Once again, TNR’s Michelle Cottle is wrong. Writing of presidential aspirant George Allen’s Macaca foul-up, she writes (via Carpetbagger):
What kind of hoity-toity, Frenchified, North African slur is "macaca"? Allen, whose maman is French Tunisian, may have heard this term bandied about in his childhood, perhaps so long ago that he hardly remembered its meaning when he reached into his mental quiver of spontaneous insults. But I guarantee you none of the rednecks I grew up with would have come up with something so obscure and cosmopolitan. They tended use simpler, more classically American terms.
Don’t get me wrong. I agree with her general point that Allen is a wannabe poser redneck (which is truly one of the sadder things to be). But I completely disagree with the idea that Allen failed to connect with the racists he idolizes. Sure, perhaps “macaca” isn’t the most widely used phrase. I had never heard of it before. But apparently, it is used in white supremacist circles. But regardless, it clearly hit the mark. His audience may or may not have gotten the specific reference, but they certainly understood the general meaning.
And that’s how these people work. It’s not the words that matter. It’s the intent. A bully can say the same words as your mother, but that doesn’t mean you’ll react to them the same. And a racist certainly knows a racial insult when they hear one. Context is everything, and Allen was pretty clear about what his context was at the time. The fact that you can find a racist usage of the term only adds a little more to Allen’s offense.
But as racists have clearly shown, they can use words like Negro, Mexican, and Black to be insults too. Heck, had Allen used Sidarth’s real name, the audience would have reacted the same way. It’s not the word. It’s how it’s intended. And in that case, George Allen hit the racist tone fairly well. The word could have been complete gibberish and would still have been very offensive. In fact, the idea of creating a gibberish word to insult someone can often be seen as even more cutting than a standard insult. Like referring to Al Gore as “Algore”, a zany pun that Limbaugh’s minions never tire of. The fact that it didn’t really mean anything made it all the more insulting to these schmucks.
And on the flip side, the racists who didn’t understand it may have seen this as a sign of how high up the racist food-chain Allen must be. Rather than a snooty poser, racists who weren’t familiar with the term would see Allen as being a connoisseur of racist insults; that he even knows obscure ones to use against actual Indians. Sure, it’s somewhat doubtful that they’d express it in exactly those terms, but that’s the general idea. These people are nothing if not authoritarians, and they are very quick to bow down to those they believe are superior. George Allen was looking like a big talking tough man, and those people had to like that.
Right to Racism
But whatever it was, Cottle was mistaken in believing that Allen missed the mark due to his poserness. On the contrary, I suspect that the biggest mistake Allen might have made with the “real” racists was that he felt the need to give even a phony apology for his remarks. I’m sure there are many racists who get offended by the “political correctness” that dictates that politicians bow to political pressures (ie, not be openly racist). And so rather than scoff at Allen for his faux racism, they’d be upset that he didn’t continue with it.
Particularly as there are very few diehard racists. Sure, there are many who have a deep loathing of non-whites. But most racism today is much more subtle than that. What they’re really clamoring for is the right to be racist. The right to discriminate if they must (and they always must). If you read in-between the lines, that’s exactly what they say their argument is. And that’s just a big pile of hooey. But that’s what they say. And that’s partly because they never needed to be racists. Lynchings are no longer necessary. They just need someone to blame and to keep down. To retain their advantage. That’s what this is about.
And so when Allen bows to political pressure to backdown from his earlier stance, he hurts the people who see this as a political war. And that’s when they’d see him as the poser. Not because he doesn’t support racism, necessarily; but because he didn’t uphold the right to be racist.