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August 21, 2006

Smile, Senator Allen, You're on YouTube

I never got around to commenting on the recent controversy surrounding George Allen's use of the racial slur, "macaca," to refer to S.R. Sidarth, an audience member of Indian descent who had been attending many of Allen's public speeches on behalf of Allen's rival for a Virginia Senate seat, Jim Webb. But the discussion of Allen's slur has prompted a wider conversation about the role of YouTube in shaping political discourse, particularly in this somewhat alarmist New York Times article by Ryan Lizza that worries that YouTube will remove any remaining spontaneity from political campaigns, even at the local and state levels.

In the video Allen is shown telling the all-white audience, "Let's give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia." Sidarth, who was born in the United States and happened to be taping the encounter posted the video on YouTube, where it has been viewed over 200,000 times since it first appeared on August 14. Allen's remarks have also been picked up by Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart, and other late-night talk shows, forcing Allen's campaign to enter serious spin mode. The story is further complicated by Allen's previous behavior, which includes " a lifelong embrace of Confederate symbology -- lapel pins, bumper stickers and, until recently, flags -- while exhibiting some worrying behavior toward African Americans," documented in this New Republic article (also by Lizza).

The remark has sparked a number of interesting conversations about what Allen intended, including this insightful discussion at BlackProf.com and a characteristically playful one at Wonkette. I think it's fair to say, as the New York Times article suggests, that YouTube may be altering the political landscape, keeping the elections in the public eye during August, a month typically characterized by its lack of news. For the most part, YouTube's presence has been read as a means of democratizing politics, but Lizza asks an important question, "If campaigns resemble reality television, where any moment of a candidate’s life can be captured on film and posted on the Web, will the last shreds of authenticity be stripped from our public officials? Will candidates be pushed further into a scripted bubble? In short, will YouTube democratize politics, or destroy it?"

I think it's valid to ask whether YouTube might be negatively affecting political discourse, but the tone of the article borders on alarmist, particularly the implication that online videos might "destroy" politics (by which he means, I assume, politics as we know it). Lizza also worries about the loss of "authentiicty" that YouTube seems to represent, another concept that warrants unpacking. What makes a politician working from a carefully-worded script less authentic than someone who appears to be more spontaneous? And, in the case of Allen, his slur warrants attention, whether it was planned or not, as a way of provoking an important conversation about Allen's racial politics.

But what seems most explicit in Lizza's article is the implication that YouTube seems to function primarily as a mode of surveillance, yet another means of catching candidates (and possibly the jounalists themselves) off-guard. Overlooked in this article are the ways in which candidates can use YouTube as a means of connecting with voters. I'm thinking in part of something like Spike Jonze's video of Al Gore during the 2000 election, in which we see Gore at home relaxing with his family and talking about his taste in movies. In general, I think the article exaggerates the effect of YouTube and online videos on political discourse, but I've been intrigued by the ways in which the Allen video has been read and discussed.

Update: Also check out MyDD's discussion of the Lizza article.

Posted by chuck at August 21, 2006 11:08 AM

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