Of Pothole Countries And The Sh**hole, That Ill-Begotten Epithet

David Landau | Novelist

Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, did the United States a major disservice when he emerged from the White House and promptly “told” on the president for that now-infamous description of certain nations.

The issue quickly grew larger than what the president was alleged to have said. Durbin’s tattle unleashed one of the crudest tendencies that our society allows: the practice of branding someone a “racist.”

The ill-begotten epithet has achieved a global platform as, across the world, trusted sources are telling people that racism now works out of the Oval Office.

Indeed, the assertion of Trump-as-racist is becoming so obligatory that anyone who fails to agree could soon find the epithet crashing down on himself or herself.

What, really, did the president say — in admittedly vulgar fashion? In essence, he said it is not the job of the United States immigration system to rescue the world’s unfortunate countries, or their peoples.

That viewpoint about immigration has decades of acceptance and law behind it. But in the polarized climate of the United States, it’s been all too easy to turn the president’s saucy language into a weapon not just against him but against America itself.

Yet during the 2016 election campaign, Trump said that portions of the United States were a third-world country. He was referring to the massive decay of infrastructure — to bridges, roads, even airports almost beyond repair.

In effect, candidate Trump had labeled the United States a “pothole country.” Was he thereby making a racist reference to the U.S., or to any portion of its citizenry?

Before you laugh, take a look at a 2008 editorial column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel titled “Pothole racial disparity is a relevant topic.”

What did candidate Trump mean by citing third-world conditions in the United States? Did he mean we should repair the roads, bridges and airports for white people only? Or that we should remake our infrastructure for the benefit of all?

Your answer will depend on the rhetorical tendency to which you subscribe. That’s a shame, because rhetoric in politics is a lousy guide. And the history of our republic contains a central fact that the chief purveyors of political rhetoric refuse to admit.

The guiding assumption of political correctness is that the truth about people resides in what they say, not in what they do. As a consequence, media workers and activists expend vast resources ferreting out and micro-analyzing what people say, while actions are more typically papered over or ignored.

It’s an irony fraught with danger because harsh rhetoric on race and ethnicity has been a very broad current in U.S. history. At the same time, our national story is a saga about how different races and ethnic populations were able to meet on common ground and overcome their differences. How can both things be true?

The answer is a paradox: The harsh rhetoric, the insults and jibes were actually a means to overcoming the differences. If you look at history, that’s what you’ll see. But if you look at rhetoric alone, as the “political correct’ems” like to do, then you will reach the conclusion that an incurable racism dwells in our society and its leaders — beginning with Abe Lincoln, the great emancipator himself.

The weakness of the “political correct’ems” is that they are rich in rhetoric and ideology, while being undernourished in history and human understanding. They compensate for their weakness with hyperactivity and a verbal ferocity. These qualities take them impressively far. At the same time, they will sooner attack their opponents than give any ground; and in trying to destroy their enemies they have found that the epithet “racist” works wonders.

For people more interested in the truth than in scoring points, the current moment will seem far too early for saying that Donald Trump is the leader of a racist regime. As for those of you in search of a quick rhetorical triumph, you are well advised to proceed with care. When history turns, the epithet “racist” could become a boomerang and clip you from behind, while you are running away.

David Landau writes politics and history from the People’s Republic of San Francisco.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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