Sean Penn's Liberalism is a Product of his Environment
I wrote a piece for the Telegraph Blogs yesterday on Sean Penn’s absurd demand that Britain return the Falkland Islands to Argentina. Argentina probably has a better claim to the Isle of Wight (there’s a lovely little tapas bar in Cowes), but Mr Penn still feels that the British presence on “the Malvinas” is evidence of an “archaic commitment to colonialist ideology.” Parodying Penn’s anti-imperialism, I demanded that he return his Malibu estate to the Mexicans. This blog is the first I have ever written that won universal acclaim on both Left and Right. It even got an approving write up on the New Yorker blog. I know – who ever thought the New Yorker office had internet Wifi?
What is silly about Penn’s remarks isn’t their ersatz liberalism. It’s the attempt by a man of limited expertise to comment on something highly complex that has nothing to do with him. Had it been a moral cause, we might have forgiven his naivite (an actor demanding that China free Tibet is going to have no impact but is welcome nonetheless). But in this instance he mistook the absurd claims of an ailing government over a spot of land populated almost entirely by foreigners for a cry of national liberation. Sean Penn over-extended himself.
I’m working on a long-term (and far more scholarly than it sounds) project about the impact of Hollywood networks on national politics. I’ve spent a lot of time in Los Angeles and one thing I’ve noticed is that its liberalism splits into two camps. On the one hand, there are the serious activists who engage in local causes and have a very savvy approach to politics. Quite often, they originate from the East Coast and lack a family background in show business. They stick to one issue and plug the heart out of it. They are hard headed and, importantly, they know their limits.
What defines the alternative variety of liberalism is its comparative lack of limits – the belief that they have an answer to everything. This is the product of Hollywood’s culture of high expectations. It’s a town where if a man told you “I’m going to build a elevator to the moon!” the correct response isn’t, “Get off my porch” – it’s “Good luck and save me a ticket!” Angelinos are used to outrageous ideas being ignored on for years until, by sheer luck, they fall into the lap of a producer and are suddenly catapulted to success with a budget of millions. In a culture without limits, where imagination is leverage and intellectual property has real value, people are actively encouraged to delude themselves. I once hitched a lift with an actor who told me that he was working on a new charitable project. “Is it aimed at animals or children?” I asked. “No poverty," he said. "Where?” “Everywhere.” “Really? Everywhere?” “Yeah. I’m gonna end world poverty.” (He didn’t, by the way).
The grandiosity of a chosen cause usually increases in relation to the star power of the activist. Stars aren’t human beings, they’re a managed brand. Around them whirls a collection of publicists, hair dressers, personal assistants, political directors, and con men. They exist to promote the brand. To preserve their unique access, they cut the star off from outside opinion and validate their every utterance: “You are great, your brand is great, you can do no wrong, you don’t need anyone else’s opinion.” The celebrity reaches a point where no one will tell them that they are being an idiot.
Sean Penn has reached that point. On the one hand, it can be a good thing. It takes a particularly entitled kind of arrogance to fill a private jet with doctors and medicine and fly it to Haiti to help people post-Apocalypse. On the other hand, it means that he is a man with an infinite brief. There is nothing that Penn won’t do or say. It’s the product of an embarrassment of social riches.
It’s important to stress that not all of Hollywood is like this. There are pockets of conservatism (Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Vince Vaughn) and there are liberals who are super smart (Warren Beatty is quite brilliant and surprisingly conservative). But its liberal internationalism can never be entirely avoided because it is a product of environment. Life in Hollywood is bizarre, and it produces bizarre ideas.