Houston Chronicle Columnist Lisa Falkenberg, June 2015, in Houston TX. (Billy Smith II/ Houston Chronicle)
There are two kinds of shitholes. One is physical. One is a state of mind.
We all know which one President Donald Trump was in when he reportedly asked in a meeting with Congressional members why the United States should admit people from “shithole countries” such as Haiti and some African nations that are predominately black, rather than places like Norway, which is predominately white.
Given the choice between living with that kind of mentality and living in an actual shithole, I would gladly choose the latter. At least there’s a way out.
Trump, meanwhile, is trapped in his bigoted, xenophobic views. But we can’t allow ourselves to get trapped along with him – trapped in outrage, in resignation or in apathy.
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Our children are listening when the president speaks. People who voted for him are listening. The world is listening.
If we start rolling our eyes or waving off the president’s rants as the symptoms of a mentally unstable buffoon, it signals tolerance of the toxic rhetoric that is tarnishing the shining American example.
So what’s to be done?
Well, for starters, keep track. The rate at which Trump shocks and offends is such that we’ll be talking about another remark next week. Don’t let quantity lessen the cumulative blow. Keep a list, a file – hell, a spreadsheet – and title it thusly: Reason to vote.
Then, fight back, not with anger but with facts and logic. On social media. Over coffee with Trump-minded friends and family. In letters to Congress members.
Yes, it is still outrageous, even after a year of such behavior, for the U.S. president, in the course of conducting official business, to use such a word. Let alone in reference to foreign nations we consider allies. Let alone in reference to the homelands of hundreds of thousands of people who live and work in America.
It wasn’t just Trump’s condemnation of the countries themselves. It was his insinuation that the people born there are not worthy of America’s promise. As Americans, how many of our ancestors did not come from a place that someone regarded as a hellhole at the time? How many of them arrived wealthy, educated and comfortable?
Not my family.
By some standards, Alexander Hamilton, one of our greatest founding fathers, came from such a place in the British West Indies.
By some standards, there are parts of this country, in West Virginia, in East Texas or in the Panhandle, that qualify for Trump’s offensive distinction. They’re dirt poor, lacking in education, opportunity and hope. Would the president call those places shitholes? Likely not. Some are overwhelmingly white. Some are his voters.
Trump’s comments betray not only his racist views and his lack of compassion but also his ignorance.
His recent insult comes on the heels of previously reported comments in which the president said Nigerians should go back to their “huts.”
Nigerians, it so happens, are the most educated group in America. About 61 percent of adults 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher – more than twice the U.S. rate of 28.5 percent, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report.
Haitians, meanwhile, facing steep poverty and other obstacles, hold their own. More than 70 percent of Haitian immigrants age 16 and older participate in the civilian labor force, compared with 66 percent of the overall foreign-born population and 62 percent of the U.S.-born population, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Meanwhile, 78 percent of those 25 and older have a high school degree or higher, compared with 71 percent of the foreign-born population and 88 percent of U.S.-born.
Still, there are some trying to find wisdom in Trump’s foul statement. One guy trolling my Facebook page Friday insisted that while the president’s comment may be crude, it was truthful. He argued that Haiti and Honduras really are such countries.
“Why do you think people are leaving them?” he asked.
There’s a difference between condemning failed leaders and failed policy and denouncing an entire country – encompassing everything from its people to its culture to its architecture.
High and mighty
To get another perspective, I called up Rosendo Ticas, who fled to the United States as a boy after he woke up one night with an M-16 in his back during a brutal civil war in his native El Salvador. I wrote about him recently as an example of how Texas’ in-state tuition law for undocumented immigrants helped him go to college and achieve his dream of repairing airplanes.
Did he view his native country, where his grandfather later died at the hands of gangs, as a bad place?
No, he said. A poor country. A Third World country. But he would never condemn the whole place.
“It’s a good country,” Ticas said, while acknowledging the violence, lack of opportunity and politicians too scared to make change. “There are good people there, like there are good people here.”
Perhaps Trump feels high and mighty enough to put down other nations because he is the leader of a country of high ideals and mighty influence.
But every time he insults our allies, belittles the people who live and work here, and comports himself with the dignity of a drunken baboon, he is diminishing the power of his platform, and of America’s voice.
No country, no matter how rich, how powerful and how free, can flourish without a certain level of decency, compassion and civil discourse from its leaders.
No city on a hill can survive with a gutter state of mind.