Yes, it really was ten years ago today that one of the weirdest incidents in Virginia political history took place — George Allen calling the Jim Webb campaign’s Indian-American “tracker” a weird – and as it turned out, racist – word, “macaca.” Note that the story broke on Ben Tribbett’s blog, “Not Larry Sabato,” two days later, on August 13, 2006 (and finally on the Washington Post, which initially wasn’t sure it was really a story – duh!!! – on August 14).
“Kudos to Ben Tribbett for (possibly) bringing down a leading right-wing Presidential candidate, and for (possibly) derailing his re-election bid to the U.S. Senate. Also, kudos to Siddarth for staying cool under pressure and getting this video. Great work!]”
In thinking back to mid-August 2006, one thing that strikes me is how it’s almost like ancient history in some ways, even though it’s only been 10 years. For instance, in August 2006, there was: no Twitter (actually, it was launched in July 2006, but it didn’t really get going until 2007, 2008 and beyond); no Facebook (other than for college students — “On September 26, 2006, Facebook was opened to everyone at least 13 years old with a valid email address.” ); and a relatively new YouTube (“the site launched officially on December 15, 2005, by which time the site was receiving 8 million views a day” — today it gets BILLIONS of views per day).
So how did we talk about politics back then? For one thing, kinda slowly…dialup, VERY slow video uploads, etc. Second, this weird little thing called a “political blog” was a big part of it, and there were a bunch of them – progressive, conservative, centrist, etc. – in Virginia. We also used Yahoo Groups and Google Groups (does anyone use those anymore?). But when the “macaca” video went live on YouTube and ultimately “went viral,” it was one of the first – if not THE first – YouTube video to make a significant difference in a major political race.
Another thing that strikes me about the 10-year anniversary of “macaca” is how quaint – almost – it seems today. Compare the firestorm over George Allen’s use of that word then, with the almost constant barrage of racist, violent, crazy and other vile rhetoric from Donald Trump – the Republicans’ nominee for PRESIDENT, for god’s sake! – and many other Republicans these days.
Has ten years of cable “boob tube” “news” done this to us? Ten years of the dregs of social media, in which anyone and everyone can be a “publisher” with no “gatekeepers,” meaning that Facebook, Twitter, newspaper comments sections, etc. are basically cesspools for the most deranged among us to spread lies, nastiness, personal attacks, conspiracy theories and lots, lots more. I remember the early days of social media, and specifically the great optimism about how this would help strengthen democracy in many ways, elevate the public dialogue, make everyone a “citizen journalist,” you name it. What ever happened to those cyberutopian promises? Again, things have gotten really bad when a U.S. Senator pointing his finger at a young Indian-American man and calling him a racist word seems almost quaint by comparison to what goes on today…
By the way, for the detailed backstory of the entire “macaca” incident, as well as what led up to it (the “draft,” the Webb campaign) and what followed it (Webb’s victory over “Felix”), see the book I coauthored with Nate Wilcox, Netroots Rising. One quick point, though: it wasn’t just “macaca” that deep-sixed George Allen, as some people seem to believe. To the contrary, it was Jim Webb’s 12,000-strong “ragtag army” of volunteers; a lot more mistakes by George Allen than just “macaca;” the plummeting popularity of President Bush due to Iraq and the Hurricane Katrina debacle/disaster; a major investment by the DSCC in Webb’s campaign in the closing weeks of the campaign; smart strategy by the Webb campaign; a changing Virginia (in the “blue” direction); and much more.
Anyway, I’m just amazed that a full decade has gone by since all that…wow, getting old!