February 6, 2010
On Wednesday February 3, 2010, the CBC surpassed its usual efforts to promote irrationality. The show in question was aired on the radio program, The Current, hosted that day by both Anna Maria Tremonti and a CBC producer, David Gutnick (www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/2010/201002/20100203.html). Also featured was an interview with Wade Davis, the unctuous pontificator featured in an earlier post on this blog (Davis was selected by the CBC to present the 2009 Massey Lectures, where he celebrated a wide variety of dubious beliefs as “ancient wisdom”). Davis has been called upon again for his “expertise” because he is author of The Serpent and the Rainbow and Passage of Darkness – books that evidently “explore Haitian voodoo, magic and zombies”.
Tremonti, Gutnick, and Davis are all ardent supporters of voodoo, and the only opponent given air time is a silly Christian missionary with her own brand of religious nonsense to spout. We are told by Tremonti et al. that viewing voodoo as a primitive relic is a “stereotype”. One of the main practices of voodoo, the horrific spectacle of animal sacrifice, is not mentioned; instead “voodoo priests” are commended for instilling in people “a deep sense of responsibility toward the other”, helping the poor and downtrodden to “live with life and loss”, and providing “a set of ideas that tries to deal with the mystery that death implies”. It is even pointed out that “there are a lot of people who think Voudou [sic] will actually play a major role in how Haitians rebuild their capital city for the 21st century”.
In addition to voodoo’s purported capacity to “help” people deal with suffering, the role of voodoo priests in “healing the sick” is also mentioned. This viewpoint, however, fails to examine how the religion enables its practitioners to extract funds in the name of quackery. Although Jean-Bertrand Aristide warned Haitians in his autobiography to be “careful to distinguish the voodoo priest from the charlatan who deceives people through sleight of hand, and whose aim is to get rich”, how can a legitimate “voodoo priest” and a charlatan be differentiated from one another? In the case of AIDS treatment, for example, a “voodoo priest” charges $1,400 to pray to “voodoo spirits for guidance”, administer an emetic, and to dispense vitamins “to promote blood flow”. This is in contrast to a three-month supply of antibiotics to treat AIDS-related infections, which costs $350. As the result of a belief in voodoo, ineffective and expensive “cures” are provided in lieu of scientifically valid treatments.
What is particularly outrageous is the CBC’s promotion of Max Beauvoir, “a friend and mentor” of Davis – a person referred to as the “pope of voodoo”. Beauvoir, a person educated in scientific methods in the U.S. and France, had no interest in voodoo until his dying voodoo priest grandfather beseeched him to follow in his footsteps. He now has a grand residence on the outskirts of Haiti where he and his followers “dance around a giant totem to the beat of drums”, “light bonfires to summon the spirits’, and “drain the blood of animals like that scrawny white goat to, among other things, heal the sick”. This “voodoo priest” is not universally admired. On the contrary, Amy Wilentz, in her book The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, describes Beauvoir as an opportunist who has “the oily manner of a man whom you wouldn’t want to leave alone with your money or your child”.
Even more disturbing is the fact that Beauvoir has been linked to the Duvaliers – the brutal dictators that controlled the country for decades while bleeding it dry – and even had to flee to the United States after Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier was exiled. Part of the Duvaliers’ power, in fact, was made possible by the “voodoo priests” that the CBC is legitimizing. It has been noted, for example, that Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier managed “to persuade and coerce Haiti’s leading voodoo priests to work with him to neutralize his enemies”, which helped him to instill widespread fear in the population. As Claude Douge, a religious scholar, points out, “once he had the priests in his hand, he had the Haitian people”.
It goes without saying the Haitian people have suffered terribly over the last centuries because of colonialism, imperialism, and other horrendous circumstances that were not of their own making. Unfortunately, however, many misguided people, such as many journalists working for the CBC, seem to think that supporting voodoo will somehow “empower” the country. But voodoo is merely a tool of the powerful to keep the Haitian people submissive, and it should be exposed for what it is – a collection of ancient superstitions that are preventing Haitians from understanding the nature of their oppression and fighting against it. It is disgraceful that smarmy romantics like Wade Davis are enabling charlatans like Max Beauvoir to increase their wealth and power by exploiting the ignorance and suffering of the Haitian people.