• Daniel Ethan Finneran

S***hole Countries

January 2018

The master of impertinence is at it again. This time, instead of spreading African-origin stories (you remember those unsettled questions about Barack Obama’s birth?), hinting at Chinese climate conspiracies, or bullying Balkan dignitaries, President Trump is out to offend the world once again. On Thursday, he added to the long list of the internationally indignant two countries and a continent. During a closed-door meeting with multiple senators—some Democratic, most Republican—Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa as “s***hole” countries.

As is being reported, the insult spilled out when discussions heatedly turned from DACA to TPS, otherwise known respectively as “Deferred action for childhood arrivals” and “Temporary protected status”. The two programs aren’t exactly the same (though they share a subtle emphasis on time—deferred until when? Temporary for how long?) but they’re both pieces of the bigger immigration picture.

DACA, for its part, has been the issue on everyone’s lips for the past few days. It’s the most contentious part of a jam-packed agenda that’s already starting to boil over—and the year’s only just begun. It’s an issue that strikes to the very core of partisanship and one that’s politically black and white. Lawmakers know this and they’re digging in their heels.

Republicans want it scrapped, wholesale or in part, while Democrats want it enshrined—unambiguously and Constitutionally. Both sides have staked their flags in the ground, promised this or that to constituents, and appear disinclined to come together in order to hash it all out.

TPS, on the other hand, is something quite different. Like DACA, its purpose is to combat extenuating circumstances, but its variety and scale differ. The latest estimates have DACA recipients at around 800,000; TPS recipients are less than half of that. In the case of TPS, it’s the Attorney General who decides if a country is in a sufficiently squalid, wretched, or abjectly unfortunate state that its people need to be taken in to these United States.

There are a few circumstances that lend themselves to such a decision. If a group of people has been displaced because of war, humanitarian concerns, or environmental crises, the Attorney General could offer to it, for a pre-arraigned allotment of time, temporary citizenship. Having received this, the recipients would be free from deportation or molestation until their time is up. Typically, this amounts to some number of years. Haitians, for example, have enjoyed temporary protected status since their island’s devastating earthquake in 2010. And though rubble remains piled on their poverty-stricken streets and cholera (once an ancient disease made relevant again) flows through their sinks, they’ll be asked politely to take their leave in 2019. So too will the Salvadorans, who at over 200,000 immigrants, make up the largest single TPS population. As for the Africans, their numbers are relatively small but geographically broad; they encompass the continent from its west coast to its east.

All of the aforementioned countries have one thing in common: they’re all, how shall I say, unprepossessing places to live. That, I’ll admit, is putting it rather mildly. But it’s true. And please, if you will, excuse the conceit of a boy who, by sheer accident of birth, was lucky enough to be raised in this greatest of nations—where prosperity isn’t exceptional, but commonplace and comfort’s the status quo. Nevertheless, taken collectively or one by one, all of those countries are badly off, and objectively so. El Salvador is awash in corruption, gang violence, and scandal. Haiti’s economy was anemic even before the earthquake tore it down—now, it’s completely crippled. And there aren’t enough fingers nor toes to count the intractable problems that plague Liberia, Sudan, and Somalia: they’re raked with piracy, tyranny, cruelty, illiberal ideologies, and violence all around. No one is confusing them for idyllic pastures, Elysian fields, or Edenic lands of apple, honey, prosperity, and bliss. Still though, what President Trump said about them is just plain wrong.

And perhaps racist. In describing those countries the way I did, I think—and I very much hope—that I didn’t sound like a racially insensitive brute. Having moved from the Northeast to the southern Floridian tip, I’ve met more Haitians, Africans, and Salvadorans in six months than I had in the first and only two decades of my life. And how much richer my life is now that I know them, I can’t begin to express. The earnest good-heartedness of the Salvadoran, the grit and geniality of the Haitian, and the easy warmth and friendliness of the African have made me a better man—of this I’ve no doubt. I would never demean in such vulgar terms those places whence they come—those places which infuse them, and by extension, us, with their exuberant, tough, and indispensable life. I want, and our President should want, nothing more than to see to their countries’ improvement, to make better there whatever’s good—be that by advising their leaders, teaching their teachers, or investing in their futures.

But, because of what he said, a great damage to the relationships and structures we’ve laid down has been done. He degraded a proud people—Latin, Caribbean, African, all of them and millions of them—with his callous imprecation. Regardless of how you feel about immigration in general or immigrants in particular, these countries and these people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, even behind closed doors when the media’s ears aren’t evidently near. Even in secrecy, when the public isn’t listening, the journalists aren’t scribbling, and the partisans aren’t grandstanding, he owes them this.

He went on to ask why America needed more Haitians in the country, admitted we’d be better off “taking them out”, and lamented with a disquietingly racially-tinged resignation the fact that they couldn’t instead be “people from countries like Norway”. These sentiments, coupled with his “s***hole” comment above, leaves me thinking one of two things: the first, which requires me to forget all of Trump’s previous racially suggestive remarks (about Muslims and Mexican judges, to name but a few) is that he wants coming into our country people steeped in a Western worldview, regardless of their color or ethnicity.

I don’t think this is what he had in mind, but if by chance it is, I don’t think it’s asking too much. Assimilation is much more easily achieved when a person shares in our enlightenment ideals. Leaving behind a country that has some semblance of the American creed (which includes, at its best, equality, liberty, and personal responsibility) will set in place the conditions for a smooth transition to the U.S. Integration, done successfully—howsoever that might be gauged—is best achieved when an immigrant comes to us with values akin to those upon which our nation was built. That’s not to say, of course, that a person from a fascist, socialist, nor a communist state can’t succeed in embracing the America spirit, or becoming as patriotic as you or I. Not at all. It’s just possible that he or she will have a tougher go at it.

That’s the more sympathetic reading of what Trump might’ve been trying to say. The second and more likely, though, is that his words were racially charged. Unfortunately, I don’t think he was channeling the type of practical broad-mindedness I outlined above. As a rule—a sad one but a rule nonetheless—I try not to attribute to this president more perspicacity or insight than that which meets the eye. There’s no brilliance beneath the surface; nothing far-seeing if only you dig a little bit deeper. He’s a touch superficial in this regard, but at the risk of a digression or an easy character assault, we can all agree on this: so far as a worldview is concerned, what you see (or hear) from him is what you get.

It’s no stretch then to say, that when you take his comments in this light, they were blatantly racist. They seem to carry with them the not-so-subtle stench of a fetid bigotry we thought as a nation we’d risen above. They seem also to be redolent of an ugly and outdated disdain for the man who is non-white. After all, “people from countries like Norway” are almost exactly one thing: white. Their sole distinction is their homogeneity; their consistency is their skin.

This familiarity, so far as this observer can tell, is a comfort to the president and he seems here to be saying that he wants them—whites—in America to the exclusion of others. And by “others”, we include anyone endowed with a darker epidermis, or those who are tinted—or, better yet, in his mind, tainted—because of their proximity to an unjust and unforgiving sun.

The inference is ours to draw, but the facts are bare. The president’s “s***hole” remark can be read in one of two ways: it was either panoptic or provincial, broad-minded or bigoted. It was either coarse but insightful or indefensibly racist. For what it’s worth, I think it was the latter. I think it was repellent and at odds with our American ideals. I think, in one breath, it lowered our depreciating and now plummeting esteem in the eyes of a tired international community exasperated by our conceit. From the Balkans to the Far and Near East, the Caribbean, Central America, and the broad expanse of Africa, citizens of this country and the world over are fed up with this president’s lack of respect. It’s the one thing, in this especially polarized world, on which we all can agree.

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