WARNING! Presidential neologism reiterated throughout!
It’s not often that the newsreaders on the BBC World Service get tongue-tied. Such did appear to be the case 3 weeks ago when the reader seemed to stall while reporting that a certain Donald J. Trump had, in the course of a meeting during which immigration was discussed, used an ‘expletive’ that had offended the African Union (and a few others), leaving us all wondering what that could have been.
An expletive is, according to my acquaintance with idiomatic English usage, a brief (usually one word) verbal outburst indicating strong, albeit often short-lived, emotion. What you mumble when you spill coffee over your nice clean trou early on in the day at work is almost certainly an expletive. Most expletives are fairly innocuous although some may be deemed offensive by more straight-laced people. But I racked my brain for expletives that would be so politically explosive and was unable to find one.
So I cheated and switched channels to Euronews, which informed me without any BBCish coyness that DJT had used the expression “shithole countries” in relation to certain sources of immigrants into the US, such as Haiti, El Salvador and unnamed African places. Now as far as I’m concerned, only the first syllable of that compound noun constitutes an expletive, and only when voiced alone, so that’s a failing grade for the BBC on grammar. Linguistic niceties aside, a number of people including some very serious-looking prat from the UNHRC called him ‘racist’ and the African Union then jumped on the bandwagon insisting on an apology and a retraction.
DJT admitted that he had used some ‘tough language’ but denied using that specific construction. Well, of course he would deny it, and of course his devotees will believe him whatever – and to be quite frank, being a man who has been known to use the odd vulgarism for effect himself, I couldn’t care less.
Words change with respect to both denotation and connotation. Expressions along the lines of ‘Bugger me’/’I’ll be buggered’ and the expletive ‘Bugger!’ no longer have any connection with sodomy except for those of us who are aware of what the Buggery Act 1533 was about. ‘Marry’ was used as an expletive in Shakespearean times in much the same way as the f-word today. This classic ‘4-letter word’ with the suffix ‘–ing’ added (or, not uncommonly among the younger generations who did not have the benefit of a primary education that included spelling, ‘-en’), while still associated with the procreative act as a verb, has become a universal adjective for the less articulate members of the Australasian working classes. It remains a crudity, but its shock-horror impact on the more genteel classes has greatly diminished. On the other side of the ledger, some words that were once fairly widespread have become ‘naughty’, such as the N-word – indeed both N-words, as ‘Negro’, once merely an anthropological label, has become so mortally offensive to many that those of us who continue to consider it a legitimate term need to be extremely prudent about when to let it past our lips.
The offence taken at words can become so extreme that it becomes irrational. I recall one occasion while at the University of Botswana when a furore arose over the use of the word ‘niggardly’ in an email posted on the staff intranet. At first I couldn’t for the life of me work out what the fuss was about (synonyms include ‘stingy’ and ‘miserly’) until an African colleague drew my attention to the fact that this adverb minus the last three letters is a homonym of a derogatory racial term…. oh dear. (The user apologised. I would not have done so.)
Perhaps the editorial boards of the BBC World Service and the on-line Cambridge dictionary overlap, for the on-line Cambridge does not list the word ‘shithole’. The on-line Oxford does, defining it as “ [vulgar slang] An extremely dirty, shabby, or otherwise unpleasant place”. The first places that came to my mind as fitting these descriptions were Newton Gully in Auckland where I lived in the late 1970s, shanty towns on the fringes of Port Moresby, large parts of the Calcutta I visited in 1991, and Aurukun in Far North Queensland.
The on-line Collins defines a shithole as “A very bad place; a disgusting place”. This broader definition allows for a departure from strictly physical attributes. Shabbiness and dirtiness usually have their social concomitants. Extreme poverty in the midst of extreme affluence, as exemplified by the favelas (shanty towns) coexisting alongside the trendier Rio de Janeiro suburbs, is disgusting. Corruption too is disgusting, and is often rampant in such shitholes in the form of petty officials extorting money from street vendors and the like.
Shithole countries have to be those where a sizeable chunk of the population live in squalor and perpetual deep poverty, are the constant victims of governmental mismanagement and official corruption, and see no prospects for themselves or their children. Yemen is a prime candidate for first prize here – it was dirt poor and horrendously mismanaged and commensurately corrupt even before the externally engineered war that has made it a cesspit of starvation and contagion. South Sudan is right up there too. Further down the list we find an assortment of places from across the globe – Mali, Peru, Bangladesh, North Korea… add to this list at your leisure.
These illegal migrants would be among the first to agree with Trump that their countries are shitholes, so they must be racists too
Of course there are people living the life of Reilly in shithole countries – usually the political elites. Ninety percent of North Korea is a shithole but you’d never guess that from the appearance of Pyongyang. Haiti was specifically mentioned at the meeting at which DJT introduced this term into geopolitics. I find it just about unimaginable that anyone would argue that Haiti isn’t a shithole, and an archetypal shithole at that. But in Haiti, as everywhere else, there are people who are doing just fine, and put on the I’m-so-offended act whenever an outsider (particularly a White male) calls their countries what they are to most of their own people, whom they couldn’t care a [oh I’m so tempted, but will restrain myself] about. So much for the indignant protestations of the fat cats of those ghastly places.
Many citizens of shithole countries are desperate to leave and are prepared to take considerable risks in order to do so. Umpteen thousands of people from African, Middle Eastern, Asian and Latin American shitholes take frightful risks to enter the US or Europe. Most make it but some don’t. Many are merely economic opportunists, but we can all sympathise with the acute desire for betterment that drives most of them.
The reflex response of ‘racism’ to almost anything Donald Trump says about immigration leaves one wondering what ‘racism’ means to those levelling the accusation. He did say he’d rather have more immigrants from places ‘like Norway’, and this seems to have been twisted into his meaning that European peoples create decent countries while all other races turn theirs into shitholes. But one of the last places I would apply that epithet to would be thriving Botswana with its spic-‘n-span oh-so modern capital city Gaborone where I spent 6 very pleasant years, whereas I would be sorely tempted to apply it to Bulgaria and the Ukraine.
Roma community in Bulgaria
Shithole countries are a problem for us all, so the question becomes what to do about them. Their sickeningly narcissistic, self-serving elites certainly do not have the answers, or if they do, they keep those to themselves. Many are Western-educated and trot out convenient excuses for their incompetence and corruption in the form of neo-Marxist pseudoanalyses that place the blame for the status quo in their societies on the colonial era and ‘neo-colonialism’ (retort: of which they, as a ‘comprador elite’, are agents!).
The antidote to the scourge of shitholes whether on a national, regional or local scale is development – real, genuine development, both economic and social, both urban and rural. Unfortunately, the development industry is largely a white elephant that ‘develops’ mainly those ‘experts’ who wax fat on the gravy train it provides, and those yucky local elites with whom they’re as thick as thieves. There are exceptions to these admittedly sweeping statements, but as a long-term resident of developing countries, I tend to be scathingly sceptical about most ‘development’ organisations and projects.
In the meantime, we in Western countries are under no moral obligation to ‘rescue’ the hordes vacating shithole countries from their own ratbag elites. It is a sovereign nation’s sovereign right to control its borders and determine whom to admit. Trump is quite right – we benefit from immigrant influxes of people who have something to offer us in the form of in-demand skills, and who share our fundamental values. We gain nothing from loads of migrants getting away from their own shambolic countries and then – all too often – turning parts of our own countries into replicas of those shitholes.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org