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Saying the Unspeakable


Haitian children(Haitian Children, photo credit)

Racist. Deplorable. Contemptible. Inhumane. Immoral. Despicable. Cruel. Disordered. Detestable. Reprehensible. Crude. Vulgar. Insensitive. Disrespectful. Shameful. Abhorrent. Appalling. Vile. Repulsive. Execrable. Ignominious.

Some words are far more serious, more powerful, more important to say than a common vulgar epithet.  All of the words above apply to what the President of the United States said on Thursday of this week about Haiti, El Salvador and some African nations.   In calling those nations “shitholes” he demeaned, disparaged and showed utter contempt for the human beings who call those nations home, and for the most fundamental standards of decency and respect for nations in the global community.  (On Friday morning the president tweeted a statement that seemed to say that he did not use the vulgarity but “tough” words instead, but others in the meeting confirmed the word.  The issue, however, is not really the word itself but the intent.)

Many people found the vulgar word stunning, and yet felt it necessary to say the unspeakable out loud — a moment of collective “j’accuse” in which decent people everywhere shout out the bad word to purge it from our collective systems.  Even the Sisters of Mercy found it important to repeat his exact language in a statement on their website condemning his use of the word “shitholes” in reference to those nations.  You know it’s bad when the nuns use the word.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops were more delicate in condemning the president’s statement, but they did so forcefully.  Many other Catholic leaders similarly condemned Trump’s statement.  Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston had a blog on this topic, and Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich wrote on Twitter, “Grateful for Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, “Founder of Chicago”—and Haitian immigrant. We are a nation of immigrants, who have made America great. We continue to be enriched by the gifts they bring to our shores.”

President Trump’s appalling statement revealed once again his completely amoral view of his responsibilities to all people of this nation, and indeed, the world. He has virtually no concept of how serious his responsibility is to be a model of prudence, justice, compassion, wisdom and care for the people whose lives and fates depend on this nation.  But beyond this one example, we must also focus on the larger meaning of this statement and all of the prior statements he has made that are clear evidence that Mr. Trump is manifestly unfit and unworthy to occupy the highest office in our nation.

Sometimes we must say what has previously seemed unspeakable.  To say that the president is unfit for his office is something many people say privately — “kitchen table talk” if you will — but few people in a position like mine are willing to say publicly.  Since the earliest days of Trump’s candidacy, he has made the most acutely disparaging and despicable remarks about people of other races and ethnicities, starting with saying that all Mexicans are racists.  After Charlottesville, he refused to condemn the white supremacists, saying there were some “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis and KKK members marching.  And on and on.

To call out his racism, his support for white supremacy, his cruel and inhumane treatment of human beings he despises for their color and ethnicity and language and customs and deep poverty — to point out that this is a grave offense against fundamental moral values as well as American values — to confront the words and behaviors of the president this way might seem, to some, an unspeakable breach of some kind of professional boundary.  For the most part, college presidents in this country seem to have lost their voices, and that is a very serious silence at a time when we need strong, loud and constant confrontation of the immoral and irrational misconduct of our leaders.

As an educator, as someone responsible for the lives and educational attainment of some of the very people that President Trump is harming so gravely, I have to name the deeply warped, even evil conduct and actions that have become more than a sideshow — they are harming real lives and tearing apart our national and global community.  We have students at Trinity who are Haitian, Salvadorans, Africans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, Mexicans, Cubans, persons from Central and South America, from the Middle East, from southeast Asia, from India, from Europe, from all over the global village.  Our community is Black and Hispanic and Asian and White and multi-racial. We are US citizens and citizens of other nations and immigrants and Dreamers.  Our racial and ethnic heritages are a credit to Trinity and our nation.  We cherish every single person we meet, we honor all human life in our community, and through this ethic we give witness to the essential moral conditions for life to flourish everywhere on earth.

This is not about political parties or policy preferences.  This is fundamentally about whether this nation can tolerate for another day, week, month or year a leader who has no apparent self-control, who gives voice to thoughts that reveal deep character flaws, an inability to empathize with people who are suffering, a deep hostility to persons of color, an instinctive desire to mock and humiliate those perceived as weak, a tendency to belligerence whenever cornered, an affection for violent rhetoric whether talking about arresting and jailing a political opponent or stopping protesters or obliterating another country with nuclear weapons.

This is also about a leader who has surrounded himself with like-minded operatives who are systematically destroying every progressive step this nation has made over the course of a century — from protection of wilderness and national parks, to care for the sick and children, to humanitarian welcome for refugees and immigrants fleeing oppression, to support for undocumented young persons, to world leadership to fight climate change and environmental dangers, to reinforcing laws and policies that promote equal educational opportunity and civil rights protections, to fostering durable international alliances and a commitment to peacebuilding as the best way to avoid nuclear catastrophe, and so much more.  At every turn, the president and his operatives engage in efforts that roll-back, retreat, repeal, reverse, overturn, end, withdraw, recede, remand.  One week it’s retreating from sexual assault protections for women in college, another week it’s removing national monuments from protected status and opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling; this week it’s urging states to force vulnerable Medicaid recipients go to work in order to get basic assistance, next week it will be some other retreat from humane policies.  As decades of progressive law, policy and civic action are systematically stripped away, a great void is emerging in which wealth and power can play freely and outside of scrutiny by We the People whose invitations to the great table of Democracy are slowly expiring in wave after wave of shocking, appalling, insouciant and contemptuous misconduct at the highest level.

Distracted by the president’s vulgarity on Thursday on the topic of Haiti, El Salvador and African nations — and his stated preference to have more immigrants from Norway, a preference we can just let sit there and simmer in its own obvious hot white sauce — we have not paid nearly enough attention to the rest of President Trump’s appalling statement about DACA and Dreamers and the proposal he was supposedly discussing with a bi-partisan group of Senators.  He wrote on Twitter, “The Democrats seem intent on having people and drugs pour into our country from the Southern Border, risking thousands of lives in the process. It is my duty to protect the lives and safety of all Americans. We must build a Great Wall, think Merit and end Lottery & Chain.”  He continues to characterize immigrants as criminals, and he continues to use the lives and fates of Dreamers as political bargaining chips.  The original decision to rescind DACA was needless, cruel and a cynical ploy to make ‘the base’ happy.  But ‘the base’ is never satiated, there’s always one more awful thing they demand.  He toyed with us earlier in the week, staging a session for the press that made it appear that he was open to whatever legislative proposal would emerge, including a “clean” Dream Act.  But that was all for show; our president cannot tell Reality TV from Real Life, and that is a grave national crisis.

In the same way, this week’s decision to end Temporary Protected Status for persons from El Salvador is a needlessly cruel and inhumane action that has no apparent basis in any specific threat to our nation, but that seems to rest heavily on the same bigotry and hatred of persons from certain countries who are darker, who speak a different language, have different customs, and have suffered poverty and violence.

As a personal note, last night I also happened to be part of an award ceremony conducted by the National Organization of Italian American Women (NOIAW).  My mother was first generation Italian, her parents immigrated to the United States in the early 20th Century.  The occasion of the NOIAW ceremony was a time to reflect on the immigrant journey once more.  I never met my grandparents; they fled poverty in Italy, they had hard lives in Philadelphia, they struggled mightily to raise their children.  Mom used to tell me that she never learned to speak Italian because she was embarrassed by her parents’ lack of English skills, and she and her family faced a great deal of disparagement, discrimination and epithets used against Italians in those days (“dirty” being one of the nasty words often used then).  It took her 7 decades to get over being embarrassed about being Italian — I took her to Italy on her 75th birthday and she was amazed to find a country, not in impoverished ruins, but flourishing as one of civilization’s great places.  How awful to spend an entire life trying to hide your fundamental identity because of your fear of disparagement and contempt, only to discover its beauty so late in life.

In the same way, other countries — Haiti, El Salvador, African nations — may have problems of poverty and oppression as Italy and Ireland once had (and still have in their own way), but in fact, they are also beautiful and contribute significant chapters to the story of the human family.  No human being has a right to rob another of their fundamental identity, to disparage their heritage, to mock their national and ethnic origins.  No person who claims to be a leader of a nation can separate the world into “shitholes” and worthy places according to wealth and poverty and race and color and ethnicity and natural resources and political history.

Next week, we begin the week with the observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  We will end the week with marches — the March for Life on Friday, January 19, and the Women’s March will have various events in major cities on January 20 and 21.  Each of these observances carries important meaning and messages about the kind of nation and society we aspire to be — a society that lives the promise of racial justice, that honors life, that promotes the dignity and worth of women and all people regardless of their circumstances.  Some people might see these various events as disparate or at odds philosophically; but, in fact, they all arise from the same deep wellspring of our sense of being called as a people and nation to aspire to better, to find greater harmony, to live a true sense of justice which is the pathway to peace.  They are moments for We the People to reclaim our voice and our rightful place at the center of the table of Democracy.

Whatever our political philosophy or party, all of us need to march together in freedom and hope.  We cannot continue to indulge the tantrums of one misguided, disordered individual voice; we need to have all of our voices come together in the beautiful chorus of mutual respect and human dignity for all.  Let’s march together!

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: