Like the host of this weblog, Macaca cyclopis, a.k.a. the Formosan rock macaque, is a native of Taiwan
A genus of Old World monkeys, macaques are second only to humans in geographic range among primates. From the so-called Barbary ape (M. sylvanus) to the Japanese snow monkey (M. fuscata), the twenty-two recognized species of macaques occupy a wide range of habitats on World Island. One Macaca species, M. mulatta, looms large for its scientific value to another generalist primate. You probably know it as the Rhesus monkey, the namesake of the famous classification of blood groups.
Macaques: Barbary apes (left), snow monkeys (center), Rhesus monkeys (right)
Of course, the 2006 elections have given the word macaca a familiar nonscientific connotation in the United States. The scientific use of Macaca as a genus name comes from the Kongo ma-kako (meaning monkey) by way of Portuguese. Before 2006, macaca accumulated a fairly deep record, especially within the French- and Dutch-speaking worlds, as a racial slur. And then, at a 2006 Senate campaign event in Breaks Interstate Park, Virginia, this happened:
This episode ballooned into the "macaca" controversy that ultimately sank Senator George Allen's reelection bid. The 1.18 million voters who supported victorious challenger James Webb, of course, had any number of motivations, but many observers pin the blame for Senator Allen's loss on the "macaca" episode. Frank Rich of the New York Times describes the entire 2006 campaign season as "The Year of the 'Macaca.'" In her characteristically hilarious style, Wonkette calls the entire affair "Macacalypse Now."
To his credit, S.R. Sidarth, the James Webb staffer who was singled out by Senator Allen as "Macaca," has struck a conciliatory tone. Sidarth writes that "Allen's actions . . . were not representative of how I was treated while traveling around the state." As a member of the Virginia bar and as a Southerner, I am heartened that most Virginians (Allen excepted) "treated [Sidarth] with dignity, respect and kindness."
For the record, S.R. Sidarth is a senior at the University of Virginia. He proudly describes himself as "a second-generation Indian American and a practicing Hindu." Though his "parents were born and raised in India and immigrated here more than 25 years ago," S.R. Sidarth has "known no home other than Northern Virginia." That Allen believed Sidarth to be an immigrant and not a native Virginian -- and, worse still, imagined that he could exploit Sidarth's presumed status for political gain -- hints at a heart of darkness that the soon-to-be former Senator had already exposed through his perverse embrace of the most overtly racist emblems of the Old South.
In the end, roughly 9,000 more Virginians voted for James Webb than for George Allen. I endorse S.R. Sidarth's hopeful characterization of this outcome as "a vote to deal the race card out of American politics once and for all."