Over the past year, as our political culture has grown more coarse and corrupt, I’ve felt different things: sometimes, anger; often, bitter resignation; and occasionally, a bemused sense of pure absurdity. But the past two nights I have actually wept. Why now? Why in response to these particular prompts? A confused and ailing woman in a thin medical gown was tossed to the roadside in freezing weather by security guards from the University of Maryland Medical Center Midtown Campus in Baltimore. Who orders such a thing, and why would anyone carry out that order? Then, the president of the United States calls Haiti, El Salvador and African nations “shithole” countries. Who says that kind of thing? Who thinks it? Who listens to it without reflexive outrage?
According to a few of the president’s defenders, this is what we all really think. “This is how the forgotten men and women of America talk at the bar,” said a Fox News host, imputing to ordinary Americans sentiments they wouldn’t suffer to be said at their own dinner tables. There was the usual talk about “tough” language, as if using racist language was merely candor or an admirable impatience with euphemism.
His defenders seemed to say that if the president says things that we would be ashamed even to think, he is somehow speaking a kind of truth. But while there may be countries that are poor and suffer from civil discord, there are no “shithole” countries, not one, anywhere on Earth. The very idea of “shithole” countries is designed to short-circuit our capacity for empathy on a global scale.
These two incidents, in Baltimore and in the Oval Office, seem related — inhumane indifference from a hospital and blatant bigotry from the president — which is even more troubling. They are about who is on what side of the door, or the wall, or any other barrier that defines the primal “us and them” that governs so much of the worst of our human-made world. When Trump called disfavored countries “shitholes,” he was indulging the most lethal and persistent tribalism of all: pure, unabashed racism. After a candidacy and now a presidency marked by implications of racism, the president has grown more comfortable with speaking in overtly racist terms, condemning whole countries and their people for not being more like “Norway,” one of the whitest countries on Earth.
Remarks like these from the president are still shocking but hardly surprising, given the frequency with which they occur. What I want to know is how the men in the room with him reacted. This is the dinner table test: When you are sitting and socializing with a bigot, what do you do when he reveals his bigotry? I’ve seen it happen, once, when I was a young man, and I learned an invaluable lesson. An older guest at a formal dinner said something blatantly anti-Semitic. I was shocked and laughed nervously. Another friend stared at his plate silently. Another excused himself and fled to the bathroom. And then there was the professor, an accomplished and erudite man, who paused for a moment, then slammed his fist on the table and said, “I will never listen to that kind of language, so either you will leave, or I will leave.” The offender looked around the table, found no allies and left the gathering. I don’t know if he felt any shame upon expulsion.
Did Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) threaten to leave the Oval Office? Did Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) speak sharply to the president, saying no one should speak like that, not in the White House, not in the United States, not in decent society? (He did, at least the next morning when speaking to the media.) Did anyone suggest that perhaps the president should wash his mouth out with soap and take a time out to think about what he just did?
I suspect none of that happened and that no matter how awkward everyone felt, the usual deference to the president remained intact.
And just so, when someone at the University of Maryland Medical Center ordered the security guards to dump a frail and confused patient out in the cold, they didn’t say no. They didn’t say: We cannot do that, because it is wrong. It took a passerby with a camera, Imamu Baraka, to see the wrongness of the act in its fullness, and confront not just the guards but the nation’s conscience.
I weep, not because I doubt the goodness of most of the people among whom I live in this country. There must be more Imamu Barakas than Donald Trumps in this land. Rather, I weep because the training in moral and civic corruption has already begun, it will inevitably continue, and it is gathering speed. The attack is aimed at the very thing we think should preserve us, our instincts to be kind, to welcome, protect and provide.
The use of terms like “shithole” imputes personal and moral failure to people who by mere chance live in troubled countries. It extinguishes their humanity and with it, any concern we might have for their well-being.
The deference shown by hospital security guards to their employers is of a different order than that shown by members of Congress to a racist president. The hospital’s president, Mohan Suntha, has promised a full investigation and said, “We firmly believe what occurred Tuesday night does not reflect who we are.” Of course, what occurred defines who they are, though they may think they are better than that. “We are trying to understand the points of failure that led to what we witnessed on that video.”
This is bureaucratic cant and drivel. Worse, it frames the problem in the wrong way. We already know we have a medical system that incentivizes dumping poor patients, excluding the uninsured and pushing intractable cases out the door. What matters more is the moral climate of the institution. Who made it possible, necessary and apparently easy for those security guards to “just do our jobs”? Who made complicity in cruelty part of the daily function of the place?
And now, we must ask a few simple questions of the men who sat in the room with a president denigrating predominantly black and brown countries as “shitholes”: What did you say back to the man? And why didn’t you leave? Their answers are fundamental to what we need to know about their character and fitness for office.