The Quest for a Shithole

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:

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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.

 

 

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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.

“What the Hell?”

I was raised in a home with clean words. To be honest, I never understood the notion that a certain subset of words are “bad” while the others are not. Who gets to decide? I suppose it’s up the parents when you’re in a family. But boys love to muddy their hands in life’s gray areas and their tiny brains perk up when told something is wrong.

As for words, there was such allure when I heard one deemed naughty. The offending word simply had to be repeated. My recitation would start quietly at first – in the shadows of my room where the word bubbled out, tasting heavy and wrong as it escaped my throat. I would stand in front of a mirror practicing my elocution and intonation like a Shakespearean actor rehearsing lines. As I adjusted to the word’s weight and volume, at some point, it didn’t seem “bad” anymore. It was just a word. Inevitably, this word seeped out during normal conversation and I found myself on the wrong end of the word police. Yes, I’ve tasted soap a time or two.

I’ve raised my family in a home with clean words – we called it our little bubble. We’ve never had trouble from the kids; rules-followers who are like their mother. Sometimes a word has escaped when something heavy dropped on my foot, but I’ve mostly toed the line in the bubble – even though I still have a problem with the word-regime who decides such things.

But there are times in your life when June Cleaver-esque words such as heck, dang, and darn just aren’t strong enough. When events swirling around you are so far beyond comprehension that the only thing you can say is, “What the hell?”

“What the hell?”

I’ve woken up to such news a time or two in my life. Natural catastrophes or tragic events don’t cause this reaction. Bad things happen, I’ve come to accept that. Unfortunately, crime really doesn’t even surprise me anymore. This world is full of bad intent. No, what causes this reaction is the shocking revelation of the darkest side of humanity. People infused with hate cause it.

It’s all you can say when incomprehensible evil flashes across the news.

“What the hell?”

Are there really still white supremacy rallies? Where did the people with tiki torches come from? Who knowingly drives a car into people just because they disagree with him? What the hell is happening here?

This is all mind-blowing to me. I walked around in a funk all day trying to digest what I had seen and read. But I couldn’t. It’s like a brussel sprout: you can lube it up with all the butter you want and you’ll never get it down!

Hate of that scale is un-wordly. Hate like that doesn’t belong here and that is why “What the hell?” is the only way to describe it. Because that’s precisely where it comes from: hell.

Evil like that demands immediate condemnation, not flippant, non-committal words offered in 140 characters or less. There is a wrong side… and it’s obvious. I would like to propose a very simple definition: If you consider yourself superior to anyone because of a genetic difference, you’re on the wrong side. Actually, let’s make it simpler: If you consider yourself better than anyone…

 

Evil like what we saw last weekend can’t win, can it? We live in a democracy. We choose what wins by either accepting or rejecting its premise. In order for evil to win, we have to give it power over us. And now, I’m haunted by the obvious question, “Have we?”

 

***A disclaimer for my dear mother. Please rest easy. I’m only implying the use of the word as a curse. It’s just wordplay. A title tease to get people to read. I’m trying to cleverly use it in more of a Biblical sense – as in the opposite of Heaven.