This past weekend I read all of Sean Penn’s remarks regarding Wyclef Jean’s candidacy for President of Haiti and watched his interview with Wolf Blitzer more than once. By Sunday afternoon I found myself feeling sick to my stomach. I had to write something if only just to purge. It’s just so, so, so nauseating. I mean, how many more well-intentioned but ultimately over-privileged American actors turned humanitarians turned know-it-all political activists are we going to have to suffer? It’s one thing to go on Bill Maher and spar for an hour every so often. It’s entertaining and it’s always nice to see Hollywood types hold their own in political conversations. It’s also one thing to criticize your own country’s leadership. I applauded Penn’s spirited outrage in the early stages of the War on Terror. His anger echoed the sentiments of a lot of Americans, including me. I thought his meet and greet with President Chavez was ballsy. I thought his work in New Orleans was admirable. I thought his voyage to Haiti was noble. But to use the platform he’s developed through his humanitarian work to question Wyclef’s political motivations on national television when he has never even met this person crosses a line. What I really want to know is why he’s so passionately opposed to Jean’s presidency at this stage of the game. It’s not as if he’s leading in the polls or on the verge of winning. All Jean did was announce his candidacy and here’s Sean Penn throwing the man under every bus on the road. If anything is suspicious, I’d say it’s Penn’s premature venom.
I have a theory about Sean Penn. But, of course, you’re not obliged to read it. If not, just skip the next paragraph.
My theory about Penn is that playing hero roles in movies wasn’t enough anymore. Cognitive dissonance set in. The fame and adulation he received for essentially “playing” roles started to wear on him. He looked around at the world he was living in and the people he was surrounded by and he started to feel like a fraud. And the only way to reconcile his feelings of being a fake was by throwing himself into real situations that allow him to validate or feel worthy of the adulation. It’s a cleansing, if you will. For Penn, who has played a politician in his last two major motion pictures (Harvey Milk in Milk and Willie Stark in All the Kings Men) riding a boat around hurricane torn Katrina or running a tent community in earthquake ravaged Haiti could very well be a kind of purification process that washes away the line between his fictional and real selves. Or, alternatively, it could be the only thing that can give him the feeling of being alive anymore. I’m no psychologist so I’ll leave it at that. In any event, I decided not to spill any more virtual ink over Sean Penn. He’s irrelevant.
I’ll be the first to admit it, Haiti wasn’t really on my radar this summer. I gave money early on but then, like most people, I moved on. But for the past week now, I’ve been mildly obsessed with Wyclef’s decision to run for office. In fact I’ve barraged everyone I know with the same question: what do you think. I genuinely wanted to know because I didn’t and I figured the only way I could draw my own conclusions was through dialogue with people. After a week of informal interviews, the responses folks gave me can be broken down into four categories.
Everyone agreed that his celebrity could shine a light on Haiti that other candidates can’t. At a time when most of us — and admit that you are who I’m talking about — are over Haiti, Wyclef as president would draw and maintain an unprecedented level of international interest and support on the island. This interest could also serve as an informal watchdog network that keeps a critical eye on Haiti’s progress (or lack thereof) under Jean’s leadership.
Folks I spoke to had some questions about his plan to address the issues facing Haiti. This is a fair and legitimate critique. Wyclef has issued statements detailing his plans for the country and they seem to be on the mark: job creation, education, an end to political corruption, and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. These are all people centered, bottom up initiatives. That’s a good starting point. But in all honesty foreign investment is going to be the linchpin of the country’s recovery in the early stages. How that investment takes place as well as how the proceeds are managed/distributed is going to determine how the job creation, education initiatives unfold. Putting people and systems in place to ensure accountability is going to be of paramount importance.
One concern I have is that Jean may be so idealistic and so energized that he bites off more than he can chew. He’s going to have to manage the expectations of his constituents. They are going to expect miracles from him. He is not going to be able to deliver miracles. In particular, the youth that are supporting him are going to expect reciprocity from him if he is elected. They will expect jobs and better lives. He may not be able to deliver right away. What then?
I remember traveling through South Africa shortly after Mandela’s term ended. I expected to hear everyone applauding his work. In the shanty towns especially, that’s not at all what I encountered. I met people who were frustrated with Mandela, who’d lost respect for and faith in him. Up to now Jean has been loved by the people of Haiti. How will he handle being criticized by the very same people?
By and large most of the people I spoke to repeated the now popular refrain: What are his qualifications to run a country? From what I gathered, people aren’t asking this rhetorically. They want to know. There are a couple of ways to approach this question:
While writing this piece I came across an open letter to Wyclef on the Root.com. In it the author explained why she thought Jean shouldn’t run:
Haiti needs a highly educated and experienced technocrat who understands the intricacies of governing and diplomacy. Someone who can wage a successful civic-education campaign and get different sectors of civil society all working on the same page and tamp down the country’s cyclical social unrest. Someone who knows how to get things done and knows how to build schools, hospitals and neighborhoods, as well as sewer systems, electric grids and roads. Someone who can feed the people and give them jobs. Someone schooled in international affairs and who will be respected by the international community. Someone who can rebuild Haiti and ultimately restore its dignity.
I have a couple of questions about this wish list for Haiti’s next president. First, who on earth fits all of these categories. Second, if that person exists why would that person choose to become president of an ostensibly 4th world country? Third, why would we expect any single person to have all of these qualifications when most presidents — whether it’s of corporations or countries — surround themselves with people who are smarter than them in specific areas. More often than not, presidents are, to borrow a phrase from Malcolm Gladwell, smart enough. Not geniuses. Not experts. Not technocrats. Smart enough to know what they know and what they don’t know. Come to think of it, presidents can’t afford to be technocrats! They have to be big picture people who can connect dots and communicate a vision. They have to be charismatic enough to capture the imagination of the people they’re leading and to hold the interest of the people they’re courting.
In his tirade against Wyclef Jean, Sean Penn noted the missing $400,000 that Jean’s Yele Haiti organization hasn’t accounted for as evidence of Wyclef’s fiscal ineptitude and moral turpitude. It’s hard to argue with this, however, the organization is still afloat. In other words, if the IRS or any other entity is so concerned about the health and well being of the organization why has it not been stripped of its 501c3 status and shut down? I can only go on the facts and right now the fact is the organization is still up and running.
A point I found myself raising throughout the week (and I know some people are going to be mad that I even dared make the comparison) is did anyone ask the “experience” question when Nelson Mandela ran for president of South Africa? Was his leadership experience ever the main issue on people’s minds? Mandela never held political office and was in prison for 27 years and yet everyone on the face of the planet supported his candidacy.
Mandela’s presidency actually raises an interesting point that I think is relevant here as well. The end of Apartheid represented an extraordinary circumstance. In this light, Mandela’s election was largely symbolic. He was the face and voice of resistance and change. He was the inspirational icon the people needed to do the transformational work ahead of them. A similar case can be made here. Haiti is in the midst of an extraordinary circumstance. Whether you agree with his politics or not, Wyclef an inspirational figure and inspirational leaders are crucial to the national identity and rebuilding process of any collapsed country. Lest we forget, politics ain’t all politics. They are performance, too. We’d like to think people elect the best candidates for the job, but we know better. People elect who they feel better about, who they find more attractive, who they connect with and who says they’re going to do more for them. The best person for the job often fails to meet these criteria.
Allegations of his support for the ousting of former President Jean-Bertrande Aristede and his allegedly cozy relationship with Bill Clinton aside, the criticism of Wyclef’s wherewithal to run a country has been a little troubling. The overriding sentiment of those criticisms (I wouldn’t even call them critiques) is that Jean lacks the technical expertise to run a country, that he is fame and hype and the country needs substance. I take issue with that criticism because it belies a deeper judgment, namely that fame is frivolous and the famous are intellectual lightweights. It’s as if we’re comfortable saying pop stars and icons are really just lucky and talented but they definitely aren’t smart, committed or serious. This is a very American interpretation of the role of the artist. We don’t like our art and politics to mix. We certainly don’t like our “rappers” to step outside the roles we’ve assigned them. But in other parts of the world, artists (and art in general) play a different role in society. They are political figures simply because art and politics are entwined. There’s an expectation that artists will be involved in politics and the tradition of political engagement that precedes them. (To this very point, one of Wyclef’s main rivals in the election will be another musician named Sweet Micky.) Fact is, Wyclef has elected to step into history and into that tradition. I applaud that.
Sean Penn and others have also made it abundantly clear that Wyclef hasn’t spent enough time on the ground. What they’re saying in essence is that he’s not native enough, which is tantamount to Obama’s critics claiming he wasn’t black enough, which we all know is bullshit. It’s bullshit because that argument slides into a game of who’s more authentic than who, which in turn lends itself to dangerously reductive assumptions about one’s trustworthiness or lack thereof based on matters that have no political bearing or merit.
The leadership question boils down to this: from the very beginning of his career Wyclef has been doubted and dissed. And yet he continues to thrive. Am I big fan? No. Do I support his music? Not really. But I respect his hustle. Anyone who can stick in the entertainment business as long as he has and remain culturally relevant and financially bankable must have some brains. Who am I to place limitations on him? Who am I to say what he can and cannot evolve into? Who would have thought a kid born in Haiti would have made it this far?
To me, the better question isn’t so much experience as it is potential. Does he have leadership potential? Can he grow into the position? Can he learn how to be a better leader? Does he have enough of the tools to develop into a world leader? Does he want to? Those are the questions I will be looking to answer for myself over the next few months.
This falls along the lines of Sean Penn’s “suspicions”. Most of the people I spoke to didn’t question Wyclef’s motivations. They wondered about them. Is running for president about his ego? Is it about seizing power? This is what we know about him. He’s always proudly represented his birth country. He’s always given back to his country. He’s always attempted to create music that addressed the people and the issues of Haiti. That’s what we know, all we know. Anything else is speculation. Does he have an ego? I’m sure he does. I have an ego. I wouldn’t want someone without one running anything. The same goes for power. A person does not run for office unless they want power. Power is not a bad thing, though. The question is what do they want to do with that power? Now, there may be some legitimate questions about who is behind his campaign. Penn seems to believe he’s being backed by corporate interests hell bent on turning Haiti into a combination neo-colonial outpost/tourist attraction. The conspiracy theorists think he’s a puppet for American interests as well. This sounds eerily similar to the conspiracy talk around the Obama campaign and administration. Frankly, in order to win any political office anywhere you need powerful supporters, and those supporters have their own interests. That’s politics. The one thing Jean has in his favor is personal wealth. Presumably at least, he doesn’t need to rob the country blind in order to fill his private coffers.
While we’re on the subject, the conspiracy theorists talk about Haiti as if world imperialist forces are desperate to dominate the island. But why? Because Toussaint L’ouverture defeated the French 200 years ago and the western wold has never forgotten this? On one hand, there’s a kind of grandiosity to these claims. On another, I see evidence of persecutory delusions, a branch of the paranoia tree. Maybe Haiti a small, troubled island country that needs help and isn’t in the best position to dictate how that help arrives. It’s cold, but it may be the truth.
While we’re at it, there’s one last thing I just have to get off my chest: This isn’t a great job. Being a pop star is a better gig than the president of Haiti right now. According to reliable sources, Wyclef earns roughly $18,000,000 a year. I don’t know what the salary for president of Haiti is but I’m almost certain at least two zeros would be deleted from that figure. One thing I also haven’t heard at all is how much of a sacrifice this will be for Wyclef the artist. I don’t know many artists who would be willing to put down their craft for several years to take on a largely thankless job like president. He is walking away from a career that most artists dream of. Let’s not underestimate or trivialize the difficult choice he’s making.
I’m sure there is someone out there who has a better grasp of the issues. But this election isn’t just about the issues. It isn’t even just about a country getting back on its feet. Katrina hit the Gulf five years ago this week and that took the lives of 1,836 people (this number doesn’t reflect the untold number of Katrina-related deaths that weren’t directly linked to the tragedy). Haiti lost more than 100 times that. Whoever takes office will have to guide the country through the dark stages of grief. The most salient job qualification may come down to the next leader’s capacity for empathy and understanding, two notably artistic traits. If so, Wyclef may be the perfect light tower to keep Haiti in the spotlight until its ready to move into the future so many believe it is destined to finally achieve.