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Opinion: Hey, macaca happens

Sen. George Allen's macaca moment has granted the nation a few days' reprieve from thoughts of mass murder and provided a new vocab word for the zeitgeist.

Sen. George Allen's macaca moment has granted the nation a few days' reprieve from thoughts of mass murder and provided a new vocab word for the zeitgeist.

For those who've somehow slept through the Sturm und Drang surrounding Allen's recent use of the word "macaca," the story is this: He was stumping in Virginia with about 100 fans when he decided to recognize a young volunteer for his Democratic opponent, James Webb.

The fellow had been following Allen's tour, filming him, as is customary for both campaigns.

"This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is. ... He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great," Allen said to appreciative laughter.

Doubtless no one present knew what "macaca" meant, but subsequently, those three syllables have caused a tectonic shift in the political plates.

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Literally, it's the name of a monkey common to North Africa and Asia; figuratively, it's a racial slur in some parts of the world.

And in the U.S., effective last Friday, it's an eponym for "major political boo-boo."

The young man at the center of this pre-JonBenet media phenomenon is S.R. Sidarth, an American of Indian descent. Which is to say, he is a person of color and the only one present that day in an otherwise pale crowd.

Sidarth charged that Allen singled him out on account of his complexion -- and not because he was holding a video cam -- and the incident has exploded as a racist-in-America story.

Everyone from political scientists to linguists to Tarot card readers has weighed in: Is Allen a racist? Has he ruined his chances for president in '08? Was he or wasn't he mean to his siblings in 1958?

Allen has apologized for hurting Sidarth's feelings, while his spokespeople have said that "macaca" was a made-up word Allen's staff created as a way of referring to the interlocutor.

According to one version, Allen was trying to say "mohawk,"referring to Sidarth's hairstyle, which is also the subject of much debate.

Is it a mohawk, or is it a mullet?

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Another version holds that macaca is a combination of the "mo" in "mohawk" and "caca," Spanish for what often follows the English word "bull" when one is unconvinced of another's sincerity or truthfulness.

The latter sounds more likely. Mohawk-to-macaca doesn't quite pass the tongue-tied test. "Mocaca" for "----head," sounds about right for the sort of nicknaming that goes on in the back of campaign buses.

Allen's campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, told me that Allen didn't know the meaning of macaca and credibly argued that no politician -- especially one with presidential aspirations -- would use a racial slur in such a public way.

"Why would he do that, period? It doesn't make any sense. The camera was on him. This wasn't a case where a politician thinks no one is watching. He knew that was going out. Why would he endanger his entire trip by making a comment that would come back to haunt him?"

And so. The macaca mystery is upon us. Did Allen know that macaca means monkey? Did he know it is often used as a slur? Is he a racist? Allen owns a Confederate flag, as nearly everyone has mentioned during this tempest. He also reportedly plastered his high school car with a Confederate bumper sticker and wore a Confederate flag lapel pin in his high school senior picture.

I don't know if Allen is a racist. I do know that owning a Confederate flag is not a damning offense if you're a collector of Southern memorabilia, as Allen is. And high school is, well, high school.

For his sin, Allen should write a sincere note of apology to Sidarth.

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