January 31, 2010

In 1791, a self-educated slave in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue started a revolution against France. Inspired by the French Revolution of 1789 and prompted by the writings of the French Enlightenment philosophers, particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Rights Of Man”, a slave named Toussaint Breda (history calls him Toussaint L'Ouverture – also the “black Napoleon”) led this slaves’ revolt, breaking away from Napoleon’s France and leading to the creation of the independent nation now known as Haiti in 1804. Throughout its more than two centuries of existence since, Haiti has been characterized by abject poverty, political instability and repression, superstition and despair, to which were added astonishing measures of death and destruction on January 12, 2010.

Just by happenstance, I had started re-reading Graham Greene’s THE COMEDIANS, one of my favorite books by my favorite author, on the weekend preceding the devastating earthquake in Haiti. THE COMEDIANS, set in that particular hell that was the Haiti of the despotic Papa Doc Duvalier and his secret police (the Tontons Macoute), was published in 1966. Greene had first visited Haiti in the 1950’s, fell in love with the place and the people, and had made several visits prior to the publication of his book. THE COMEDIANS drew worldwide acclaim which only intensified the resentment and enmity of Papa Doc and precluded Greene from ever stepping foot on Haitian soil again.

THE COMEDIANS is a novel that incorporates several of Greene’s themes - betrayal, redemption, commitment and, most appropriate to the current situation, loss of faith. He explores these themes against the backdrop of poverty, repression and brutality that seems to have characterized Haiti forever, but was particularly pronounced during the 14-year reign of Papa Doc which ended with his death in 1971 and was followed by another 15 years of his son, Bebe Doc, who was ousted in 1986.


The principal non-Haitian characters (the comedians) meet on a ship bound for Haiti. Brown (Greene’s narrator) is a non-committed half-Englishman returning to Port-au-Prince after a short absence. He is returning, somewhat reluctantly, to the capital city to resume his role as owner/manager of a hotel he recently inherited from his recently departed mother. Brown finds himself involved in the lives and deaths of several Haitians as well as the lives of the other comedians and the death of one. The other comedians include Smith, a one-time US Presidential Candidate (he received over 10,000 votes in 1948) and his wife, both dedicated vegetarians who are bound for Haiti on a misguided mission to convince the government of Papa Doc to work with them to improve the diet of the locals. Jones (he calls himself Major Jones) is a shadowy character who may or may not be the military man he claims to be and whose involvement leading some of the anti-Papa Doc rebels proves fatal.


The fascination of Graham Greene’s story lies, not only in the descriptions of Papa Doc’s Haiti, but against this background, how these comedians become involved with the Haitians who inhabit that particular hell on earth. The Haitian Dr. Magiot, a committed Communist who lives on the razor’s edge as an opponent of Papa Doc, was also one of Brown’s mother’s lovers as well as her trusted physician and advisor. Brown gets to know, admire and trust the Haitian doctor and, through him, starts to learn something about himself, his faith and his own lack of commitment. This question of commitment is also evident in Brown’s affair with the wife of a Haitian diplomat.

Through other Haitians, one of whom works at his hotel, Brown gets to witness an all-night voodoo ceremony in the hills beyond Port-au-Prince. Born into the Catholic faith, Brown recognizes some of the Latin phrases used in the rituals, the “Agnus Deis” and “Libera nos a malo”, and he witnesses a priest biting off the head of a live chicken



He hears another priest summoning the gods of Dahomey, including Baron Samedi, the skull-faced, top-hatted, cigar-smoking, sometimes depicted wearing dark sunglasses, voodoo god of death. In the novel, Greene has his narrator Brown make several references to Papa Doc Duvalier as “Baron Samedi” and, to the extent that the Tontons Macoute all wore dark sunglasses, the imagery is rather pointed.

            It is interesting that Greene’s Catholicism was used by the slaves to disguise the beliefs they carried with them from West Africa, the combination of the two becoming Haiti’s belief system called voduo (voodoo). The slaves would publicly recite their OUR FATHERS and HAIL MARYS as a part of their ceremonies to convince their masters that they had, indeed, adopted Christianity, all the while incorporating and keeping intact their African beliefs and rituals.


The whole question of faith is summed up near the conclusion of THE COMEDIANS in Dr.Magiot’s letter to Greene’s narrator, Brown, who has been forced to flee from Haiti. Dr. Magiot knows that his own end, at the hands of Papa Doc, may be imminent and counsels Brown:

"If you have abandoned one faith, do not abandon all faith. There is always an alternative to the faith we lose. Or is it the same faith under another mask?"


            It well may be that Dr. Magiot’s advice would apply equally to today’s post-earthquake Haitian population. The million or more homeless may well be in the process of abandoning all faith, at least in their own institutions, and seeking other more responsive gods. On the other hand, it may be that, in January 2010, all of Haiti’s masks were dropped and, while the Haitian people may not have abandoned all their faiths, their faiths may have abandoned them.


It might turn out that the only god who matters anymore is Baron Samedi, their voodoo god of death.






July 20,2009

Dorothy        If you were really great and powerful, you'd keep your promises!

Wizard          Do you presume to criticize the Great Oz? You ungrateful creatures! Think      yourselves lucky that I'm giving you an audience tomorrow, instead of           twenty years from now! Oh! The Great Oz has spoken!............ Oh! Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. The Great, Powerful-- has spoken –

Dorothy         Who are you?

Wizard           Well, I - I - I am the Great and Powerful - Wizard of Oz.

Dorothy          You are?

Wizard            Uh -


Dorothy           I don't believe you!

          Wizard             No, I'm afraid it's true. There's no other Wizard except me. 

Scarecrow        You Humbug!

Lion                 Yeah!

Wizard             Yes - that's exactly so - I'm a humbug.

Dorothy           Oh - you're a very bad man!

Wizard             Oh, no, my dear. I - I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad Wizard.




A humbug? A very bad man? A very good man? A very bad wizard?  Now 9 months into a new administration, these are the questions being asked by an increasingly disillusioned electorate. As buyer’s remorse starts to creep in, America is just starting to ask the questions it should have started asking two years ago. The country wants to know who it is that it has chosen to be its President. More importantly, who is it that lurks behind the curtain, producing the sound and light show and projecting a two-dimensional face to the transfixed masses? Exactly who is this Modern-day Wizard of Oz?


Throughout the campaign, Barack Hussein Obama presented himself as the anti-Bush to a weary electorate – an electorate that had been beaten over the head for seven years by the liberal media’s constant drumbeat against President Bush. Forget about the absence of any more 9/11 attacks. Forget about the Democratic fingerprints all over the sub-prime lending debacle at the heart of our banking/credit crisis. Forget about the miserable performance of Princess Pelosi’s Democratic Congress. The citizens of Oz had been convinced that Bush did nothing right and all the bad things happening to them were Bush’s fault. Forget about the gymnastic feats of tax dodging, influence peddling, social engineering and other malfeasance of Democratic members of Congress. Forget about the headline-grabbing transgressions and worse of Democratic Governors. In the Land of Oz, Republicans are the party of greed and self-indulgence. The Democratic Party represents goodness and light, a massive tent sheltering all of life’s victims.


If you’re a victim because your neighbor earns more than you, welcome. If you’re a victim because you’re a single mother with four children from three different fathers, and need someone to support your fatherless household, your pain is felt. Welcome. If you’re a victim because you believed the spiel of the snake-oil salesman and invested in his promise of unrealistic returns, we respect your innocence and hold you blameless. Welcome. If you’re a victim because you disagreed with the policies and laws of the foreign country in which you were born and decided to disregard our country’s laws and enter illegally, we are not judgmental. Welcome to our healthcare system, our educational system, our banking system. Welcome to our everything.


Into this tent rides The Manchurian Candidate, a worker of wonders, a sorcerer with super human powers. With “CHANGE” emblazoned on his cape and riding a white charger named “MEDIA”, he promises to wave his magic wand and make us all feel better again, ‘cause that’s what a wizard does. And, in the absence of any sense of personal responsibility, we seek supernatural solutions to our everyday problems. We seek wizards. If we see our crops are dying from lack of rain, we call in a wizard called “The Rainmaker”. If we overeat and become overweight, we call in a wizard called “The Diet Doctor”. If we lack meaning in our lives, we turn to a wizard called “The TV Pop Psychologist”. If we seek excitement for our lives, we rely on a wizard called “The Celebrity”. If we seek redress for all the injustices we imagine have been heaped upon us, we turn to a wizard called “The Witch Doctor” to cast spells upon our tormentors. And, when we feel we can’t shift for ourselves any longer, we cede all responsibility for our own well-being to that biggest Wizard of all, the one we call “The Government”.


In his quest to be the biggest Wizard of all, Barack went forward as the essential jedermensch, the everyman, ‘fellow citizen of the world’, as he called himself in Berlin in July 2008. He was all things to all people, sensitive to everyone’s misfortune, promising to use his healing powers to solve all of the world’s ills. When elected he would be President of all the people and no one would escape his largesse. Since the election, he has performed well as the teleprompter-reading, canned-speech delivering, talking points enumerating, stand-up comic – the not ready for prime time President.


He is the embodiment of Oz, the direct opposite of the Miracle Worker. The real Miracle Worker, Annie Sullivan, used her talent and tenacity to enable Helen Keller to know and communicate with the real world beyond her blindness and deafness. She managed to penetrate the black and soundless world of a young girl and gave her the tools to create an abundant life. On the other hand, we have the Ozian Wizard, Obama, who uses his talent to blind us to reality while delivering the message fed to him by the shadows behind the curtain.


            In the final analysis, what is our Wizard capable of delivering? If we look at the model, the original Wizard of Oz, we may get some guidance.

EDUCATION       Did the Wizard of Oz make the scarecrow smart? Did he give the a brain?

                           No, he merely presented him with a diploma so that he'd feel educated.                                        Sound  familiar?

HEALTH CARE     Did the Wizard of Oz give the tin woodsman a heart? No. He only                                                presented him with a ticking clock to make it sound as if he had a                                                beating heart. Might this be a metaphor for Health Care Reform?

SECURITY           Did the Wizard of Oz give the Cowardly Lion courage? No. He only gave                                        him a medal with the word "COURAGE" written on it. Words instead of                                         action. Form instead of substance. Wave goodbye to national security. BUT, WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE IF HE'S GOOD OR IF HE'S BAD? A WIZARD IS A WIZARD AFTER ALL From: IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR

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