A young soldier’s first bivouac is an overwhelming thing. Fresh off the cattle car in 1987, they handed me sixty pounds of gear, a helmet, and a non-working M16 and led me and the other wide-eyed privates on a ten-mile march. At dusk, we stopped and got in line for some manner of disgusting food and were told to make camp.
I paired up with a young man from Louisiana named Alvin Lee. We were trying to figure out how to turn our shelter halves into a tent when something started brewing. I headed off into the woods with my Army-issued entrenching tool (folding shovel). When I found a suitable spot, I dug a little hole in the soft, brown Missouri soil, designating it as my shithole. Before I deposited in it, it wasn’t a shithole. In fact, it wasn’t even a hole. That little spot of earth was a pristine oasis of nature until I came by. Logically speaking, what makes a hole a shithole is the contents of the hole.
I’d like to introduce you to two men:
I met Mduduzi in Swaziland — a little country inside of South Africa that has been ravaged by poverty and AIDS. It is one of the poorest countries in the word. I was there to work with an organization caring for orphans left behind by the AIDS epidemic. One day we got the chance to go into the community to help with some projects in Mduduzi’s village. AIDS had claimed his father and his mother was deep in its clutches. I got to speak to him and found him bright, articulate, and very humble. He knew at least three languages and translated for me so I could play with some village children who were gawking at my skin. As we added a roof to a structure for his family, he helped in every way possible. If he lived anywhere else this young man could easily find success. What he lacked then and unfortunately probably still does is opportunity.
William is deaf. He lived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti when the big earthquake hit. In the destruction, most of the deaf couldn’t hear the passing trucks offering water and food and many perished. A few men rounded up those who couldn’t hear and with the help of the Red Cross they created an enclave of deaf people — allowing them access to necessities of life during the early days of the disaster. When I was there it was time to move the enclave to permanent housing outside the city. William is a gardener and a good one at that. I was fascinated with his ingenuity. At his new home, we set up a little hydroponic system he had created and a composter William had fabricated out of garbage collected in the city. Because the move took him to the cleaner countryside, William told me he was concerned about his ability to find garbage to fuel his inventions. A generous man, he wouldn’t let me go without giving me one of his prize plants.
These men live in countries now referred to as shithole countries. By definition, when you refer to a place that way, you are inferring that the contents (in this case, the people) are shit. Yet they are not shit. They are often industrious and intelligent men and women who lack opportunity. I don’t pretend to know the politics of the visa lottery, but basic human dignity tells me that I am not far removed from them. Only the latitude of my birth provides me opportunities that neither of them will ever have.
It angers me that this new designation comes from the country I call home and I refuse to be associated with it. In fact, I would rather be lumped in a hole with Mduzuzi or William than the President of the United States. How sad is that? They were born into hardship not privilege, yet both respect others and work hard despite their difficult surroundings. Yes, there are bad and unproductive people in every country, including ours. But that doesn’t make any entire nation a shithole and all its citizens shit. To refer to an entire place with such arrogant disdain is foolish and way beneath the dignity that a high office should possess.
Every day the bar of decency gets lowered in my country and we should all outraged by it. Yet many leaders remain quiet. Silence in the face of such contemptuous behavior doesn’t distance you from it or make you prudent, it makes you complicit.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King
And by the way, if you scour the world for holes, we’re digging several to build a fence we can’t afford. Maybe if we’re looking for the real shithole, we should search around Pennsylvania Avenue.