Thursday, January 18, 2018

"A wretched place... "

"A wretched place... (a) a dirty or dilapidated dwelling; (b) a remote, downtrodden, or unpleasant city, town, etc."

That's the Oxford English Dictionary definition of "shithole," with examples going back to 1930:
1930 A. M. Frey Cross Bearers xxxiv. 249 But that will soon be over, he hopes; over as soon as he can get out of this ‘shit-hole’—the soldiers' term which the officers adopt.
1935 B. Creighton tr. ‘B. Traven’ Treasure of Sierra Madre (new ed.) xiii. iv. 193 Come out there from that shit-hole of yours. I have to speak to you.
c1947 T. Shibutani Derelicts of Company K (1978) v. 200 How come..we have to live in this shit hole?...
1973 W. Crawford Gunship Commander 11 I have already spent four miserable, rotten years of my life in that shit-hole and I am not going back.
"Shithole" to refer to a place seems to have originated in the military. I see it's in the novel "High Fidelity" (1995) by Nick Hornby: "And I moved when I was eighteen, so I only spent a year seeing the place for what it was—a suburban shit-hole—and hating it." That makes it sound like pretty normal guy talk, so why are we acting all puritanical about it now?

It was said by the President of the United States, but at a private meeting, where I presume he, like many Presidents before him, says "fuck" and other bad words all the time. We know Nixon did. LBJ did.

So what is the big deal? The big deal is that it's racist. Supposedly. That's in the mind of the hearer, as the hearer really hears it or chooses to speak of it, and the motivations there are not untainted. Anything about Trump that can be called racist, will be called racist, but Trump said (we're told) "shithole countries," and "shithole," in this context means a wretched place. Is Haiti not a wretched place? There are connotations of dirtiness, obviously, but more notably, that the place is just awful, not that the people are bad in some way because of their race. There's enough reason to think of Haiti as dilapidated and downtrodden without needing to start assuming that there's something about the people because of their race. Perhaps the racism is in the mind of the person who hears "shithole" about the country and starts thinking about the race of the people who live there.

Anyway, "shithole" also means "anus," and that meaning is very old, going back to the 1600s: "Six shitten shotes did I shoote in thy mowth that I shot from my shithole." Yikes. Someone published that in 1629. "Shithole" also means "latrine." The oldest published usage is in the military context: c1947 T. Shibutani "Derelicts of Company K": "I hear Mike and Joey fell in a shit hole last night!"

"Shithole" can also refer to a person. It's just exactly the same thing as saying "asshole," which isn't a racist epithet. The OED examples go back to 1974: "Hey, shithole,..get the hell out of here." From the cool novel by Katherine Dunn, "Geek Love" (1989): " We protect children because they have not yet proven themselves to be hamstrung shitholes."

And there's this from "BAD/Or, the Dumbing of America," the 1992 book by the great Paul Fussell: "They have a name for their members obliged to cover BAD places: shithole specialists."

"Shithole" is a perfectly good rude, slangy word. It has a great history, and it's vivid and effective. It is not a racial term, and shame on the people who are making it racist. I wonder if these people ever think of the pain and damage they are causing by proclaiming and insisting upon a connection between dark skin and excrement. They're revealing what's in their head, and they don't mind burdening dark-skinned people with the knowledge that they are being thought about like that.

I'm giving this post my "civility bullshit" tag. You know what that means? It means that calls for civility are always bullshit.

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