There’s always been an irony to the right’s obsessive contempt for “political correctness.”
Conservatives relish ridiculing the left for refusing to acknowledge uncomfortable or politically inconvenient truths. Often, these supposed truths are mere assertions of right-wing dogma, like the notion that gender is inextricable from biological sex. In other instances, progressives (like all humans) let ideology or emotion override reason — and conservatives land a punch against, say, anti-GMO hysteria. But while liberals aren’t above substituting comforting fictions for complicating realities, conservatives rely on such substitutions for the very foundations of their ideology. In its quest to rationalize the status quo distributions of wealth, power, and privilege, the right is compelled to elide basic facts about how such disparities are built and sustained.
This willful ignorance was at the heart of our president’s recent reflection on “shithole countries” and the people who live in them. In a meeting with a bipartisan group of senators Thursday, Donald Trump reportedly asked rhetorically why the United States takes in so many immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and “shithole” African countries, instead of bringing in more people from places like Norway.
The unvarnished racism of this sentiment outraged liberals. The (supposed) political correctness of that outrage amused some conservatives. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, the National Review’s Rich Lowry, and Congressman Steve King all delivered variations on the same point: If Haiti, El Salvador, and (various, unspecified) African nations aren’t “shitholes,” then why are progressives insisting that America has a moral duty to indefinitely extend the “temporary protected status” of migrants from those countries?
These rebuttals are mindless for obvious reasons. It is possible to communicate the fact that a nation is poor and troubled without likening said nation to an anus (and it is reasonable to expect the president of the United States to be able to execute that task); the essence of Trump’s argument was not that these countries were undesirable places to live, but that the fact of their undesirability reflects an inherent pathology in the people who hail from them.
Some small number of progressives on Twitter took the right’s bait, and began arguing that it was “problematic” to suggest there is a difference in the quality of life enjoyed by Nordic social democracies and that endured by the Third World. But the far more consequential — and pervasive — manifestations of political correctness in the debate over “shithole-gate” were those embedded in both the president’s statement, and conservatives’ defenses of it.
To pretend that there was no racial subtext to Trump’s remarks — and that the president was merely, clumsily making an argument for skills-based immigration policies — conservatives had to ignore the existence of all skilled professionals on the continent of Africa; the fact that the president recently (reportedly) suggested that most Haitians have AIDS while Nigerians live in “huts”; and the mogul’s decades-long history of transparently racist actions and statements.
More critically, for the president to implicitly attribute the troubles of these nations to the quality of their residents — and for conservative commentators to suggest that those troubles are a plausible argument against the U.S. allowing immigration from such “shitholes” — must deny the uncomfortable and politically inconvenient realities that produced those troubles in the first place. Which is to say: They must ignore the fact that Haiti’s poverty (or El Salvador’s, or much of Africa’s) has less to do with the moral failings of the ordinary Haitian (or Salvadoran or African),than those of the American elite. As the journalist Jonathan Katz, author of an acclaimed book on the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Haiti eight years ago today, deftly explains:
At the heart of Trumpian nativism is the conviction that the West’s great prosperity reflects the virtues of its people; the poverty of the nonwhite world reflects the moral vices of its people; and, thus, the former owes no debts to the latter. Allowing the residents of nations whose wealth our elites expropriated through imperial conquest — and/or predatory economic policies — is an act of selfless generosity, not of modest recompense.
The broader conservative movement uses analogous fictions to rationalize inequalities within America’s borders. Ben Shapiro, one of the right’s favorite tellers of hard truths, boils his indictment of PC culture down to the phrase, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”
Here are three of the “facts” that Shapiro ruthlessly shared with the students of Berkeley last year:
(1) “The idea that black people in the United States are disproportionately poor because America is racist; that’s just not true[.]”
(2) Racial disparities in the American criminal justice system are purely the product of disproportionate rates of black criminality, because, in the United States, “The basic rule is: If you don’t commit a crime, you’re not going to be arrested for it.”
(3) In a free country like the United States, “if you fail, it’s probably your own fault.”
These assertions require ignoring mountains of inconvenient truths: that millions of African-Americans were locked out of the postwar economic boom by unconstitutional government policies; racial discrimination remains pervasive in housing, education, and hiring; judges and juries regularly give black defendants longer sentences than white ones convicted of the same crime; African-Americans are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites even as the demographic groups use the substance at the same rate; since 1973, 144 death-row inmates in the U.S. (about one 1 in 25 of all convicts who received a death sentence) have been exonerated for their alleged crimes; and the United States has an unusually low level of social mobility for an advanced, capitalist economy.
But acknowledging the actual foundations of our world’s racial, national, and socioeconomic hierarchies would threaten the feelings of those who sit atop them. And so, to keep from being triggered, snowflakes like Trump, Shapiro, and their admirers must invent alternative facts.
Racism is, at bottom, right-wing political correctness run amok.