On shitholes

Everybody in the universe has heard by now that Donald Trump, the Very Stable Genius-in-Chief, described Haiti as a ‘shithole’ yesterday: “Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?”

The way to begin thinking about this, I suppose, is to agree upon our meaning when we speak of ‘shitholes,’ which is sometimes used as an adjective and sometimes used as a noun.

Suppose someone says, “Mom’s Home Cooking is a real shithole.” That would be ‘shithole’ used as a noun, and we would all understand it to mean that the food is no good, the restaurant is dirty, Mom has a surly temperament, and the Health Department may be trying to close the place. If a co-worker ate at Mom’s and ended-up with ptomaine poisoning, we’d probably say something like “Oh, yeah, I heard that place is a real shithole.”

Suppose, on the other hand, you spend the day golfing, and when you get home you tell your spouse, “I’ve never in my life even seen such a shithole country club.” That is shithole used as an adjective, and you probably mean the greens were poorly tended, some of your CDs went missing after the valet parked your car, the drinks were watered down, and the greens fees were too expensive for the condition of the course.

You would never pay a second visit to a shithole country club, and you may not be able to pay a second visit to Mom’s if you eat the meatloaf. Clearly, we’re using the word shithole with entirely different magnitudes of consequence.

So: What do we mean when we speak of a shithole country? Ironically, most people would probably agree out-of-hand that Haiti is a shithole country, and define a shithole country by enumerating Haiti’s deficiencies: the utilities come and go, just like its governments; the infrastructure is crumbling; sewage runs in the ditches; education is spotty; poverty and violence and public-sector corruption are rampant.

Nobody emigrates to a shithole country, and we admire people with the courage and enterprise to pack-up and leave shithole countries, taking their chances in a strange place with a different culture and a different language. They are the people with gumption that America has always welcomed, not least because they are the people who force America to live up to its ideals.

What do we mean by ‘shithole,’ then? Broadly, I think, we mean that things consistently fail to meet reasonable expectations or, worse, operate contrary to reasonable expectations. You shouldn’t be in danger of being poisoned when you eat at Mome’s. There should not be wild carrot sprouting on the greens at the country club. A government should create a safe, stable environment where one can plan for the future because actions have predictable consequences.

This seems to me a serviceable definition — but still not quite right. After all, if by shithole we mean “things consistently fail to meet reasonable expectations,” then the White House has been turned into a shithole by Donald Trump — and I’m certain the Buffoon-in-Chief couldn’t have meant that. So: What distinguishes the White House from those places that we can all agree are shitholes?

There is Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who tells gross and embarrassing lies every day with a straight face; so, too, Kellyanne Conway and Hope Hicks. Since they are contemporary Washington analogs of Baghdad Bob, and Iraq was and still is a shithole, I don’t think we can credit them for rescuing the White House from shithole-ness. Some people would point to the Evangelical Advisory Board, I imagine, but that’s such an egregious pack of cynical hucksters that I”m disinclined to give them credit for sparing the White House from shithole-ness either; besides, the Evangelical Advisory Board is a Trump innovation, and the implication of that is the White House used to be a shithole in the days before Trump’s election. I wouldn’t be surprised if The Donald thinks that, but I just can’t go there; I think we need to keep looking.

What about Trump? Is he the reason the White House is not a shithole? No. After all, Russia is definitely a shithole, and it is run by a wealthy, white, irremediably corrupt autocrat, too.

If the White House is not a shithole — and I don’t think it is — the reason does not lie within Donald Trump or his government. What is left, then, but the long train of immigrants who invested the White House with their hopes and gave flesh-and-blood meaning to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence? The White House is not a shithole, in spite of Trump’s usage of the word and the implications of the meaning it gives, because the American people are better than Donald Trump and invest the White House with high-mindedness and ideals.

This gets it about right, I think.

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