Almost two years ago, when a French reporter started an interview with Iran’s Amadinejad with this observation: “Judging by the way you dress in public, you are an unconventional leader…,I was so flabbergasted that I immediately turned off the TV set and grabbed a book. My reaction was a compulsive to what I believed was a westerner’s inappropriate sense of cultural superiority, which has been a defining issue in international relations since the 18th century. Like most unpleasant occurrences, the incident eventually settled into my subconscious but was reactivated during President Rene Préval’s trip to the Summit of the Americas held at Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, on April 17-19.
During that meeting, Haitian communities throughout North America and beyond felt offended by the behavior of their president which was, in the judgment of many, indubitably inappropriate and proletarian. The sight of Préval disengaging a receiving line and trying to pull Barack Obama for an impromptu chat or what have you, only to be ignored by the U.S president, was undiplomatic and disgraceful. As you would expect from an aggrieved nation, some of the commentaries were downright vicious and malicious. Surprisingly, a large amount of the venoms were over the Haitian president’s attire for an official photo of some attending heads of state, which helped resurface in my mind the exchange between the inconsiderate French reporter and the president of Islamic Republic of Iran, a country that has been in existence since 728 B.C.
On a web page for former alumni of a school I attended in Haiti, someone wrote: “This occurrence is a high level of myopic manifestation of a macroscopic Haitian cultural or traditional trait”; others expressed disapproval at Préval for his lack of decorum which, they surmised, was expected given his political association with Jean Bertrand Aristide, the quintessential father of non-conformism. And still others deplored the bad impression created by Préval’s non-conformist fashion statement at the very moment when Haiti needed a good impression.
Throughout the exchanges between members, I had to ask where it is written that any elected official has to wear a suit and tie in public and, more to the point, in a tropical environment. Needless to say, the issue became emotionally-charged and could have evolved into names calling, irrespective of the philosophical nature of the debate. In that regard, was Préval’s behavior at the Summit of the Americas a slap in the face of millions of Haitians that is consistent with the dysfunctional nature of Haitian politic, or the public simply overreacted? Because elected officials are held to a higher standard, Préval’s behavior theoretically debased the office he represents, and the nearly unanimous condemnation was somewhat compulsive for a nation enamored with social protocol. However, the notion that a great majority of Haitians would have a uniform negative reaction to Préval’s not wearing a suit and tie demonstrates the power of superficiality over substance in our thinking. Moreover, this mob mentality encourages intolerance and validates the western’s sense of cultural superiority, which constitutes an impediment to self-emancipation in the underdeveloped world.
While we, Haitians, are fond of quoting philosophers of the enlightenment period, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Voltaire among others, we somehow fail to capture the essence of their philosophies, which was based on an uncompromising support for individual freedom, and an intrinsic aversion to absolutism and collective thinking. Hence, our inability to come to terms with our shortcomings, our tendency to be intolerant of divergent opinions and, more importantly, our self-hatred of our African cultural heritage when Haiti is and always will be an African country.
Because Haiti is superficially connected to the west, we use that association as a barometer for western conformism in every aspect of our lives. We have sacrificed our hard won freedom for a virtual assimilation into the western way of life and, in the process, destroyed any chances at building a viable, prosperous and confident nation. We unequivocally reject Vodou as a bona fide religion because it symbolizes primitivism and witchcraft in western terminology, but willingly accept any western fringe sect as one. In fact, the foundation upon which Haiti was founded (resistance to oppression) has long been lost to the machinations of a minority suffering from a compulsive desire to be thoroughly westernized, which proved incompatible with the aspirations of the majority.
Indeed, it would be disingenuous and impractical for any country to distance itself from the western civilization, which, alone among all the others, has done the most in advancing human development, which incidentally was achieved at a tremendous human cost to Amerindians, Australia’s Aborigines, Jews, and Negroes. In fact, we, Haitians, do not need to embrace insularity or reject western concepts in order to self-emancipate, because many countries such as China, India, Israel, Japan and South Korea have prospered by preserving their ancient cultures while embracing the best the west has to offer. This winning formula can also be duplicated throughout Africa and in small places like Haiti, provided these countries categorically reject the premise of total assimilation.
René Préval’s failure to forcefully articulate Haiti’s needs to the leaders of a group that authorized or supported the occupation of his country should have been the issue, not his disregard for a conventional dress code. Unfortunately, the furor over Préval’s attire at the Summit of the Americas indicated that perhaps the French reporter was well within his prerogatives to question Amadinejad’s non-conformist style.