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Macaca Day 2009: From George Allen to Claire McCaskill, Video Trackers to Town Haters

BY Dan Manatt | Wednesday, August 12 2009

Yesterday marked the third anniversary of George Allen calling S.R. Siddarth “Macaca” while Siddarth’s camera rolled.

Macaca Day, for those of us who make our living from video on the Internet and elsewhere, is a holy day – the day that marks the birth of YouTube politics, and reminds us that citizens with cellphone cameras and a YouTube account - or at least an election.

But August 2009 isn’t merely the third anniversary of Macaca Day. It is also proving to be perhaps the most important month yet in the short history of YouTube and digital video politics.

America is, at this very moment, caught up in a new great Uncivil War being fought in our school gyms (though they probably should be held in Ultimate Fighting Championship cages). Town Halls – perhaps they should be renamed “Town Hates” – have become the front lines of an anti-government revolt by various groups, including health care reform opponents; white middle class (and the Town Haters on TV have been mostly white) resentful of corporate bailouts, and frightened by demographic changes; know-nothing teabaggers who shout down Members of Congress, even when they are announcing good economic news; and radical libertarians and militia types who, like cicadas, seem to pop up every 17 years or so when a new Democratic administration is elected. Fate has brought these groups together as a sort of “Coalition of the Witless,” a ragtag political army – the mob feared by Madison and other framers of the Constitution.

These Town Haters are the direct descendants of the hateful radical libertarians who were galvanized by the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, and organized themselves into groups such as the Michigan Militia, in that dark chapter of our nation’s history.

So what does this have to do with Macaca Day?


In the early 1990s the Internet was a nascent, niche medium – Netscape Navigator was introduced in October 1994. Only in the middle and late 90s, with the rise of AOL and Internet Explorer, did the Net truly take off as a mass medium. Likewise, Web Video’s roots go back to the introduction of Quicktime in 1991 and the DV standard in 1995, but I would argue it only became a mass medium with the launch of YouTube in May 2005 and the widespread availability of video cellphones.

The 1990s Haters movement thus developed in the shadows – or at least without online scrutiny. While some Haters were early adopters of the Internet, their activity there was hidden from the view of most Americans (and the media) who hadn’t yet tuned into the new medium.

The 2000s Haters movement by contrast is metastasizing in plain sight of the entire world, thanks to cellphone cameras, DV cameras, YouTube and other web video sites. The Haters who believe Free Speech equals the right to shout down and intimidate are being caught in the act on video, with all the world to judge their uncivil, defeaning thuggery. Likewise, Birthers’ insane paranoia is making for must see Web Video – causing even the GOP to distance themselves (but: see Mike Stark’s great video interviews with GOP Members on the topic). Paranoid libertarian militia training, propaganda, and recruiting videos are popping up on YouTube with the scary frequency once reserved for al Qaeda web videos.

All of this may be downright scary. But it’s also downright public – indeed, viewable in living color on YouTube and elsewhere. And as Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Or, to update his maxim: YouTube offers the best means for the crazies and the haters to incriminate themselves.

The first Macaca Day was the the first famous instance of YouTube and digital video as a crucial tool for democracy. Three years later, it is thriving to expose the political arguments and actions of everyone from Town Haters to those, to be fair, who are legitimately (if usually mistakenly) concerned. And of course, internationally, Web Video democracy continues to play a huge part in the ongoing Iranian crisis, despite the greater attention to Twitter’s much overplayed role.

Perhaps the best illustration came, fittingly, yesterday, served up exactly three years after the original Macaca Day, by another U.S. Senator, in this case, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill.

McCaskill of course held several town halls this week, most notably yesterday in Hillsboro, Missouri, where the Town Haters were out in force. But thanks to YouTube, the Haters were exposed in all their ignorant, bullying glory. As important, the Show-Me-State’s junior Senator was shown at her best, playing in turn the dutiful public servant, the responsible adult, and the deft debunker of her crowd’s ignorance:

“This really can’t be about who is the loudest,” McCaskill told the crowd, continuing on moments later to lead the crowd into a trap forever captured on video.

“How many of you have Medicare?” she asked the crowd. When several hundred raised their hands, McCaskill pounced: “How many of you want to give up that government-sponsored health care plan?”

All hands went down.

A priceless Macaca moment - in this case, with the joke on the Haters, not the Senator - forever captured on Web Video.

Happy Macaca Day.