“Shithole” Manners

I really would rather not write all the time about President Trump and his latest escapades.  I honestly would rather write about just about anything else.  But sometimes, President Trump is alleged to have said something that simply can’t be ignored.

donald-trump-gty-jt-180107_16x9_992So it is with the allegation that, during a meeting with congressional leaders about American immigration policy issues, Trump referred to Haiti and some countries in Africa as “shitholes” and said American policy should try to restrict immigration from those places.  Trump later issued tweets that seem to deny the use of that vulgar term, as well as disputing the notion that his remarks were racially motivated, although he admitted to using “tough” language during the meeting.  On the other hand, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who attended the meeting, confirms the report that Trump used the word “shithole” to describe the countries.

Could it really be that the President of the United States used the term “shithole” to describe another sovereign nation, however strife-torn or impoverished or economically or socially challenged it might be?  Could it really be that the President of the United States, who as the head of the executive branch of the government is the titular head of the American diplomatic corps, used such crass, inflammatory, undiplomatic language in an official meeting?  Could it really be that the President of the United States is so profoundly ill-mannered and graceless and brutal?  Could it really be that the President of the United States wouldn’t recognize that people would interpret such remarks as racially motivated and that world leaders would react with shock and horror to such statements?  It’s mind-boggling . . . but in the era of the Trump presidency the mind-boggling has become commonplace.

But let’s give our elected President the benefit of the doubt and accept his denial that he used that coarse term, and assume that Senator Durbin and any other sources for the news reports simply misheard whatever “tough language” the President actually used.  What’s equally bad, from my perspective, is that some Trump supporters have actually tried to defend the early reports of Trump’s alleged “shithole” remarks by arguing that the term accurately describes the countries.  Such arguments, which speak so dismissively and callously about countries where human beings live, and work, and struggle, solely in order to advance a political point, show an appalling lack of basic human kindness and decency and simple good manners.  Calling someone else’s country a “shithole” is almost sadistic in its cruelty.

It’s another deeply troubling sign of just how low and horrible our political discourse and culture have become.  Where is our humanity, and basic decency?

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The Alarm About Ebola

Africa seems very far away to most Americans.  In contrast to, say, Europe, we don’t know most of the names of the countries, we don’t learn much about the geography of the African continent, and we tend to hear about it only when a particularly bloodthirsty dictator or terrorist organization has committed another outrage.  The recent outbreak of Ebola Zaire in west Africa, though, is a story that should command the attention of Americans and everyone else in the world.

Ebola, which is transmitted by contact with bodily fluids, is one of the most deadly diseases in the world.  It’s a virus that wreaks havoc with human blood systems and immune responses, and in this most recent outbreak it has infected more than 2,000 people and has killed more than half of them.  In fact, in past outbreaks Ebola has been so deadly that it has restricted itself:  people who were infected became symptomatic and died before they had a chance to infect other people.  This time, though, the progress of the disease seems to be slower, somehow, and infected people have more of an opportunity to infect others.  For this reason, no one is quite sure how many people have been infected with Ebola in this latest outbreak — or, more importantly, exactly where they are.  That’s one of the things that should concern everyone.

There are other points of concern, too.  The deadliness of the disease has caused a breakdown of the health care systems in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, where this current outbreak is centered.  Due to fear of Ebola, many health care workers have fled their hospitals — which not only leaves Ebola untreated, but also opens the door to the spread of other diseases like malaria that are found in the region.  Even Doctors Without Borders is having trouble finding people to treat Ebola patients.

In addition, this latest Ebola outbreak has occurred in a place where Ebola has never been seen before.  The virus somehow traveled hundreds of miles, from central Africa to west Africa, without any human outbreaks along the way; researchers think it might have been carried by swarms of bats.  Now it is found in much more densely populated areas and — here is a key point — areas that have airports that can carry passengers to huge international airports where they can connect to flights that might carry them just about anywhere in the world.  Combine that fact with the more slow-moving nature of this strain of Ebola, and you can see how this disease could spread, uncontrolled, to a much larger geographic area. 

And here’s the last concerning thing:  this deadly disease outbreak is raging on a continent that has been home to chaos, tribal genocide, rampaging terrorist groups, and other forms of social disorder in recent times.  In Monrovia, Liberia, “looters” recently attacked a temporary holding center for Ebola patients, ransacked it, and ran off with blood-soaked sheets and mattresses.  That troubling incident raises the question of whether they weren’t “looters” at all, but rather members of a terrorist group — such as Boko Haram — who are trying to acquire a means to spread the disease as part of their savage campaign to establish control over territory and kill anyone who doesn’t adopt their religious and political views.  That is truly a frightening scenario.

So this story manages to combine an incredibly deadly disease, a mass outbreak, swarms of virus-carrying bats, health system breakdowns, and potential terrorist concerns in one appalling package.  Yes, I’d say this is a time when we all should be paying attention to news from Africa.

The Embassy Closures

The United States closed 21 of its embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa on Sunday, and most of those facilities will remain closed this week.

As usual, our government seems incapable of speaking with one voice on exactly why it has taken such a step.  The State Department says the closures are “out of an abundance of caution” and not in response to a new threat, whereas talking heads on the Sunday shows said the closures were in response to the most serious threat identified by intelligence-gathering efforts in several years.  There also has been an apparent intelligence leak disclosing that the United States reportedly intercepted an exchange of messages between al Qaeda leaders about a plot against an embassy.

Although I wish our government could get its act together on messaging, I don’t see a viable alternative to closing the embassies.  If we have received credible intelligence information that our embassies and consulates in the Muslim world are targets of an impending attack, there are few options.  Physical security arrangements can’t be enhanced overnight; far better to get our people out of harm’s way until better information about the threat is developed.  Although some people may criticize that course as showing weakness, it seems like the only prudent option.  We don’t need another Benghazi-like situation.

The deeper issue here is what this apparent threat means about al Qaeda itself.  With the killing of Osama bin Laden and the publicized deaths of countless “high-ranking al Qaeda leaders” over the years, we’ve been led to believe that al Qaeda has been severely diminished.  If al Qaeda is capable of attacking an American embassy, that fact suggests a resurgent organization — or one about whom the reports of decline have been greatly exaggerated.  If the former is true, how much of the resurgence is due to the bad feelings generated by the continuing American presence in the Middle East and our aggressive use of drones?

The recognition of substantial al Qaeda capabilities that is implicit in the decision to close the embassies is sobering, to say the least.

To Our Reader(s) In Burkina Faso

If you’re thinking of starting a blog, I recommend WordPress.  It’s inexpensive, it’s easy to use — even for a non-computer type like me — and it gives you interesting information about your blog and its readers.

Recently, for example, WordPress started providing statistics on the locations of our readers.  Today I learned that we had a hit from Burkina Faso.  How cool is that?  The fact that someone from a faraway country read something on our humble family blog — although I don’t know what — shows how the internet and social media are changing the world, bringing people closer together, and allowing them to communicate in new and useful ways.

Intrigued, I decided to do some reading on Burkina Faso.  It is a landlocked west African nation that borders on Ghana, Mali, and the Ivory Coast.  A former French colony, it achieved independence in 1960 and has been governed for more than 20 years by a president who came to power in a military coup and has won every election since.  Its capital is Ouagadougou (pronounced woggadoogoo).  French remains the official language.  The majority of the people in the country are Muslim.  It is a poor country, with an economy based on cotton and gold exports.  Its national anthem was written by a former president, who also happened to be an avid guitar player.

Welcome to our reader in Burkina Faso — and thanks for your interest.  It’s given me a reason to learn a little bit about your country.

Big Yellow Diamond

The BBC has a story about an exceptionally large, and therefore exceptionally rare, yellow diamond.  The tear drop-cut stone weighs more than 110 carats and is called the Sun Drop.  The BBC story explains that its yellow color is caused by traces of nitrogen in the carbon for the stone.  (Other colored stones are caused by the presence of other substances — boron creates a blue stone, for example, and radiation creates a green cast to a diamond.)

Why do some people lust for gems?  A diamond is a glittering object — but so is a well-cut piece of crystal.  How many people have the skill and knowledge to distinguish an actual diamond from cubic zirconium, or some other skillful knock-off?  Why is wearing a big diamond, or some other gemstone, so important to some people?  And how inflated are the prices charged by the jewelry store at the mall for their rings and pendants with diamond chips?  How much is the mark-up on the rings featured in those sappy romantic TV ads?

Diamond mining is an industry with lots of issues.  In some African diamond mines, child labor is common, working conditions are poor, and workers are terribly exploited.  Mining can ruin otherwise arable land, cause serious erosion problems, and contaminate drinking water with heavy metals and chemicals in the run-off from mining operations.  The physical dangers of diamond mining include collapsing walls, flooding, and explosions — to say nothing of potential visits from rival factions in war-torn African regions, looking to use diamonds to fund their purchase of weapons and other rebellious activities.

The Sun Drop is a pretty thing — but are diamonds really worth it?

We Are All Africans (With Some Neanderthal Thrown In)

The BBC website has a fascinating article on a scientific study of human ancestry that strongly supports the notion that all humans come from Africa — and that at some point in the past there was some interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.  The evidence of interbreeding is found in many of us, because humans of Eurasian stock carry a small percentage of Neanderthal genes.

A Neanderthal skull

The conclusions are the result of a four-year study, in which numerous universities from around the world participated, that sought to sequence Neanderthal genomes.  The project suggests that a hardy band of humans left Africa between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago, did some limited interbreeding with Neanderthals, and then spread across the globe, eventually reaching and populating every continent.  The fact of interbreeding should not be surprising, because the fossil record indicates that humans and Neanderthals lived together in Europe for some 10,000 years, before Neanderthals died out.

Out Of Africa, Much Earlier Than Expected

This article reports on recent archaeological findings that raise interesting questions about accepted theories of human evolution and, in particular, about when human ancestors first moved out of Africa. Paleontologists have discovery ancient human remains — dating back some 1.8 million years — in modern Georgia, near the Caucuses. The remains are significantly smaller in physical size, and brain size, than previously identified Homo Erectus remains, and are by far the oldest proto-human remains found out of Africa.

Previously, the prevailing view was that human ancestors first journeyed out of Africa 1 million years ago and began to colonize the world. This discovery suggests that the human diaspora began much earlier — and may even indicate that there are significant issues about where certain human species actually originated.  The story of human evolution is a fascinating one, and much remains to be discovered and written.