The Magazine

The Sean Penn Piñata

Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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You could tell it was a vacation week because The Scrapbook found itself, one idle afternoon, reading an essay by the actor Sean Penn on Huffington Post. These are two activities—perusing HuffPo, imbibing the wisdom of Sean Penn—that The Scrapbook customarily avoids.

But like any new experience, it had its rewards and it had its frightening moments as well. Mr. Penn has a reputation as a “thinking” actor—the New York Times once hailed him as “the actor of his generation,” and we always enjoy listening to worshipful interviews of him on NPR—so we settled down to read his essay in the spirit of friendly inquiry.

We were not disappointed. Bearing the slightly mysterious title “Breached Piñatas,” it began with an allusion to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School—a predictable, but certainly defensible, choice of subject—but swiftly veered off in a very different direction. Mr. Penn appeared to be talking about the need for gun control, and he quoted President Obama approvingly on the subject of the Newtown tragedy. But then he warned us about the difference between thinking with one’s head and one’s heart, and explained it thus:

We Americans and our leadership, must be diligent to the nature of the human brain. Indeed that thing upon our neck was not created decoratively, and in using our heads with our hearts, must also use our eyes, and set them clearly, not upon one healing mechanism, not upon one prevention, but upon all those connective dots that can allow future generations the possibility of freedom including peace and safety.

Well, thought The Scrapbook to itself, who can argue with that? But it took another seven long paragraphs to get to the point of the piece: namely, that Citizen Penn had succeeded where everyone else (especially the U.S. government) had failed, and persuaded his friend the Bolivian strongman Evo Morales to release Jacob -Ost-reicher, an American citizen unjustly imprisoned in Bolivia.

Good for you, thought The Scrapbook to itself. But the problem was that Penn’s eloquent tribute to himself was surrounded by dozens of lines of incoherent verbiage, soaring solecisms, malapropisms galore, misspellings, invented words, incompetent grammar, and sheer comic pomposity too baroque to describe.

If readers are disinclined to believe us, here are some samples:

The conflicted principle here, is that which all too often defines and limits our pride as Americans who, in deference to an omnipresent filter of mono-culturalism, isolationism and division, are consistently prone toward behaviors and words, as insensitive and -disrespectful, while at foremost counterproductive for the generations of young Americans who will follow us.

Note the skillful deployment of cliché (“generations of young Americans who will follow us”) in the service of an incomprehensible notion (“at foremost counterproductive”). Or consider this:

The efforts to gain [Jacob Ostreicher’s] release were rigorous and multi-tiered, but where the media often sought to challenge State Department efforts, so did they exaggerate an already steeped dynamic of sovereign pushback.

We could go on. Mr. Penn uses the delightful phrase “cow tow,” for example, when The Scrapbook assumes he means the Chinese derived “kowtow”; he has an English-as-a-second-language bias against the use of -articles (“human happiness is proving itself reliant on global quality of joy”) and a fondness for turning unlikely words into adjectives (“saboteurial,” “interventionary”). His apparent lack of formal education is never so sadly apparent as when he seeks to express himself in what we presume is his native tongue.

But all of this raises a larger question. The Scrapbook has known for a very long time that Sean Penn is what the late Malcolm Muggeridge used to call an “inspired idiot,” and our expectations of his intellectual powers are correspondingly low. But what about the Huffington Post? Obviously, there are writers who contribute to its burgeoning content, but does Arianna Huffington not employ editors? Or, as we suspect, did some poor HuffPo underling get an email from the proprietor (“My dear friend Sean wants this in immediately”) and follow her instructions—to the unletter, so to speak?

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