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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
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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.