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Of “Shitholes” and Liberals

Photo by CDC Global | CC BY 2.0

President Trump’s reported comment that the U.S. should block immigration from “shithole countries” was vile, and the outraged response is warranted.

But liberals have – not for the first time – utterly misfired in their counter-attack. One gets the impression that Trump’s remarks were repulsive because they were “vulgar,” and that his proposal would have been more digestible had it been palatably phrased.

Sensing this critique’s deficiencies, technocratic liberals explained that we should welcome Haitians because immigrants contribute to our wealth. Analyses of this sort tacitly assume we should outsource the crafting of immigration policies to neoliberalism itself, reducing human beings to arithmetical marks on a cold, cost/benefit ledger. More sentimental liberals have opined that individuals from troubled nations are ipso facto strong-willed, and so should be treated warmly. This is too ludicrous a psychological theory to be entertained by thinking people, and implies that immigrants who are frightened, vulnerable, and unable to cope without assistance should be denied our help on that basis.

So what is vile about the President’s remarks?

Consider the plight of Haiti, the Western hemisphere’s poorest country, which Trump singled out during his tirade. Haiti is not a “shithole,” but that hasn’t stopped the U.S. and other Western powers from crapping on it for centuries. Perhaps no single country better exemplifies the destruction wrought by Western Empire than Haiti. That sordid history is impactful, contemptible – and ignored.

After landing on Hispaniola in 1492, Christopher Columbus and his men all but exterminated the native population. Spain and later France thus had to import African slaves to cultivate the island’s plantations. In 1804, the Republic of Haiti was born from a black slave revolt in Saint-Domingue, against France, after centuries of colonial domination. Haitians designated their new nation a refuge for enslaved peoples everywhere, at a time when the U.S. president was a slaveholder who had repeatedly raped and impregnated his daughter’s fourteen-year-old chambermaid. Because white Americans feared their own slaves might get bad ideas, the U.S. refused to recognize Haiti’s legitimacy.

Under Woodrow Wilson, U.S. marines invaded Haiti to protect American business interests. The brutal occupation lasted until 1934, when President Roosevelt succumbed to Haitian opposition and allowed a military withdrawal. The U.S. retained a measure of control over its neighbor’s economy, ensuring Haiti’s national resources would primarily benefit its industrial interests. In the tumultuous decades since, Haiti has oscillated between democracy and military rule. It is a shameful fact that during Haiti’s years of tyranny and deprivation, the U.S. refused entry to Haitian refugees fleeing oppression, torture, and murder.

This heartlessness is not ancient history. In 2009, a year following the Clorox food riots (“named after hunger so painful that it felt like bleach in your stomach”) the Haitian Parliament unanimously raised the minimum wage to five dollars a day. This was unacceptable. Diplomatic cables reveal that Haiti bowed to intense U.S. diplomatic pressure to roll back the new wage, carving out an exception for textile manufacturing. Though the American embassy remained displeased that so exorbitant a wage was ever conceded to “the unemployed and underpaid masses,” the crisis was averted, and Haitian workers in garment factories today are paid a fourth of what Haitian families need to subsist. Fruit of the Loom, Hanes, Levi’s, Dockers, and Nautica benefit handsomely from U.S. interventionism. Haitians, however, do not.

Such uncomfortable details problematize the liberal reaction to Trump’s hateful comments. Consider the response from Hillary Clinton, who led the State Department during the U.S. assault on rising wages. Clinton sanctimoniously lamented that Trump’s comments were “ignorant,” and called on America to affirm its “commitment to helping our neighbors.” If “neighbors” refers to the people who live in Haiti, rather than to the sweatshop owners who serve U.S. interests, it is not clear what “commitment” she is referring to. Clinton has her own reasons to cover the history of U.S – Haiti relations in the warm glow of American exceptionalism. Others should not follow her lead. Trump’s proposal to deport Haitian refugees to their decimated home country is unacceptable precisely because we have not been very neighborly.

The Pollyanna response of liberals to the President’s crudity is consistent with the general myopia of anti-Trumpism. The standard liberal critique of Trump is primarily aesthetic, utterly eliding the historical admixture of racism, corporatism, and imperialism that constitutes the state he now heads. To more effectively oppose Trump’s anti-immigration agenda, we should begin to take responsibility for our role in immiserating Haiti and other countries. By doing so, we can more credibly show that it is the underlying rationale of Trump’s “America First” program – not his illiterate attempts to describe it – that deserves our contempt and opposition.

 

 

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Andrew Day is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science and an Instructor of Chicago Field Studies at Northwestern University.

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