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Dirt, disease and the racist language of coronavirus

The nationalist response to the pandemic reveals the classic tropes of racism embedded in our language.

Last year, in the early hours of Saturday 28 July, President Donald Trump tweeted a string of insults at the late black Democrat congressman, Elijah Cummings. Ten days earlier, during a committee hearing, Cummings had criticised the unhygienic conditions at detention centres on the US-Mexico border. While Trump said nothing at the time, earlier that Saturday morning, Fox and Friends had included a clip of Cummings’ criticisms – and Trump, clearly watching, was incensed.

“Rep, Elijah Cummings has been a brutal bully, shouting and screaming [...] about conditions at the Southern Border when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE,” Trump wrote. “Cumming[’s] District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.”

As many noted, Trump’s use of the word “infested” to describe Cumming’s district – where the majority of citizens aren’t white – was revealing. Whenever he uses the term, the target is almost always people of colour. Earlier the same month, in an attack on Democratic congresswomen Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, the word was there again. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” he tweeted, claiming the congresswomen “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe”. (All except Omar were born in America.)

The association of dirtiness and disease with people deemed “other” is a classic trope of racism, and Trump’s tweets were rightly condemned on this basis. But this conflation is more common than we might think – as the current coronavirus pandemic makes clear.

First identified in Wuhan, China, and believed to be linked to the area’s wet animal markets – where wild animals are held captive together, stoking worries about hygiene for some time – the flu-like virus has gone global. Panic spread just as quickly, and implausibly portrayed the disease as something innately Chinese, as a foreign infestation or invasion, coinciding with a rise in racism against anyone perceived as Asian.

China’s culpability in this global crisis remains a matter of debate. The Chinese state could have reacted more strongly against the disease, rather than clamping down on citizens who raised the alarm. But what we do know is that a pandemic like this has been expected for some time, and that no virus has a nationality. Trump’s increasing insistence on calling it “Chinese flu” is clearly a strategy of deflection; it plays into nationalism’s neuroses – where the fear of infection, intimately linked to the fear of foreigners, is never far away.

Indeed, nationalist anxieties over coronavirus and Trump’s earlier attacks on Democrat members of Congress share a point of origin. From fears about infectious foreigners to fantasies of purity at home, defining who and what counts as “dirty” is a key element of how nationalisms define themselves. In our age of blurring borders and unstable identities, where neuroses around dirtiness and disease were already coming to the fore, the coronavirus crisis has created a perfect storm.

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In Purity and Danger, first published in 1966, the anthropologist Mary Douglas studied the different meanings of “dirt” in different cultures. Douglas found that while a concept of dirt was universal, the definition of what counted as “dirty” changed from place to place. “There is no such thing as absolute dirt,” she observed, “it exists in the eye of the beholder.” One person’s mess might be another’s raw material, or even something they fail to see entirely.

Douglas’s important insight was to see that – despite what we might intuitively assume – deeming what is “dirty” is about much more than cleanliness. Contrasting conceptions of “dirt” can’t be reduced to differing hygienic needs or concerns: the reasons why some people see eating pigs to be taboo, for example, while for others it’s cows, dogs or bats, lie elsewhere.

Defining dirt, Douglas argued, is about control. “Dirt is essentially disorder,” she wrote. “Dirt is matter out of place.” Setting these boundaries is a social and cultural act: a way of marking out a place, a culture, and an identity as one’s own, whether for a family, a home or a nation. “When we honestly reflect on our busy scrubbings and cleanings in this light we know that we are not mainly trying to avoid disease,” Douglas wrote. “We are separating, placing boundaries, making visible statements about the home that we are intending to create.”

Amid a widespread feeling that the world is in a spin – with the news offering little more than a pick-and-mix of apocalyptic ends – the desire to bring it into order in whatever way we can intensifies. Well before coronavirus colonised our imaginations, the fad for cleaning shows and personalities – from Mrs Hinch to Mari Kondo – spoke to similar anxieties: an experience of chaos that we want to bring under control. “When times are dark and your country is divided, it’s time to reach for the rubber gloves,” one commentator explained in The Guardian.

Douglas’s study of dirt focused on religious understandings, but as more politically minded scholars like Arjun Appadurai have since pointed out, drawing on her analysis, racist nationalist movements seem to conceive of minorities, immigrants and other ostensible intruders – leftists, members of the LGBTQ community – in a similar way.  Within the nation’s idealised – and racialised – image, they are “dirt” in Douglas’s sense: matter out of place. They must be kept out.

This is one of the reasons why the coronavirus crisis fits so neatly into nationalist narratives, even as nationalists themselves prove so ill-suited to addressing it. A pandemic fuels the nationalist’s fears of infection, and even grants them an air of legitimacy. Suddenly, completely closing borders becomes a reasonable political position. According to Nigel Farage, writing gleefully in The Daily Telegraph: “We are all nationalists now.”

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It's striking to note, in this context, how many of the enduring stereotypes and insults about foreigners revolve around hygiene: that they smell, are dirty and carry diseases. This trope is as old as any prejudice. The earliest anti-Semites believed that Jews, linked with the devil, smelled of sulphur. In 1854, the New York Daily Tribune expressed the popular sentiment that Chinese people were “uncivilized, unclean, filthy beyond all conception”. The French, according to English folklore, never wash. “‘Unclean’ French continue to flout basic personal hygiene rules,” reads a recent headline in The Daily Telegraph.

In December 2018, Fox News host Tucker Carlson sparked controversy – even more than the channel’s business model usually demands – by delivering a diatribe on the dangers of immigration over footage of trash heaps and litter. “The truth is that unregulated mass immigration has badly hurt this country’s natural landscape,” Carlson said. “Take a trip to our southwestern deserts if you don’t believe it. Huge swaths of the region are covered with garbage and waste that degrade the soil and kill wildlife.”

In Britain, perhaps the most insidious examples of this thinking – where ideas of home, hygiene and nation are pitted against a filthy “other” – can be found in Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech. To make his point about the perils of immigration, Powell relied on similar imagery to Carlson. He shared the story of an old, white widowed woman who lived out her life more or less happily – until, Powell warned, “the immigrants moved in”.

According to Powell, the woman “saw one house after another taken over”. Because this woman was against renting out her spare room to anyone non-white – a perfectly reasonable position, in Powell’s eyes – she becomes increasingly poor. One day, her “windows are broken” and “she finds excreta pushed through her letter box”. Powell does not specify who committed this vile act of vandalism, but the implied perpetrator is as obvious as the story’s symbolism: an innocent white woman’s home being overrun and sullied by dirty foreigners, standing in for the crisis confronting the nation at large.

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Not all outsiders are deemed dirty, however. In the West, white supremacists have long maintained that – whether you’re in America or Australia – people from Nordic countries will fit right in. They are cast as the national-equivalent of dream-guests: close friends who say the right things; have the same standards of cleanliness; and know the house-rules by instinct. They never cross the line.

This type of prejudice is even bolstered by pseudo-science. “There are racial considerations too grave to be brushed aside for any sentimental reasons,” America’s vice-president, Calvin Coolidge, explained in Good Housekeeping in 1921. “Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully.”

Coolidge went on to serve six years as US president, and today the president’s personal stance seems to be the same. In 2018, Trump echoed Coolidge’s call in even cruder terms: “Why do we want these people from all these shithole countries here?” Trump told staff in a meeting, according to the Washington Post, referring to people from countries in Africa and the Caribbean. (According to the New York Times, in another meeting, he also said Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS”.) “We should have more people from places like Norway,” Trump said.

If dirt is matter out of place, then it follows that dirt – and the diseases it brings – always come from someplace else. Coronavirus – described by people and in newspapers across the world as the “China virus,” “kung flu” and “Chinese flu” – is far from the first, nor will it be the last. In the late 15th century, when syphilis swept through Europe and beyond, the illness was known to Italians as the “French disease” and to French as the “Italian disease”. Russians called it the “Polish disease”; Turks, the “Christian diseas”. In other words, pick your enemy.

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Anxieties around hygiene and dirt are also where the far-right’s xenophobia and racism sometimes intersects with misogyny. Women, like foreigners, are deemed “other”, and become matter out of place whenever they don’t know their “rightful” place – the family home. Anywhere else, and especially in positions of power, they pose a sullying and subversive threat.

Trump often exhibits this paranoid misogyny. The possessive way he speaks of women masks a deep-rooted disgust, and fear, at a perceived female dirtiness. In 2015, during the presidential campaign, he brought up how Hilary Clinton had taken a bathroom break during a Democratic debate. “I know where she went,” Trump said. “It’s disgusting. I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting.”

But Trump seems compelled to talk about it: expressions of horror at women and bodily secretions have become relatively standard fare. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” Trump said of Megyn Kelly, a Fox News host who criticised him, the same year. In 2017, he attacked another TV host, suggesting that she once wanted to spend a weekend with him in Mar-a-Lago but “was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!”

In Male Fantasies, Klaus Theweleit’s seminal study of the fascistic mindset in interwar Germany, published in 1978, the German scholar examined how genders were portrayed by the far-right. Theweleit immersed himself in the reading and writing material of the Freikorps, a precursor to the Nazis, and discerned a pervasive paradox: women stood, simultaneously, as objects of desire and disgust; fantasy and filth; purity and danger.

Liquidity – and especially bloodiness – was a recurring theme in their representations of women. While male bodies were celebrated as hard, firm and clean, women were often portrayed as “soft … and liquid”, thus representing a stark threat to the fixed boundaries they sought – of both body and nation alike. “The hybrid and the fluid fell under the heading of dirt, punishment, women’s work, or, worse still, unmanliness,” Theweleit observed.

Liquid, like the outsider, breaches boundaries. The abundance of liquid metaphors used to stoke fear around immigration – immigrants “flood,” “pour” and “flow,” in “waves” and “tides” – confirms Theweleit’s observations. Both liquid and dirt are seen to carry the threat of intrusion, disobeying borders. “The boat France is sinking,” Marine Le Pen declared last year during a debate on immigration. “Large-bodied predators are swimming here in the waters,” Viktor Orban warned in 2017, referring to George Soros.

During Britain’s 2016 referendum, the same imagery was drawn upon. In one pro-Brexit cartoon, shared by Leave.EU, a wooden ship flies an EU flag and is rocked by tempestuous waters, marked “waves of immigration”. A shark of “political correctness” swims at its base. On board, caricatured Muslims are running amok and a designated “globalist” fires a cannon labelled “diversity” through the bottom deck. Water is gushing in. In the distance, a smaller boat – waving supersized British and Brexit flags – is rowing into the sunset, home and dry, drifting upon a calmer sea.

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Perhaps it is best not to read too much into Trump himself being a self-described “germaphobe” (“I like it. I like cleanliness. Cleanliness is a nice thing. Not only hands, body, everything,” Trump told Howard Stern in 1993); or to note how, in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s exclusion of Muslims and caste prejudice sits alongside a flagship campaign to clean India’s streets. According to the UN Special Rapporteur, the cleaning campaign is stoking a rise in “aggressive and abusive practices” against those deemed “dirty.”

Yet the domestic metaphors which nationalists often reach for suggests a deeper pathology at play. In a 2017 speech, Bjorne Höcke, one of the leaders of Germany’s far-right party, Alternative fur Deutschland, warned how “old forces … are liquidating our beloved German fatherland, like a piece of soap under warm running water”.

During the 2019 European elections, a television debate in France asked candidates to bring in an object symbolising Europe. It played out like a parable. The conservative candidate brought along a copy of Homer’s Odyssey. The leftist provided a piece of the Berlin wall. But Jordan Bardella, the new face of France’s far-right and protégé of Marine Le Pen, clasped within his hands a red kitchen sieve. “I didn’t have to think for very long,” Bardella later explained. “The sieve was perfect. Just like that sieve, the EU lets a lot through: weapons, migrants and terrorists. Products that endanger our health. The EU isn’t protecting us.”