Monday, March 14, 2016

Outhouse Politics

This essay contains language and images which may not be suitable for all readers. Consider this your first and only trigger warning.
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Sometime back, I referred to Donald Trump as an expression of the worst aspects of America’s collective id. The description wasn’t entirely unique to me; after saying it, I learned pundit Sam Seder had recently said something similar. Me, I pinched the description broadly from British journalist Mick Hume's description of coarse behavior at Premier League football matches. But the point remains valid, whoever coined the idea.

That point returned, vibrantly, when I recently visited the outhouse at work. My city’s public high school, still only half-built, doesn’t yet have running water, and even if it did, we construction workers aren’t permitted to pee in the clients’ porcelain. We still use plastic porta-johns located strategically around the site. While voiding our bladders, we have the opportunity to glimpse the inner workings of our co-workers’ minds. The view isn’t always pretty.

Humans moving their bowels put ourselves into a strange position. Sitting down, britches around our ankles, we’re beholden to the most fundamental animal demands our flesh places upon us. We’re completing the final, unsavory arc of transforming undifferentiated nutrition into human productivity. We produce art, finance, cities, farms, and copious amounts of shit. But even while defecating, the human mind remains a place of constant, if disgusting, productivity.

>Reduced helplessly to Freud’s “anal stage” of psychosexual development, human minds run in various directions. Sometimes this manifests as the simple desire to do something orderly in an innately disordered, messy environment, like playing tic-tac-toe on the walls. Other times, this results in empty displays of power. For many subcontractors, even bowel movements—the first control most people learn—are strictly timed. So they assert whatever control they can.

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This results in graffiti. Surely nobody’s surprised by this. We’ve all seen toilet stalls defaced with slogans, doggerel (“Here I sit, broken-hearted”), and undying affections of “Jimmy + Kathleen 4EVA” above the toilet. Construction workers assert their existence using the tools most readily available, generally a Sharpie or a utility knife. They cuss, strut, declare themselves, and otherwise demand respect, while shitting without washing their hands.

Non-English graffiti tend to be the most simple. This may mean completely non-verbal symbols: swastikas and Confederate flags are dishearteningly common. Considering that the least verbal presidential candidate, a man who has publicly proclaimed “I know many big words,” has received the endorsement of white supremacist organizations, the correlation between bowel movements and racist symbols rings familiar. They’re both expressions of powerlessness, or anyway the feeling of powerlessness.

I’m less able to explain the crude illustrations of genitals. Nearly every outhouse includes at least one drawing of a scrotum and erect phallus, usually at a seated man’s eye level. One features the phallus with a smiley face and skinny legs, making it resemble a strutting ostrich, testicles standing in for fluffy plumage. Maybe the artists are compensating for their emasculating jobs by tagging everything with their dicks.

As I've written before, construction is undoubtedly the most segregated job I’ve ever held. The various subcontractors—brickmasons, electricians, roofers, concrete finishers—have very little interaction. They mostly only speak with us, the general contractor, and even then only when they need something done. This segregation has frustrating racial overlap: we have Black, Hispanic, and white subs, and almost no overlap. Races don’t speak, share, or cooperate here.

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So we have bilingual graffiti. Spanish graffiti runs very simple: the longest Spanish graffiti I’ve read says “Chinga tu puta madre.” Fuck your whore mother. That’s about as sophisticated as their graffiti gets. Sometimes there’s overlap. In one outhouse, somebody wrote: “El Chapo is watchin” [sic]. Below that, in bold block handwriting: “I hope he fucks ISIS up, that coward Obama isn’t doing shit.”

Then there’s plain English. Most isn’t overtly political (beyond the swastikas). But the mix of schoolyard name-calling (“faggot!”) and religious exhortations (“Jesus saves”) bespeaks a singular motive, to exert power over others. Whether by tearing others down or making converts, both messages convey the same point: I actually have the power my job superficially denies. I’ll use it over you. And I’ll exert it here, the one place I can.

Donald Trump talks like outhouse graffiti; there’s no other way to express it. His blunt sentences, short vocabulary, repeated slogans, and flippant vulgarity sound exactly like the language on plastic porta-john walls. Though he hasn’t done anything as blatant as draw swastikas on his venues, he hasn’t needed to. His appeal reaches two-year-olds sitting on the pot—and grown men grasping the one daily moment they have to themselves.

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