The Blog

Stardumb: Sean Penn

Don't call him an "activist," he's been here for years. The artist formerly known as Spicoli speaks out about sensing the war.

12:00 AM, Oct 15, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

AMONG THE MOST fatuous devices of political debate, the tactic of disowning "labels" stands proudly: like the Washington hack who catches his breath by saying he does not want to talk about "left" or "right," and then immediately exhales a billowy cumulus cloud of unmistakable partisanship. Next to, say, the nondenial denial, the beyond-labels parry holds its head high.

The annoying thing about labels, however, isn't that they're restricting (the ol' pigeonhole problem), but that they are accurate. Which can be very inconvenient. You may, at some point, want a different label. As did the Dixie Chicks, who after finding their Bush-bashing had lost them some friends in Nashville, claimed they were no longer a country music band. This, only months after they'd released the most traditional country music album of their catalogue, which went on to become the most traditional country music album to dominate the charts in years.

Denying your identity has seemed a legitimate way of countering critics for so long that it pops up all the time. Right now on death row there's probably a multiple-murder convict saying, with air quotes, "I don't like the phrase 'serial killer.' You can't box me in with your categories and your labels. I mean, what is a 'serial killer'? Criminologists don't even always agree about who is and isn't a serial killer. And I won't stand for words that don't do justice to who I truly am. I won't be boxed in like that."

The latest person refusing to be boxed in like that is Sean Penn, who reminded the Washington Post in an interview last week that, as far as he's concerned, he is no "activist." The last time he tried this was in an essay he wrote and published at his own expense as a full-page ad in the New York Times, saying "I am neither a peace activist nor a partisan politico."

One is reminded of the moment in "Falcon and the Snowman" when Penn's buddy and coconspirator Timothy Hutton tells his Soviet contact that he's not one of them, not a "professional." Such is Hutton's naiveté that after selling many volumes of American secrets to the Russians, he denies being a "spy." But his handler is having none of it and tells him: "The moment you accepted money for this, you became a professional."

Someone should get the message to Penn: The moment you enter the public square to win approval for certain ideas or policies, you become an activist. If not a peace activist, what is a person who loans out their celebrity to the antiwar cause, goes on an antiwar publicity junket to Baghdad just as his country is readying to invade, pays for the privilege of publishing an open letter in the Washington Post arguing against military action in Iraq, and then, as a U.S.-led coalition takes over Iraq, buys a whole page of the New York Times to publish an essay announcing that the American flag is becoming a banner of "murder, greed, and treason against our principles, honored history, Constitution, and our own mothers and fathers"?

This, of course, isn't to say Penn makes an effective activist or an eloquent spokesman for the anti-Bush, antiwar forces. Rather, this superb character actor and leading man (whose work on screen I personally favor in a very big way) sounds more than a few credits shorts of a degree when it comes to the job of talking and writing politics, which is why he's being honored as today's featured Stardummy. (Applause.)

THE REAL COLLAR-YANKING SECTION of the Post profile comes when Penn says that last fall, before Saddam Hussein failed to satisfy Hans Blix and everyone else participating in renewed U.N. inspections, "I just, in every part of my bones, knew we were being lied to." Here we can assume Penn means being lied to by the Bush administration. Funny that it doesn't even occur to him that the big liar of last fall was Saddam Hussein.

"So what did I do?" Penn says, explaining his own reasoning for the trip he soon made. "Well, it's in Iraq. I'm going to go to Iraq, to see it, to sense it there."

To sense it there. What an amazing phrase. After decades of history, with the "over a hundred experts in our Middle Eastern affairs, military and civilian, with a primary focus on U.N. weapon inspection capabilities," with whom Penn claims he has been consulting, and any number of fairly direct paths (newspapers, magazines, books), Sean Penn followed his feelings.

Now that the war is over, except for the ugly work of dealing with bitter suicide factions and freelance anti-American terrorists, how would Penn characterize the fighting he had earlier said would claim "'collateral damage' of many hundreds of thousands"? The war, he told the Post, became "a big [expletive], devastating, obscene mass of murder and a total betrayal of every principle the United States is based on and an absolute setup of young boys in the military by this current administration."

What planet does this guy live on? Does he really think that defeating a long-time enemy of the United States, that threatened the security of a region (after signing a peace agreement saying it wouldn't), that has used, developed, and was aiming in the future to again develop weapons of mass destruction, that had made friends with terrorist organizations is a betrayal of any part of the American creed?

Particularly amazing is that while Penn casually pukes forth the most venomous accusations--calling the administration treasonous and murderous--he doesn't mind a bout of self-pity for all the harsh language that's been directed at him. After publishing the October letter to Bush in the Washington Post, Penn complained, "I was hit by a tidal wave of misrepresentations, and even accusations of treason. I experienced firsthand the repressive condition of public debate in our country, as it prepared for war." Worse than a total, bloviating hypocrite, this guy is a crybaby.

Like an appendix of quotable lines from a Shakespeare play, here are a few from the Times ad and the Post letter:

-"The human death toll of the corporate march includes those courageous and heroic Americans who have died." (Times)
Yes, Penn is saying the death toll includes people who died.

-"We are struggling now with the question of whether there is any longer a time to kill. We are grappling perhaps with mimetic evolution." (Times)

Penn is suggesting a pacifism that never tolerates killing might be desirable--and then talking out his derrière.

-"I have consulted over 100 experts in our Middle Eastern Affairs, military and civilian, with a primary focus on U.N. weapons inspection capabilities. These consultations measurably increased my doubt at the factuality or wisdom of the administration's assertions and proposed remedies."

Whether by "over 100 experts" Penn means, like, a hundred short articles over, say, a three month period, I don't know. Because consultations, even brief ones, with "over 100 experts" would take more time than any working actor/director has. Furthermore, if any of the "over 100 experts" received a stipend, Penn should get his money back.

-"There can be no justifications for the actions of al Qaeda. Nor acceptance of the criminal viciousness of the tyrant, Saddam Hussein. Yet, that bombing is answered by bombing, mutilation by mutilation, killing by killing, is a pattern that only a great country like ours can stop." (Post)

Though Penn in this prewar letter was arguing for renewed inspections, he sounds for a moment like a hawk. In fact, given his identification of Saddam as a criminal and vicious tyrant, it's surprising he isn't more pleased with the outcome of Operation Iraqi Freedom thus far. What's strange, though, is that he seems to believe the Osamas and Saddams of the world can be stopped only by nonmilitary means. Perhaps he would have us "sense" our way toward peace, "evolve" in that direction ("mimetically" of course), and ask that the world's tyrants and terror-masters do the same.

Personally my favorite line comes from the Washington Post profile of last week, where Penn told his interviewer that he wouldn't discuss directing projects he's got underway. "You give up the energy and you don't want to do them anymore . . . It's like Woody Harrelson used to talk about giving up his 'chi.' You've got to hold onto this stuff. It's still being created."

THE MOST BIZARRE COMMENT of Penn's, however, comes in the title of his New York Times essay ad: "Kilroy's Still Here." A bold choice, it suggested some kind of parable in which this "Kilroy" (whoever he is) teaches us an important lesson. Maybe the story would end--after the K-man's big heroic deed is carried out and the baddies are sent to rest--with the line "Kilroy was here."

But The Daily Standard's research department says this particular inscription dates back to a World War II ship inspector who'd mark rivets as such, to make it clear that they'd been checked and paid for. The words remained in many ships coming out of the Fore River shipyard in Massachusetts, and caused many soldiers to wonder about this ubiquitous Kilroy. What made the line famous, however, was the decision of American soldiers to mark territory they'd fought over or occupied with those very words, to turn Kilroy into a boogey man, a Kaiser Soze.

It is unclear, however, why Penn invokes Kilroy, who is mentioned outside the title of the essay only once, in the third paragraph: "Since September 11, 2001, when Kilroy left his mark, I had been concerned for the physical safety of my children . . ."

What does Penn mean? That American WWII soldiers were responsible for the terrorist attacks? That America itself was responsible? On a textual level, it's hard to see how any other interpretation could be made. But a more humane approach would suggest something else. I like the notion that the Kilroy story had gained the quality of a private nonsense joke for Penn, who then decided to use it as a title for his larkish foray into politics.

One thing's for sure, though. Woody Harrelson was here.

Stardumb Hypothesis Number 10: If you're talking to Woody Harrelson, you know you're in trouble. Woody Harrelson is overrepresented in the public comments of Stardummies.

Stardumb Hypothesis Number 11: If past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, then past Stardummyness (Penn's trip to Baghdad) is the best predictor of future stardummyness. Obvious, but then, so is gravity.

Barbrometer: four Barbra Streisands

Grader's Comment: Sean Penn's been long overdue for a Stardumb and he came through with flying colors. That fantastic bit about going to Baghdad to "sense" what was really going on--priceless. Oh, and the ads. They were possibly the most senseless issue advocacy ads ever seen--if we interpret them as issue advocacy ads. However if we interpret the ads as an attempt to show what most high-profile political speech would be like if not for the services of ghost writers and message consultants, then the ads were a brilliant send-up of the pre-rational sludge from which human thought arises before migrating to the upper reaches of the brain, where the language center is located, to become soundbites, talk show arguments, and newspaper op-eds. Oh, and let's not forget Kilroy. You gotta hand it to Sean Penn. He makes Jeff Spicoli looks smart.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.