When Pop Stars Are Presidents
When any pop star or entertainer announces his or her intention to seek public office, there is a pronounced tendency among skeptics to raise questions (in most cases, rather salient ones) regarding the legitimacy of such an undertaking. First the easier, more practical questions, for example: is former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic even particularly "famous" enough to become a viable celebrity-turned-candidate for County Clerk of Wahkiakum County, Washington? (It turns out he wasn’t.) Or, can an Austrian-American action star parlay a fairly ludicrous screen image into a respectable gubernatorial candidacy and highly successful two-term incumbency? (It turns out he could.)
Then, the slightly more troubling questions: is it necessarily fair or ethical for a wealthy, highly prominent, All-American, clean cut, consistently popular film, television and radio star of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s with shiny teeth to launch a presidential campaign in a country where elections are often won on the strength of a candidate’s familiarity to the general public and perceived "amiability," while some countries, such as England, limit the length of campaigns for high offices to 365 days and 30,000 pounds per constituency contested?
Wyclef Jean’s recent announcement of his intention to seek the Presidency of Haiti may lead certain skeptics to settle for those easier questions, turning up their nose at the idea that a mere rapper, college dropout and non-elite could ever become the leader of a country, even the saddest country in the world.
Of course at times it can be difficult to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate candidacies for public office. While both of Dead Kennedys’ singer Jello Biafra’s candidacies for public office–the first, for Mayor of San Francisco in 1979, the second, for President of the United States under the Green Party in 2000–were, in many ways, frivolously conceived (some of Biafra’s more outrageous platforms during the former campaign included forcing businessmen to wear clown suits, erecting statues of Harvey Milk and George Moscone-assassin Dan White all throughout San Francisco to be pelted with Parks Department-issued eggs and tomatoes, and implementing a city-wide ban on cars) in application, they proved quite legitimate, with Biafra finishing fourth in the Mayoral election,, and receiving an ostensibly underwhelming, however still respectable, ten delegate votes toward the Green Party nomination.
But few would question the legitimacy of Jean’s intentions. He is a native son of Haiti, and Haiti is a land in dire need of leadership: the most cruelly victimized and economically devastated of the post-imperial Caribbean nations. But because Haiti is also a land in dire need of reconstruction, of social, economic and agricultural reform, of any sort of infrastructure imaginable, of long term measures to overcome the struggles of its past, the legitimacy of Jean as a "leader" has been and will continue to be called into question. There will, of course, be a debate regarding Jean’s Haitian citizenship: a candidate for its Presidency has to have spent five consecutive years living in Haiti to qualify.
But is this really anything more than a trifling technicality? It appears to be if one looks at the history of economic ruin and political strife in Haiti, and considers the fact that the vast majority of Haitian-Americans of Jean’s generation either fled under the totalitarian regime of Francois Duvalier or as a result of its ensuing economic carnage.
According to a 2007 book-length study by economists Dorte Verner and Willy Egset, Haiti’s net migration rate (2.3 per 1,000 Haitians) has been higher than its population growth rate (2.2 percent) for the past twenty five years, and 30 per cent of Haitian households have close relatives aboard. So can it not be argued that there are fewer things more Haitian than having had to flee Haiti?
His education will be called into question: Jean never received a college degree, having briefly attended Eastern Nazarene College before dropping out, a decision he claims to regret. Then again, it would be difficult to argue to what extent a Political Science or Economics degree from a top university might aide a potential leader in his or her efforts to develop a post-imperial Caribbean nation, as very few have been successfully developed.
Admittedly, Wyclef Jean hasn’t studied the Latin and Greek Classics, is probably not versed in the Western Canon, the proud, noble lineage of European History and Letters, but how implacable could such a background be to the office of President of a country whose current state is directly attributable to the imperialistic hubris of European powers? Added to which, many of our own country’s greatest (or most popular) presidents were legacied into Ivy League schools as a result of the bombastic contributions of their wealthy families, scraping by academically by the time-honored tradition of the "Gentleman’s C," and actually not among the most intellectually gifted individuals of their respective eras.
But perhaps it is something of a pipe dream: Wyclef is far better known outside of Haiti, as one of its "roving ambassadors," than within it. And his status as a leader of the Haitian relief movement is largely cosmetic in nature, almost akin to calling Bono a Zambian household name. To make matters worse, his promise to "bring 50 Cent to Haiti" gives the artist-seeking-political-respectability the appearance of milking his celebrity for all its worth.
But as far as "what Haiti needs right now" and "Wyclef Jean not being it," I think it’s important that we reserve judgment, and in a sense, admit that no one can really say what Haiti needs or whether or not Jean is it. American intervention in the past has failed to help Haiti. Jean proposes a "grass roots movement,” states that he is qualified for office on the grounds that he is not a Hatian politician – reflecting the people’s disenchantment with the shambling Hatian elite in light of the recent devastations – and, for all we know, might go on to cultivate a new identity among his erstwhile people as a living folk legend, a bittersweet diasporic success story, who returned to his suffering people to live among them as a leader, teacher and friend… in kind of a condescending American way.
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I'd vote Ghostface Killah for president. I'm voting MF Doom for mayor of New York. The city needs a new super villain.
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