Monday, January 15, 2018

Pants on fire

It’s appropriate, I think, that so many talking heads in the American media are rushing in to tell us what a great place Haiti is – the beaches, oh those great beaches. And how cruelly the Africans suffered under colonialism and how they therefore deserve much better than to have their countries described as shitholes. All good.

And all beside the point.

There are places on the planet where people live in misery. It’s not surprising that people have noticed that Mogadishu is not Paris and Port-au-Prince is not Amsterdam.  If you live in a wealthy country where things work and people dash around in shiny cars that you are not allowed to park in front of your house the first Thursday of every month because that’s when the streetsweepers come by, you might well be inclined to describe Haiti or Somalia as a shithole. You might do the same for Moldova or Jakarta or any number of other places. You may describe Ciudad Juarez or Acapulco in Mexico that way because of the wretchedly high crime rate. Or Detroit or the Bronx because of the urban decay.

It strikes me as silly, and more than a little bit sad, that people are stepping up to tell us how beautiful the beaches are in Haiti and how underestimated the history and people of Africa are. What the defenders of these places are missing is that POTUS Agent Orange’s calling African countries a shithole was a stand-in for calling its people inferior people. He was suggesting that people trying to escape poverty are indistinguishable from the countries they come from. Don’t enter this restaurant, don’t come to this school, don’t sit next to me because you live in the wrong part of town.

If AO and his enablers had any character, they would face this topic directly. We once allowed masses of people in, mostly from Europe at first, but eventually from all around the globe, in full confidence that people who come here from hardship situations tend to work hard. Their struggle would have its rewards in their children: first generation factory worker, fruit picker or housecleaner; second generation merchant, maybe, third generation doctor or lawyer. Now we want to keep the poor out and let in the techies and the mathematicians. We want instant immigrant gratification. It's a terrible argument, and I hate it that we would think we had to make it, but it is at least an argument that people could debate. The thing is, AO obviously isn't interested in debate. He's got the fast food equivalent of an academic line of reasoning - keep out people who come from shitholes.

AO’s defenders take my breath away. I just listened to a Pastor Mark Burns talking on a panel on CNN, for example. Burns, an evangelical preacher quoted scripture: specifically, 1 Timothy 5:8: "But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." My mind runs instantly to that quote* in The Merchant of Venice that has to do with the devil quoting scripture.

Burns, like most American Evangelicals these days, is preaching the message that Jesus defines family according to modern political realities and wants us to give somebody with an American passport priority over somebody without one - a curious theology, to say the least. And yes, that's precisely what Burns is saying; otherwise why this particular quote? What Burns is missing entirely is   the point that you are not providing for your relatives by shutting out people from basket case countries simply because they come from basket case countries. On top of it all, AO’s thinking is uninformed. The overwhelming majority of Haitian immigrants are law-abiding and hard-working. 78% of them have a high school education or higher, compared with 75% of Caribbean immigrants on the whole. 71% participate in the civilian labor force, compared with 66% of the foreign-born population all-told, and 62% of the U.S. population. There is no justification for singling them out as having “shithole” features.

I had a friend from Haiti back in graduate school. His family had sent him to France for a higher education and he had done well enough to get a professorship in philosophy at a major American university.  Very smart fellow. I remember a conversation with him once when we had both had a lot to drink. He let it slip that he was filled with self-loathing for having turned his back on his country. I tried to persuade him not to be so hard on himself. “Maybe you needed to get out to find yourself,” I offered. It was the 80s, but I was still filled with a 60s world view. “France gave you a home that permitted you to go farther than Haiti would have. Don’t fault yourself for your desire to stretch and grow,” I insisted.  I don’t know what happened to him; we lost contact and I can’t dredge up any contact information. What I do remember was the personal agony he experienced as a man who desperately wanted to love his country but felt he had to move on. How many similar stories are hidden, I wonder, under that cold hand designation: “people from shithole countries.”

People who have long wanted to call AO a racist but have thought better than to say that out loud have now found their voices. It now seems that everywhere you turn you hear one news commentator after another declare, in no uncertain terms, that that’s precisely what he is.

A friend just wrote me she couldn’t help crying when she heard the shithole remark, shocked by the “new level of hideousness coming from the White House.” Yes, I said. It’s good to cry. Appropriate to cry.

Unfortunately the president’s remarks are only the beginning, and the story only gets darker. Apparently the fact that AO used the term several times made its way into the Washington Post, which attributed it to “several people briefed on the meeting (with POTUS on the immigration issue.”  Illinois Senator Dick Durban, who was sitting next to the president in photos of the meeting, confirmed that AO used those exact words. Not once, but repeatedly. And the story went round the world, as I reflected upon two days ago.    Initially, the White House was silent on the matter and Republican attendees at first claimed they could not recall whether the president used such language or not. But then the Twitterer-in-Chief twittered that he absolutely had not used that word. He did use strong language, he admitted, without specifying what exactly he said, but not that word. Whereupon Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Georgia Senator David Purdue, who had initially stated they “could not recall” allowed as how they could recall, after all, and that the president never used such language. Durbin repeated his assertion about what he had heard, saying AO’s denial made him feel he had been “hit between the eyes…” 

So who’s lying? Durbin or Cotton/Purdue/President Orangestainonthesoulofhumanity? And is Cotton just rubbing salt in the wound by declaring that Durbin “has a history of misrepresenting what happens in White House meetings…”?  We should maybe believe AO, who some have calculated makes incorrect statements 80% of the time?  Can we take seriously the reporting on Morning Joe that Trump was calling his friends from Mar-a-Lago the night before testing out the use of the word shithouse/shithole? Boasting about how clever he was in coming up with it?

What is so off putting – disgusting, frankly – about this discussion in the U.S. Senate is that these are the leaders of the Senate. Not intelligent people agreeing to disagree, but individual characters bearing false witness against one another. We hear constantly that “the two sides have to learn to talk across the aisle.”

But how? How do you sit down and work with bare-faced liars?

With men so conspicuously lacking in character?

Don’t tell me this is business-as-usual and that politics is always dirty and politicians lie by nature. They push the limits of decency sometimes to get their way, yes. Politics is a struggle for power, after all.

But this U.S. Senate of ours is turning out to be a real shithouse.

I don’t care who you vote for in 2018. But take the time to dig around on your candidates’ backgrounds before you do. We can do better than this.

Throw these bums out.

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”

       – William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice


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