We are all used to celebrities saying stupid things.
There was Sheryl Crow and her “one sheet of toilet paper” cure for environmental degradation; Sylvester Stallone suggesting that he would come back in a second life as a paintbrush or Brooke Shields stating that the worst thing about dying from smoking was losing an important part of your life.
But almost no actor has delivered more stupid lines than the indomitable Sean Penn.
Penn’s latest comments, in an interview with Bill Maher, that those journalists in the U.S. who criticize Hugo Chávez as a dictator should be imprisoned, is a crowning achievement in a lifetime of faux pas that have careened from the ridiculous to the absurd.
This is, after all, is the same Sean Penn who has described Cuba’s health care system as among the best in the world; defended Saddam Hussein prior to the Gulf War and compared the United States to totalitarian regimes in Burma, Zimbabwe and Algeria.
Hugo Chávez exerts a particular fascination for Hollywood. Other visitors have included the actors Kevin Spacey, Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte and most recently, super model Naomi Campbell.
In January 2006 Belafonte, along with Danny Glover, Cornel West and others, met with Hugo Chavez. “We’re here to tell you not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people … support your revolution,” Belafonte said to the Venezuelan President. ( in the same speech he referred to George Bush ” as the greatest tyrant and terrorist inthe world.” )
They have all returned with glowing accounts of Chávez’s ” Bolivarian Revolution.”
But how is it possible to reconcile these views with the facts – that Chávez has nationalized many banks, (causing the Venzuelan currency to plunge); has engineered the elimination of term limits, ensuring that his presidential career will continue for years into the future; has ordered the takeover of a number of privately-owned businesses, including U.S. food giant Cargill, has sequestered the assets of 60 oilfield services companies and has shut down most independent media sources.?
Chávez’s regime was recently condemned by the Organization of American States in a strongly worded 300 page report, which, among other things, accuses Venezuela’s government of human-rights abuses, political repression, and eroding the separation of powers among government branches in the oil-rich country.
Has any of this registered with the Chávez boosters among our glitterati? It all seems to mirror the British literary celebrities of the 1930s- George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who returned to London from visits from Josef Stalin’s U.S.S.R. with luminous praise for the superiority of the Russian communist regime over the capitalist system. This was at a time when nearly five million citizens of that regime were perishing through a deliberate policy of mass starvation in the Ukraine.
It is commonly believed that celebrities are so gulled by dictators because they see their own allure reflected in the reverence and fear these men inspire. Others believe that it is a manifestation of their own stymied will to power. Columnist Jonah Goldberg actually based an entire best selling book on this theory, describing the celebrity fascination with dictators as a form of “liberal fascism ” a reverence among liberals for the methods and practices of totalitarian politics.
But I have a simpler explanation. The allure of foreign leaders such as Chavez and Castro and the willingness of foreign supplicants to pay them obeisance, is a result of an intense guilt, highly pervasive in places like Hollywood, at the achievement of fame, wealth and power for essentially doing nothing. Actors, after all, are imitators of life, who usually just parrot words written by others, being told where to stand, how to respond and how to look.
There is a simple celebrity fascination with those who are not restricted in this way, whose force of personality, ingenuity and muscle has macheted a path to political power and who exercise a control over their own lives and of those of others that as actors they do not possess.
The magnetic draw of a Hugo Chávez for Sean Penn, then, may be, not a symptom of his own will to power, but his very real sense of powerlessness.
Unfortunately, many people in this country accept the words of celebrities as oracular statements of brilliance and insight. How little it seems understood that these politically inexperienced and largely ignorant naifs are driven by the deepest of insecurities and desires for validation. It provides them with the credulity to support men who would mercilessly, if they lived as his citizens, sever their windpipes should their adoration transform into criticism in a growing, if belated awareness that these bad guys do not deserve support from anyone in the free world.