Bargaining for the Good Life: Duvalier and the Haitian Elite


As I’ve struggled over the past several days, trying to make even minimal sense of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s return to Haiti Sunday evening, and worked even harder attempting to understand the Duvalierists I’ve discovered in my life since then, I’ve remembered why art is such a good way for me to grapple with complex issues, ones for which there are no easy answer.  When slugging through the muck and mire of not knowing remains the only way through a particular darkness, I, like both Aristotle and Shakespeare, find comfort in art and literature’s ability to “imitate nature,” be like the thing that’s bothersome, while, at the same time, not being the thing itself.

 So, in the midst of my Duvalier-induced dementia, I remembered a short story by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”  I’ve often taught this piece to composition students when wanting to demonstrate how “showing,” rather than merely “telling,” makes for stronger writing.  But yesterday Le Guin’s story reminded me why and how literature can become a way through confusion, especially in a place where more than a million remain homeless, cholera continues to kill, and ex-dictators come home to roost. 

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” describes a seemingly ideal city that hides a dark and disturbing secret (a dystopia, in literary terms).  Happiness and peace in Omelas depend on the suffering and misery of one small child, dungeoned in filth and despair.  According to Le Guin’s narrator, coming of age in this seemingly perfect place involves visiting this child and realizing, for the first time, the price Omelas pays for peace.

Clearly Omelas is not a perfect parallel to Port-au-Prince, since here the wealth and luxury enjoyed by an elite minority depend on the suffering of millions.  My Duvalierist friends may long for the good-old-days of Papa Doc and Baby Doc, an era when the lights stayed on and the streets were clean, but even now in Haiti the balance is shifted in favor of the privileged few.

 In the story’s final paragraph (click here to read the story in its entirety), Le Guin tell us about a few citizens of Omelas, but only a few, unwilling to accept this “bargain,” unwilling to exchange the suffering of an innocent child for their own well-being, to trade conscience for comfort.  These are, indeed, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” 

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

 For the same reason these few in Omelas walk away, here in Haiti some have come and  decided to stay, refusing, in their own way, to accept the bargained-comfort that is life back home.  But this situation is extreme. 

I wonder how this same unwillingness to compromise conscience plays itself out in your life.  What do you sacrifice, what do you say “no” to, because doing so is good and fair and just? 

 How is conscience alive and well in your life?

29 thoughts on “Bargaining for the Good Life: Duvalier and the Haitian Elite

  1. I read this in high school (and later in college) and was so drawn to the concept. I have been fortunate in that I haven’t been faced with many situations in which my comfort or way of life is challenged by an inner-knowledge that something contributing to my life is wrong/unjust. I would like to think that if I was to be in such a situation, I wouldn’t hesitate to walk away from Omelas!

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  2. I love your earnestness and your drive to find truth and justice in Haiti, and I would imagine in all you do. It’s so refreshing and inspiring, Kathy.
    As for me, I follow my conscience in the way I live my life, in decisions I make and the way I choose to respond to situations and circumstances I find myself in.
    I don’t know the story you mention, but you’ve whet my appetite to want to read it.
    Hugs from London
    Sunshine xx

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  3. Kathy–
    beautiful post, today…and the story of “omelas” is disturbing–how many of us face the injsutices and still choose the comfort. I am certain I do–I think of things made with child-labor and the foods I buy…and yet, I hope I do make choices for the betterment of others, and ultimately, myself…because that’s who I have to dwell with, day after day.
    thank you for this thought-provoking post today.
    blessings to you!
    (and, how I wish I could take one of your classes!)
    jane

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  4. I’m overwhelmed by this post today. Our world is filled with comfort bought with the misery of others. Sexual slavery, child labor, animal abuse, the list goes on and on. I have recently become aware of how ignorant I have been. I can’t turn the clock back, but I can stop supporting any industry that engages in human or animal abuse. And I can rally and march and join any organization that exists to stop such abuse. I’ve changed my eating habits and my buying habits and my charitible donation habits. I ask more questions now. About everything.

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    • Wow, Renee. I’m so glad this post touched you. I think it’s the willingness to ask questions that matters most–and the willingness to admit we don’t know all of the answers. Hope you enjoy the weekend ahead!

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  5. One need not look very far to realize that their comforts are a the price of someone else’s life…as one fills up their gas tank…think not of dollars per gallon…but lives….a most thought provoking post.

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  6. Kathryn, Thanks for these thoughts and especially the Omelas Story. I had never seen or read it but just have. Moving. I trust you have a great life in Port and keep your positive outlook. You seem to be right on the mark which isn’t always very comfortable.

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  7. A thought provoking post.

    I’d like to think that I make conscious decisions in my daily life about the compromises I’m prepared to make to lead a comfortable life. On a couple of occasions I have taken a less popular route, or gone against what everybody else is doing, because I just didn’t believe it to be right. There have been times though when I have benefited from something (e.g. superior education and opportunities during the Apartheid era) without agreeing with it personally. And there’s always been some guilt attached to that.

    Loved the Omelas story. Thank you for telling us about it.

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  8. A thought provoking post.

    I’d like to think that I make conscious decisions in my daily life about the compromises I’m prepared to make to lead a comfortable life. On a couple of occasions I have taken a less popular route, or gone against what everybody else is doing, because I just didn’t believe it to be right. There have been times though when I have benefited from something (e.g. superior education and opportunities during the Apartheid era) without agreeing with it personally. And there’s always been some guilt attached to that.

    Loved the Omelas story. Thank you for telling us about it.

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  9. A thought provoking post.

    I’d like to think that I make conscious decisions in my daily life about the compromises I’m prepared to make to lead a comfortable life. On a couple of occasions I have taken a less popular route, or gone against what everybody else is doing, because I just didn’t believe it to be right. There have been times though when I have benefited from something (e.g. superior education and opportunities during the Apartheid era) without agreeing with it personally. And there’s always been some guilt attached to that. Although the tables have been turned in that regard.

    Loved the Omelas story. Thank you for telling us about it.

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    • Yes, it can be a mixed bag, can’t it. I know I struggle most days here in Haiti when I encounter hungry people on the street. There’s so much need, that one can’t respond to everyone. This really eats at my conscience sometimes, but I’ve not yet figured out a way to handle this that I’m comfortable with.

      So glad I was able to retrieve your comment from the black hole of my spam folder! Wish I knew why that would happen. I can see comments sometimes not automatically being approved that should, but to essentially trash the comments of long-time readers seems a bit over-the-top!

      Thanks for the email. Hope you and Willie are having a lovely weekend!

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  10. Kathy,

    I saw your post on the miamiherald blog and did something i dont normally do. I clicked the link you had provided because something told me too. I dont know if it was your presentation but Im glad I did! We have seen this mentally and way of life way to much in our modern day socity, more recently with Bernie Madoff and in many forms of government.

    I think every single one of us can learn something from this story. Weather it be to take that extra time to consider how our actions might affect others or placing ourselfs in service to those that dont have the option to .

    I would like to personaly thank you for awakeing that conscious within my conscious . (if that makes any sense)

    Thank you!

    Dan H

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    • I’m so glad you stopped by, Dan. Yes, you are right–too much scandal and not enough folks willing to stand up and do the right thing, if for no other reason than it IS the right thing. How great that Le Guin’s story awoke a new awareness in you! I can’t thank you enough for reading and taking the time to comment. Your addition to this conversation is helpful. It’s nice to know when a post works with readers and specifically how it has impacted them.

      I’d certainly love you to visit again, maybe even subscribe to receive an email when I’ve posted. Usually, however, I do so on weekdays. Take care.

      Warm Wishes from Haiti,
      Kathy

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    • Generally, first time comments have to moderated. After that they should be automatically approved and post immediately. If this does not happen, please let me know. I received an email from a friend in South Africa that her comment had disappeared, when it, in fact, had gone into my spam folder. I don’t know exactly how many comments I lost to this today, but I was able to retrieve some. My email address in under the “contact” tab on the homepage, if something like this were to happen to you. My personal policy is to approve all comments unless they are somehow offensive, which has never happened.

      It ‘s good to wonder, especially today.

      Kathy

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  11. You’re in Omelas, comforted by Duvalierist friends, shielded by white skin and an American passport. How can you stand living in a place like Haiti otherwise?

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    • American passport–guilty
      White skin–equally guilty
      Do these provide a degree of privilege in Haiti? Without a doubt. Can I change these? I don’t think so.
      I would disagree with your assertions on a couple of counts, however,
      The Duvalierists are most definitely NOT my friends. (I’ve use the word “acquaintence” purposefully in another post.)
      Also, being “foreign” actually makes me a target for kidnapping in Port-au-Prince, where it happens at least once every day, so I don’t know that I feel protected.
      Finally, the not-so-white Haitian elite, with their drug-trafficking fortunes and private villas, have enormously more privilege here than someone like me, who–though I have food to eat and a roof over my head–lives quite modestly.
      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Glad for the chance to clarify.

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  12. Kathryn,
    We still maintain our lives here and feel that our impact is more positive than negative, although you know that isn’t easy with all our natural perks. We just went over 25 years here on Jan 7th, We arrived here one month exactly from the time that John Claude left. I still can recall the shrill sound of the US 141 star lifter taxied on the runway and eventually flew off. Since it was the first plane that had landed within the past two weeks and I had lots of experience with US AF Jets the conclusions were easy. The next day was a true celebration. And now he’s back. It’s just nuts!

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    • Yes, that has got to feel strange. I can’t even imagine. What did you think last Sunday evening when you heard he was back? Did you even believe it? Sorry for all the questions. It’s just that having been here for 25 years, you must have some perspective on all of this. What do you think might happen now?

      Thank, John, for sharing. God bless you and your family for your many, many years of effort!

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  13. Thank you so much for the story. It is haunting and horrifying and thought-provoking. As an allegory for the political-socio-economic situations in many countries it says so much and more. When I read your earlier post about your confusion after speaking those two suburbanites, I was going to leave a long comment about how it is always difficult as an outsider to understand the complexities. Being from Taiwan, I did get upset when some Americans started mouthing off about “my” government and rooting for the Progressive Party, and I learned that not all anti-government movement was spurred by selfless, passionate, revolutionary idealists. But this story here pointed out the fundamental truth common in all these modern stories: Those who are not adversely affected by tyranny more often than not have no problem with tyranny.

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