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Welcome to America, where our infractions are quiet and their report Brobdingnagian

You don’t know what Brobdingnagian means, do you? Admit it. OK, I’ll tell you. It comes from Gulliver’s Travels, is a real English word, and means huge. Let us try another one. “Welcome to America, macaca.” You don’t know what macaca means, do you? Oh, you say you do? From whence did that knowledge come to you? If within the last seventy-two hours, and from a political commentator, then you’ve done your mind’s dictionary a grievous disservice. But there is hope! Like you, I didn’t know about the word macaca before Senator George Allen, welcoming a known spy for oppo at one of his rallies, used the word. Murphy’s Law of Political Speech states that if a Southern politico uses a term which through any number of historical lenses and slinky abstractions could be connected to something once thought by someone to be racially insensitive, then said politico secretly hates that race.

(An interesting corollary to Murphy’s Law of Political Speech is that if someone straightly says in his public speeches that all people of a certain race ought to be killed, he is just being a sillyhead and doesn’t mean it.)

Here is the gentleman from Virginia.

Here is what George Allen says in the video: “My friends, we’re gonna run this campaign on positive, constructive ideas. And it’s important that we motivate and inspire people for something. This fella here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is, he’s with my opponent; he’s following us around everywhere. And it’s just great—we’re going to places all over Virginia, and he’s having it on film and it’s great to have you here. Show it to your opponent, because he’s never been there and probably will never come, so it’s- Rather than living inside the Beltway, or- his opponent right now is actually with a bunch of Hollywood movie moguls. We care about fact, not fiction. So welcome, let’s give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia. Now my friends, we’re in the midst of a War on Terror…”

So folks are exercised about his use of the word macaca. I do not see any defense for George Allen. What he did was very un-gentlemanly and base, singling out a young staffer for the opponent in a sea of supporters. He could have brought the fellow to some inadvertent harm, or at least a few shoves. Moreover, what kind of a man at Allen’s age still calls his enemies names in order to intimidate them? There Allen stands, on a stage, with a microphone, afront a pack of devotees. He’s on top. And he cannot figure out a humbler, more decent way to make light of his opponent’s having to deploy spies? It saps Allen of the little senatorial heft he had, and makes him look even more un-presidential.

Do you know why regular folks were not put off when President Bush said that Syria should get Hezbollah to “stop doing this shit”? Because Hezbollah’s people are little shits. And because that’s the way regular people talk about shits when the microphones are off and some real communication needs to get done. Spades get called spades.

The situation with George Allen was very different. He’s dealing with a fellow American, a fellow Virginian; a regular guy who’s got a job and is doing it, and probably doesn’t have much hate in him. Apparently the Allen campaign folks call the guy Macaca behind the scenes—something having to do with his mohawk-like haircut. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that there’s racist spirit there. (I believe you’d make light of someone with a mohawk, too.) The word macaca is the name of a particular type of monkey, but to non-zoologists it just sounds like some variant of gobbledygook. Dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster Unabridged and the Oxford English Dictionary, which catalog slurs, do not report macaca (or in the case of OED, macaque) as having an offensive use.

The writers at Kos have dug up considerable evidence that white supremacists occasionally use the word macaca to refer to black people. That’s fine, but the Kos scriveners forget that white supremacists are not very intelligent people, and they use a whole lot of words to insult blacks—words that are made-up, words that they thought they made up but actually do have a dictionary meaning, and especially the particular cognomen for thousands upon thousands of different animals. Because, in their sickness, they imagine a connection between human pigmentation and human worth.

I cannot be certain of my point in beginning this post. I think George Allen is probably, deep down, a nasty guy for whom I would not want to vote. I thought that before the macaca incident and I think it a tick more afterward. I also do not think the left-wing has a substantial linguistic case that macaca is a unique and identifiable term of art for people who hate blacks. And I’m sick of the gotcha game, and of people suddenly discovering new meanings of words. Also? Let’s bring back the word Brobdingnagian.


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