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Of Sh*tholes And Second Thoughts

A former Peace Corps volunteer says based on her experience, Trump was right

I have to admit to you that I’m having second thoughts about my reaction to President Trump’s “shithole” comment. The whole thing is more morally challenging than I initially thought. Don’t get me wrong: I think it was crude, obnoxious, and wrong of him to say, and without question politically foolish. He has made it harder to defend sensible immigration restriction policies. I find myself nodding in agreement with the very conservative columnist Matthew Walther here. Walther prefaces these comments below by explaining that he’s not bothered by a lot of what Trump says, and he’s no fan of open borders either:

But I can think of nothing to say about the monstrous, dehumanizing language Trump has reserved for millions of human beings — and his implicit suggestion that they are morally or otherwise inferior to Americans or Norwegians or citizens of various countries in Asia — except that it is vile.

What does it even mean to have contempt for people in the countries Trump was talking about? To refer to El Salvador and Haiti as “shitholes” involves a degree of punching down that does not verge upon but actually evinces sociopathy. Would he have more respect for these nations and their peoples if their GDPs were higher?

Consider the fact that there has not been lasting civil peace in the lifetime of virtually any Salvadoran for nearly as long as the United States has been an independent country, that the unimaginable poverty in which most of her citizens live has been enlivened by nothing but earthquakes, hurricanes, and free trade since the early 1970s. Imagine being a mother in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010, squatting amid the wreckage of your home, watching your baby starve to death, knowing that the only way to improve her situation even marginally would be to sell yourself into sexual slavery for the enjoyment of men in a country with among the world’s highest incidence of HIV.

What would it take for Trump to understand why we allow Salvadoran and Haitian emigrants to enter this country, to think for five seconds and maybe ask a profound question or two before casually suggesting that they are sub-human? My only answer is grace.

On the other hand, I get Andrew Klavan’s point in this City Journal column defending Trump”. Klavan says that political correctness keeps people from saying things that are true, out of fear that they will be called racist, or some other form of bigot. He points out that the police in the English city of Rotherham allowed Pakistani Muslim gangs to rape and otherwise sexually exploit at least 1,400 non-Muslim English girls for years — and hesitated to do anything about it, out of fear of being thought racist. Klavan sees the same malign principle at work in the pile-on of Trump. Excerpt:

Let’s state the obvious. Some countries are shitholes. To claim that this is racist is racist. They are not shitholes because of the color of the populace but because of bad ideas, corrupt governance, false religion, and broken culture. Further, most of the problems in these countries are generated at the top. Plenty of rank-and-file immigrants from such ruined venues ultimately make good Americans—witness those who came from 1840s potato-famine Ireland, a shithole if ever there was one! It takes caution and skill to separate the good from the bad.

For these very reasons, absurd immigration procedures like chain migration, lotteries, and unvetted entries are deeply destructive. They can lead to the sort of poor choices that create a Rotherham. Trump’s suggestions—to vet immigrants for pro-American ideas and skills that will help our country—are smart and reasonable and would clearly make the system better if implemented.

So, when it comes to the Great Shithole Controversy of 2018, my feeling is: I do not care, not even a little. I’m sorry that it takes someone like Trump to break the spell of silence the Left is forever weaving around us. I wish a man like Ronald Reagan would come along and accomplish the same thing with more wit and grace. But that was another culture. History deals the cards it deals; we just play them. Trump is what we’ve got.

Both Walther’s piece and Klavan’s piece resonate within me, and I can’t reconcile that. Why?

Let’s think about Section 8 housing. If word got out that the government was planning to build a housing project for the poor in your neighborhood, how would you feel about it? Be honest with yourself. Nobody would consider this good news. You wouldn’t consider it good news because you don’t want the destructive culture of the poor imported into your neighborhood. Drive over to the poor part of town, and see what a shithole it is. Do you want the people who turned their neighborhood a shithole to bring the shithole to your street?

No, you don’t. Be honest, you don’t.


A reader sent me this piece today from a conservative website, by Karin McQuillan, a former Peace Corps volunteer who said her time in Senegal (she was there in the early 1970s) taught her that Trump was right to call some places ‘shitholes’. Excerpts:

Three weeks after college, I flew to Senegal, West Africa, to run a community center in a rural town.  Life was placid, with no danger, except to your health.  That danger was considerable, because it was, in the words of the Peace Corps doctor, “a fecalized environment.”

In plain English: s— is everywhere.  People defecate on the open ground, and the feces is blown with the dust – onto you, your clothes, your food, the water.  He warned us the first day of training: do not even touch water.  Human feces carries parasites that bore through your skin and cause organ failure.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that a few decades later, liberals would be pushing the lie that Western civilization is no better than a third-world country.  Or would teach two generations of our kids that loving your own culture and wanting to preserve it are racism.

Last time I was in Paris, I saw a beautiful African woman in a grand boubou have her child defecate on the sidewalk next to Notre Dame Cathedral.  The French police officer, ten steps from her, turned his head not to see.

I have seen.  I am not turning my head and pretending unpleasant things are not true.

The “fecalized environment” is not just about public health, McQuillan writes, but is about culture. More:

We think the Protestant work ethic is universal.  It’s not.  My town was full of young men doing nothing.  They were waiting for a government job.  There was no private enterprise.  Private business was not illegal, just impossible, given the nightmare of a third-world bureaucratic kleptocracy.  It is also incompatible with Senegalese insistence on taking care of relatives.

All the little stores in Senegal were owned by Mauritanians.  If a Senegalese wanted to run a little store, he’d go to another country.  The reason?  Your friends and relatives would ask you for stuff for free, and you would have to say yes.  End of your business.  You are not allowed to be a selfish individual and say no to relatives.  The result: Everyone has nothing.

The more I worked there and visited government officials doing absolutely nothing, the more I realized that no one in Senegal had the idea that a job means work.  A job is something given to you by a relative.  It provides the place where you steal everything to give back to your family.

I couldn’t wait to get home.  So why would I want to bring Africa here?  Non-Westerners do not magically become American by arriving on our shores with a visa.

McQuillan concludes:

We have the right to choose what kind of country to live in. I was happy to donate a year of my life as a young woman to help the poor Senegalese. I am not willing to donate my country.

Read the whole thing.

It is a harsh column. Is McQuillan’s description of Senegalese life true? How generalizable is it to other impoverished countries? What she’s saying is that Senegalese culture is incompatible with Western culture at best, and radically deficient at worst.

I have never been to a country like that. I would like to hear from readers who have, and get their reaction to McQuillan’s column. I realized that my first heated reaction to Trump’s words — which I still consider to be at best crude and undiplomatic — was based on the sense I had that he was dehumanizing the people who live in poor countries. I still believe there is some of that in what Trump said.

I have no trouble saying that not all cultures in the world are equally healthy, equally good. “Different” doesn’t equal “bad,” but some places really are bad because the culture there is bad. Take the people out and put them in a different culture, and you should be able to expect different results over time. But not always.

Again, I would very much like to hear from people who have spent real time in countries like this, and get their opinions, no matter what they are. Whichever side you come down on, spare us the high-pitched moralizing, please. Let’s have a real discussion.

Along these lines, be sure to read this amazing story in the New Yorker about the women in far southern Italy who helped break some strongholds of the Calabrian mafia, called the ‘Ndrangheta. Get this:

The organization’s economic sophistication belied its social coarseness. The ’Ndrangheta hid in shabby hillside villages, dressing like orange farmers and working out of bunkers beneath their homes. Each family was a miniature fiefdom, in which women were little more than vassals of family honor. Fathers married their daughters off as teen-agers to seal clan alliances. Women who did not uphold exacting codes of respect were beaten, often in the street. Wives who were unfaithful, even to the memory of a husband dead for fifteen years, were killed, typically by their closest male relatives, and their bodies were often burned or dissolved in acid to be sure of erasing the family shame.


In her research, Cerreti [the state prosecutor] found evidence to back the team’s intuition about the role of women in the organization. At times, they acted as messengers between fugitives or imprisoned comrades, passing along tiny, folded notes—pizzini—written in a code of glyphs. Some women acted as paymasters and bookkeepers. In rare cases, when a man was jailed or killed, his wife became his de-facto replacement. A few took part in the violence. In surveillance transcripts, Cerreti read about a meeting to discuss the death of a ’Ndranghetista killed in an internecine feud. The men proposed killing every male member of the rival gang. Then a woman from the clan spoke up. “Kill them all,” she said. “Even the women. Even the kids.”

This co-opting of family, in a country where it was close to sacred, demonstrated a kind of genius. The ’Ndrangheta understood that family itself could be a source of corruption. The love of a mother for a son, or of a daughter for a father, could persuade the most law-abiding to abandon their principles. And, since the ’Ndrangheta made itself indistinguishable from Calabria’s traditional, family-centered culture, anyone thinking of leaving had to fear abandoning everything she’d ever known.

The New Yorker piece testifies to the incredible power of culture to corrupt, and to keep things corrupted. But look, Calabrians and their Sicilian neighbors immigrated in large numbers to the US a hundred years ago and more, and though a small number brought the mafia here, the overwhelming number ended up becoming good Americans. How can we say that won’t happen to immigrants from these “shithole” countries?

Finally, I am thinking at the moment about a friend of mine who put as much distance between herself and her criminally dysfunctional clan and their social network as she could. She figured rightly that if she was going to have a chance at a normal life and family, she had to do that. Decades later, her decision proved to be wise. I imagine how she would feel to learn that all the folks from back home were moving into her neighborhood.

But I also wonder how she would feel if the people who live in her neighborhood looked at her and, knowing something about her family and social background, thought she was just like the people she left behind.

I welcome your thoughts. Be careful what you say; I’m not going to post rants from either side of this question.

UPDATE: Folks, I’m serious about strictly moderating the comments. I’m not interested in extended discussions of sewerage, or the guilt we should all feel over US colonialism, or how much you hate Trump or hate Trump’s critics. I’m torn about this issue for the reasons I’ve indicated above, and I genuinely want thoughtful observations and arguments from all sides. Because this issue is so emotional all around, it’s very easy to emote, or to talk around the issues. Please don’t waste your time if you’re not going to attempt a serious on-topic answer.

UPDATE.2: Karin McQuillan e-mails me to say:

Slight, nitpicking correction. You say “her time in Senegal (she was there in the early 1970s) taught her that Trump was right to call some places ‘shitholes’.”

My point wasn’t that Trump was right to call some places shitholes – while I like Trump’s honesty and bluntness, I think he was naïve to trust Democrats to honor the rules of candor in a private meeting. He had not purposefully used that word in a public sphere, and I agree with that judgement.

My point was not about his words – my point was about reality. The media focus with glee on Trump’s words, which can be vilified easily, because they don’t want to focus on his meaning and his policies, which are very sound.

Nor is Trump suggesting we have no immigration from Africa. He was arguing we should not privilege mass migration from backward countries, but should have merit based immigration. Merit based immigration will naturally include many immigrants from Africa.

Have you listened to this video from an extremely impressive, articulate Nigerian immigrant – the first step to change is honesty:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fSRTQ4Sc4k]

UPDATE.3: I see now that liberal Twitter is going nuts on this post, based on a single passage, the bit about people not wanting Section 8 housing in their neighborhood. It’s a sign to them that I hate the poor. This is exactly the kind of dishonest sentimentality that forced me to go back and examine my blanket condemnation of Trump’s shithole remark. I still believe he was wrong to say it, but for reasons I explain above, I had to concede, as a matter of honesty, that a crude, immoral man like Trump was not 100 percent wrong — and that as ugly as his remark was, we have a duty to think harder about culture and immigration.

I blogged this morning about a fantastic New York Times story about how the opioid crisis has torn through one New Hampshire family. One of their adult children moved away from the area where her family lives to get away from the mess. Was that woman wrong to do so? Aside from missionaries, I don’t think I have ever known anyone of any race who lived in a place that was violent, drug-ridden, and poor who didn’t want to get out of it if they could — and who did not want its pathologies to follow them. What does justice mean in cases like this? Justice to the decent people whose only fault is that they’re poor, and who want an opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their children — and justice for the decent people who want their own neighborhoods to be safe, stable places to live and in which to raise children? Many people on either side of the issue don’t want to consider at all that their opponents deserve serious consideration.

(By the way, I edited out McQuillan’s inclusion of comments from The American Thinker readers. Too distracting.)

UPDATE.4: I just posted separately an account by a former Peace Corps volunteer in Africa who thinks McQuillan was way, way off base, to put it mildly. Check it out here.