The World According to Sean Penn
In 1997, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck presented to America, via the lead character in their film Good Will Hunting, a shared political worldview. Will Hunting, a wicked smaht South Boston janitor with a talent for mathematics and humiliating his social betters—especially pampered, right-wing Harvard elites unfamiliar with radical historian Howard Zinn—was a Dalton Trumbo character with a Massachusetts accent. The film’s message was blindingly simple: the establishment is lying to you and the rich are screwing over the working class.
Fifteen years later and both actors are still steeped in bourgeois radicalism—Damon’s latest film is a didactic drama about fracking—though according to an interview in the January issue of Playboy, Will Hunting has finally given up on organized politics. “[T]he game is rigged,” Damon told the magazine. “And no matter how hard you work to change things, it just doesn’t matter.”
For his part, Affleck ended speculation that he would run for John Kerry’s vacated Massachusetts Senate seat, writing on Facebook that he would instead devote his energy to “using filmmaking to entertain and foster discussion about issues like our relationship to Iran.” And there I was, thinking that Argo was just a bit of fun.
But fear not, handful of people who take political cues from actors. Because while Damon and Affleck have spurned Washington, there are still plenty of politically engaged thespians to guide us through the thicket of global politics. Indeed, it seems that everywhere one turns these days the craggy face of Sean Penn appears, ready to offer another boring bit of political heterodoxy.
In an interview in the January edition of Esquire, the Shanghai Surprise star complains that America has become “pussified” and says that his movie work is inextricably linked with his political activism (“I don’t separate my movie career from [my work in] Haiti … It’s all one fucking thing”). When Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez was carted off to Cuba this month for cancer treatment, Penn informed the world of his deep emotional distress. With a warbling voice, his long hair cinched back in a ponytail, and clad in an absurd “Bolivarian” tracksuit, he offered a pre-eulogy for Chavez. From a candlelight vigil in La Paz, Bolivia, Penn blubbered that el comandante is “one of the most important forces we’ve had on this planet, and I’ll wish him nothing but that great strength he has shown over and over again.” His praise was delivered “in love” and “gratitude”—and in English.
It might seem odd that a fabulously wealthy American was expressing gratitude to the leader of one the most corrupt (ranking 172 out of 182 in the latest Transparency International index) and violent (with a record 21,000 murders this year) countries on Earth. But then again, according to Penn, I’m merely a foot soldier in America’s media war against the “progressive” autocracies of Latin America. Because when he isn’t miming chavista talking points, Penn is sounding suspiciously conservative in his criticism of the dreaded “mainstream media.”
Those who report critically on the Chavez regime are variously guilty of “demonizing,” “demonization,” and “manufactur[ing] demons.” The mustache-twisting American media works overtime to “demonize perceived enemies” like Chavez and Fidel Castro (The Castro brothers are “demonized” in the American press for, among other outrages against decency, neglecting to have a free election since they seized power in 1959).
So what should one do about this ceaseless propaganda campaign against Venezuela? In a 2010 appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, Penn again complained that the media is addicted to lying about Chavez, frequently referring to him as a “dictator” who is contemptuous of the democratic process. “Truly,” Penn said, “there should be a bar by which one goes to prison for these kinds of lies.”
No one can accuse Penn of not learning from his mentors.
But perhaps I should give Penn a measure of credit. Rather than merely complaining that “corporate” journalists are corrupt handmaidens of imperialism, he has attempted to fix journalism by becoming a journalist; a sort of reverse George Plimpton.
Indeed, the actor now also self-identifies as a writer. In his 2009 paean to Raul Castro and Hugo Chavez published on the Huffington Post, Penn begins with typical humility: “The disadvantages of being a writer, who is often written about, are numerous.” And another disadvantage is that, because you are often written about, certain editors allow you to write.
Reading Penn’s journalism is not unlike consuming a Castro speech: it’s unbearably long, always rambling and tedious, and frequently incoherent. Take this latest dispatch from Penn’s Huffington Post blog, where he coughs up this furball: “Ostreicher, whose innocence was maligned by an arrest where only vague illusions to money laundering have been shown to be fabricated by corrupt officials within the Bolivian judiciary, whose motivation has proven to be extortion.”
Or how about this stew of words, which is apparently related to the shootings in Newtown, Conn.: “This can, and is, being very easily exampled with newly invigorated discussions with attention on the recognition and treatment of mental health, and certainly that is a priority. And to be responsible to that priority, we too have to recognize its applicability to the mental health of our American community at large.”
It’s difficult to improve upon the brutal verdict of New Yorker writer George Packer, who wondered why “someone like Penn think[s] he can do this job [journalism], which isn’t his job?” Criticizing his sycophantic dual profile of Castro and Chavez, published in The Nation, Packer concluded that “Perhaps because he can write down and relay the words of famous people to whom his own fame gives him access, and because certain thoughts pass through his mind while he’s writing them down.”
While the media occasionally give Castro and Chavez a rough time, Penn might acknowledge that they play slow-pitch softball with him. Bill Maher didn’t flinch—or ask a followup question—when he demanded journalists be sent to the gulag for questioning Chavez’s democratic bona fides. In conversation with Penn’s chum and Gangster Squad costar Josh Brolin, Charlie Rose offered this insight into the actor’s curious choice of international friends:
JOSH BROLIN: People perceived him as being too cool. But he’s not too cool. He’s open. He’s a true humanitarian.
CHARLIE ROSE: And curious.
JOSH BROLIN: Very curious.
CHARLIE ROSE: …and curious and curious and curious. He goes off to Venezuela and Cuba.
JOSH BROLIN: Exactly.
This is exactly backward. If anything, champagne chavistas like Penn suffer from a distinct lack of curiosity, mixed with a heavy dollop of Hollywood orientalism. One can’t help but wonder how Penn would react if a female blogger wrote of her opposition to President Obama’s drone strike policy and was subsequently arrested by the FBI and threatened with gang rape. Or if President George W. Bush packed the Supreme Court with loyalists (and arrested judges who ruled against his cronies), withheld passports and other public services to those who voted against him, and fined or effectively shuttered media outlets that opposed his rule.
In response to such criticisms, Penn has a predictable—and condescending—defense: the wretched of the Earth do not care for democratic niceties. “[W]hile our own cultural and constitutional conditioning would lead us to serious concerns in the powers of [Chavez’s] office,” he wrote in the Huffington Post, “there must be an informed adjustment to give our analyses a context that may extend beyond our borders” (This is a mirror image of an argument made by defenders of Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet: it would have been impossible to rehabilitate Chile’s broken economy without the Generalissimo’s steady and firm hand, a point not understood by finger-wagging gringo liberals).
The kulturwelt usually has an acute sensitivity to those who maintain shady political allegiances. Argentinian novelist Jorge Luis Borges was denied the Nobel because of his support of Pinochet. Economist Milton Friedman, whose Nobel was bitterly debated in faculty lounges and feuilletons, was routinely accused of similar sympathies. On the Waterfront director Elia Kazan was persona non grata in Hollywood for testifying as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Sean Penn’s associations with Castro and Chavez have brought no such professional censure.
Perhaps there is some truth to his complaint that the press is frivolous. After all, they appear to take him seriously.