 2000 interview.

So what about the "towel-heads" comment? Once Webb's campaign got wind of the fact that Webb had used the phrase in his interview with the Post, Webb was on the phone with Copeland, urging her not to make too much of it. "I used the words that are used to stereotype them," he said. Although Webb might be called a "redneck" but not a "towel-head," he insisted that he had used both terms "defensively" and would be "really upset if this is going to end up being the guppy that eats the whale."

It probably won't be. However Webb meant it, "towel-head" doesn't come packed with quite the same history that the racial epithet reportedly favored by Webb's opponent does. And it does seem that Webb was using the term "defensively" -- he was empathizing not excluding, as Allen was in his "macaca" moment -- even if a film that bears his name struck a lot of people as offensive. On the other hand, Allen is smart enough not to use the "N-word" in on-the-record conversations with members of the national media.

The Post notes in its editorial that Webb is a "novice politician" who has faced a "steep learning curve." Fair enough. But the National Review's Stephen Spruiell has a point, too: "I'm the last person who wants to be the PC language police around here," he writes, "but can anyone imagine the media's reaction if George Allen said something like this?"

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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