Translating Trump’s metaphor

In response to a FB post in which I expressed genuine sadness upon hearing the President’s “alleged’ comments about some nations being dung receptacles, some of my colleagues, acquaintances, and friends have asked me to take the President’s comments seriously, not in terms of the offensive language, but as powerful referential communication. Let’s translate Trump’s language. Perhaps the President was simply saying that there are countries that are less desirable to live in than others. We could sharpen that further by identifying particular locations inside the borders of many countries including the USA that are less desirable to live in.

In translation practice, we often consider how to translate a harsh or difficult metaphor. Do we translate Paul’s claim that he considers his human accomplishments to be σκύβαλον “dung” in Philippians 3:8 literally? Or do we describe the metaphor less viscerally? What if we take the actual metaphor Trump used seriously and explore its deeper ramifications? Even if he did not say it, perhaps the metaphor itself is evocative of something much larger than partisan politics. What if there is something in the metaphor about locations in particular countries and defecation that is connected to the conceptual metaphor of consumption in our bipartisan world economic system? Perhaps that is why I (and other friends many of whom have also done Bible translation work or missionary work in remote locations) responded so viscerally to it? Some in horror. Some in defense.

I am taking up the challenge to take the US president’s metaphor seriously as part of a larger metaphor of the world market as human consumption. The specific metaphor Trump used is the “back-end” of consumption processes. 😉 The largest consumer in the world economy has historically been the USA with China more recently revving up its own consumption engines. What does a consumer economy need but cheap raw materials from any point on the globe so it can produce high quality cheap products and ship them to the consumption centers who consume the products in high quantities at the lowest costs possible? However, that is not all. A necessary part of consumption includes defecation. Which places on earth receive the “waste” of the world consumer economy?

I am not only talking about locations where trash is disposed and incinerated, even though is a serious ecological and health issue right here in the USA. I am also concerned about the lands and the people used in the processes of cheap consumption in many parts of the globe. According to the book Blood and Earth by Kevin Bales, at the locations where natural resources are extracted the most cheaply, there is a high correlation with practices of human slavery and ecological practices that wreak havoc on the environment. Bales is talking about the present time. Not the past. I was moved by Bales’ book to learn that slavery and ecocide were taking place in Ghana, in a country where I lived, through illegal mining. I am quite certain that some people from the villages near where my family lived in Ghana were victims. Some of the young people I took communion with were likely victims of debt slavery in illegal mining. But mining in Ghana was only one example of what is going on in a lot of locations and in a lot of economic sectors. There were many other examples and locations discussed in the book.

Bales explores the connection between the mass demand for certain consumer products and “sacrifice zones” in the global world, where slave labor is combined with treating the earth in a way that can legitimately be described as “trashing it” or the link could be made to the metaphor of “defecation.” These sacrifice zones are hidden through layers of trade, but at the bottom is a wanton disregard for human life and an abysmal treatment of the good earth’s environment, all for the purpose of providing a continuous supply of low cost, high quality consumer goods sold around the world by large companies, some of which consumers know and others which are hidden through layers of corporate spin-offs.

However, contrary to some of the argumentation I have been hearing in the last few days, I highly doubt that the human victims at the bottom rung of society are the ones who are applying for visas to the United States.

Bales reveals that there is blame at the local, national, and international levels. The answers that Bales offers include stronger international regulations and much greater concern by multinational corporations and consumers to be concerned about the ethics used in their supply chains. According to my understanding, the Dodd-Frank act was one piece of legislation that at least was moving in the right direction, even though it lacked a lot of bite.

The practices of the consumer economy are a bi-partisan issue.  If you want to get elected in the US, remember, it’s the economy stupid. And the economy depends on consumption. The current President is very big on deregulation.  What does greater deregulation mean for places and people that are considered receptacles for the consumer economy? What does it mean for locations near dirty industrial practices? What does it mean for peoples and places in locations with weak government oversight that have natural resources hidden in land they have lived on for generations?

The metaphor is harsh. And I appreciate the encouragement to consider how one might translate it. But rather than domesticate the metaphor, I prefer to connect it to its larger conceptual metaphor related to the consumer economy. Hopefully, as we take it seriously, we may begin looking in the mirror in order to become self-critical. Should the world economy be the sacred cow it is? Is the unseen hand of the economy really neutral? It seems to assume the necessity of some places which must be the receptacles of our collective consumer defecation.

How do our neighbors in those locations feel about living in what the world economy deems as a necessary waste receptacle? Is it just too bad for them? Remember, some of those places may be in our own cities, not only all the way across the globe. Does it have to be this way? What are some practical steps to take in our own backyards? Here is one example from a community project in Baltimore, MD.

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