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Sunday, February 29, 2004

The Academy Award for overwhelming hubris goes to ...

Sean Penn, who began his acceptance speech for his Best Actor award with:

If there's one thing that actors know — other than that there weren't any WMDs ...."

I'd be far more interested in the opinion of the average dental assistant, bus driver, or rodeo clown than in Mr. Penn's on matters political, military, or historic. That he thinks actors have opinions on these subjects especially worth broadcasting is too absurd for serious discussion.

Posted by Beldar at 11:20 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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(1) Zarate made the following comment | Feb 29, 2004 11:49:07 PM | Permalink

Sounds like you're more upset that a liberal got a word in. I doubt a scripted moment of blind patriotism at the Oscars would've have raised your ire.

Besides, it was a joke. "If there's one thing that actors know..." See? He's joking about how all actors are liberal! You can laugh! Oh, I forgot, you don't like liberals. Ok, unfunny, then.

(2) Beldar made the following comment | Mar 1, 2004 12:15:10 AM | Permalink

Actually, I don't view the Oscars as a political event. Last I checked, the ceremony was supposed to be about movies.

Penn wasn't making a joke. He was seizing an opportunity to try to make a political point, in what should be a nonpolitical setting. He did so because he had an audiance of hundreds of millions, and he arrogantly assumes that everyone actually cares about his politics. His assumption was, "I just won the Best Actor award, I'm a star, and so people should oppose the administration because I do." I find that repugnant. Believe it or not, I'd have found it equally repugnant had someone used his/her time in the spotlight at this event to plug the Bush administration.

There are lots of liberals who I like, Zarate, and lots whom I respect. It's cliched but true that some of my very best friends are liberals; I spent last night playing poker with some of them, for instance. One thing that earns my respect, though, is when someone has a clue about the right time and place for political debate; or to state it in the converse, I lose respect when someone shows himself to be clueless in that regard, as Penn just did. A poker game isn't a bad place to argue politics, in moderation. And a weblog like this one that focuses on political topics is a fine place to debate politics, Zarate; you're more than welcome to stop by and debate 'em any time!

I don't even object to actors participating in political debate — nor to dental assistants or rodeo clowns. Sean Penn's welcome to come post here; from what I've read of his trips to Iraq and his public comments in connection therewith, he'd be a pretty easy debate target here. But I do object to someone like Penn mis-using the access that his celebrity gives him.

(3) Zarate made the following comment | Mar 1, 2004 1:04:29 AM | Permalink

If this was your reaction was to Michael Moore's rug-whizzing last year, I would say fine, much deserved. But come on. It's pretty obvious that you just knew some Hollywood liberal was gonna pop off their mouth, and you were dern well gonna blog about it. (Did your heart skip a beat when Tim and Susan walked on stage?)

And it WAS a joke, albeit an overtly political one. You just happen to strongly disagree with his view, and don't seem to like the man in general. People bring up their personal views in their speeches all the time. They thank God, for instance. Peter Jackson made a bit of snip at Billy Crystal for his New Zealand comments. So what? They have opinions, that's what makes them interesting.

Personally, I don't buy into the celebrities-have-moral-responsibilities thing. But you do, that's fine. Just be reasonable about it.

Was Penn classy? Of course not. But was he outrageously hubris-laden or whatever you said? Hardly.

(4) TP made the following comment | Mar 1, 2004 12:20:49 PM | Permalink


I respectfully agree with Zarate. It's perfectly legitimate to disagree with Penn, but I'm not sure what about his conduct constitutes hubris. He had a mike, had millions of people watching, and threw in a line espousing his own political opinion. He doesn't have to believe it's worth broadcasting; he just had to want to express it. Reactions to that could conceivably run the gamut from agreement to disinterest to vehement disagreement, but I'm not sure how his conduct constitutes hubris.

(5) Beldar made the following comment | Mar 1, 2004 12:40:43 PM | Permalink

Suppose I win an award for Lawyer of the Year. I show up at the banquet, they call my name, I step to the mike, and I unleash an attack on John Kerry. Appropriate?

Suppose I win an award for Political Blogger of the Year. I show up at the banquet, they call my name, I step up to the mike, and I unleash an attack on John Kerry. Appropriate?

Suppose Tim Russert invites me to appear on Meet the Press. Russert asks me what I think of the candidates this year, and I unleash an attack on John Kerry. Appropriate?

It's not a question of whether the audiance happens to agree or disagree with the politics being expressed. It's a question of whether the speaker is abusing a moment of celebrity by seizing the microphone to express views that are unrelated to the purpose of the event. Viewers who've tuned in to watch Meet the Press presumably expect and want to hear that stuff. Attendees at the Political Bloggers' Dinner probably ought not be surprised to hear it. Attendees at the Lawyer of the Year Dinner probably didn't attend to find out how Beldar intends to vote.

And it's not just politics. It would be equally inappropriate if I used the mike at the Lawyer of the Year Dinner to launch an attack on Mel Gibson's latest movie, The Passion of the Christ, or on the Anti-Defamation League for opposing it; or used the occasion to vent all my frustrations about my ex-wife; or spent 10 minutes on passionate arguments as to why the audiance should donate to Houston Public Television or the National Rifle Association. And if I said, or implied, that my viewpoints on any of these extraneous subjects were particularly important because "Hey, look at me, I'm the Lawyer of the Year, I must be smart and you should think like me!" — that would compound the offense:

"If there's one thing that lawyers know, it's that assault rifles ...."

"If there's one thing that lawyers know, it's that movies about Jesus ..."

If there's one thing that lawyers know, it's that our ex-wives ..."

(6) Zarate made the following comment | Mar 1, 2004 1:56:22 PM | Permalink

Like I said, had your comment been in response to Moore's 2003 outburst, which I'll assume to be roughly equivalent in vehemence to your imaginary Kerry attack, then fine. But you were clearly overreacting, as Penn's comment was (A) a joke, and (B) never in danger of approaching an attack of any kind.

Your idea of a thematically pure Oscars where nary a thought drifts from the holy subject of celluloid can never, has never, and will never occur. If it did, they could go ahead and invite the entire viewing audience to attend, because no one would watch.

And what about Errol Morris, who won for Best Documentary? Are his comments about us "going down a rabbit hole once again" beyond the pale? He was recognized for his documentary about McNamara and Vietnam, not the current Iraq war. What an ego on that guy!

If you're going to paint everything black and white after the fact, you better pick up some more paint at the store. Otherwise it just makes you look like you didn't like what was said, or who said it.

(7) Beldar made the following comment | Mar 1, 2004 6:58:40 PM | Permalink

Zarate and TP, I've been mulling over your comments. Thanks for the thoughtful and civil posts.

As to whether I've overreacted:   That's possible. You're quite right that I was watching and waiting for Penn, for Robbins and Sarandon, and perhaps others to make political remarks. And certainly you're correct that Penn's quick aside, and even Errol Morris' slightly longer one, weren't nearly as obnoxious as Michael Moore's "rug-whizzing" (nice phrase, Zarate!) last year.

Zarate has said twice that he thinks Penn was joking. Perhaps he's right; perhaps Penn was engaged in a bit of self-mockery, although that implies a degree of self-knowledge that I can't recall having seen Penn display elsewhere. There's been no recent shortage of actors and celebrities who've pandered to the unfortunate tendancy of the press to report their political views with breathless seriousness.

Thinking back a bit, this hasn't just been a recent problem, either:   Charles Lindbergh's glowing tributes in the mid- and late-1930s to the German National Socialist Party's achievements, both domestic and avionic, spring to mind. "Lucky Lindy" was a bigger worldwide celebrity than Sean Penn could ever dream of being. It's hard to explain why being a brave pilot particularly qualified him to opine on the relative values of fascism, socialism, or democratic capitalism; but there's no doubt that his opinions were given lots of press and that they probably influenced lots of folks during the days before Pearl Harbor.

I'll also note that apart from the aside regarding WMDs, the balance of Penn's remarks — crediting the other nominees, and even other actors who weren't nominated this year — were entirely appropriate and gracious. Robbins and Sarandon also behaved themselves better than I'd expected.

But I wasn't the only watcher who began the night having been hypersensitized to the issue of movie people seizing the spotlight to make political pitches. Apparently the Academy had thrown a fair amount of prophylactic cold water on the nominees to discourage just that. So if Penn was joking — mocking himself, or perhaps mocking the Academy for seeking to restrain its more politically opinionated members? — he showed questionable judgment. I'll wager that I'm far from the only person who took Penn's remarks at face value, or who thought, or thinks, that Penn thinks actors really do know all about WMDs and the like.

(8) LazyMF made the following comment | Mar 1, 2004 10:22:22 PM | Permalink

If Sean Penn was joking, it was hard to tell. Anyone have a link to his "take" on it?

Susan Serandon was behaved for the second year in a row.

Here's a good, obscure book related to the subject: Athletes, Actors and Astronauts: Political Ameteurs in the United States Congress.

The book was written before the Rev. Dr. Coach Tom Osborne was elected to congress. He is a notable exception.

(9) Zarate made the following comment | Mar 2, 2004 12:37:36 AM | Permalink


Quite fair.

I'll only elaborate on what I view as our only true difference of opinion on this.

I certainly agree that Penn exploited his celebrity status to espouse personal views not relevant to his craft. But I'd add that, without exception, every celebrity does this to varying degrees. Sometimes the result is relatively good--like, say, an actress being a spokesperson for a favorite and well-intentioned charity--and sometimes relatively bad--your Lindbergh example is apt.

I don't care what they say, good or bad, for one important reason: one's celebrity status is not of one's own making; it's bestowed. If Penn was standing outside my house, making speeches, I'd be right out to tell him to bugger off. But his power to reach me is symbolic, and it is granted to him by the media. The media's power to bestow power, in turn, is granted to it by us.

Celebrities are just people, after all, and, just as you stated, they're no more qualified than anyone else to hold forth on some of the topics we often find them holding forth on. The only difference, of course, is that they happen to have a camera and microphone in front of them. But, wait: the camera and microphone were placed there because we ASKED for it to be placed there, we want it there because we want to know what's going on. America is perpetually interested in what these people do and have to say. So to claim that the responsibility falls upon the shoulders of the celebrity to watch what he or she says is a little myopic, to me.

If we really only cared about the merit of the award, there wouldn't be an awards show at all, and the Academy would just put out a press release. Our insistence that whatever a celebrity says, whether it be classy or profane, automatically be reported is what gives Penn any power to abuse.

If you're ok with that, as I am, then everything's fine. You filter out what you don't care for and don't get upset just because it was uttered in the first place.

If you're not ok with that, then your beef is with the media--or, more directly, with every American who shares your power over the media--not with Penn.

You may think it's semantics, but I think the distinction is significant. You can claim what Penn said was funny, or wrong, or stupid, or irrelevant, but you shouldn't claim that he shouldn't have said it. The insinuation that Mr. Penn gets to decide what is broadcast insomuch as he can tell when a microphone is in front of his face is unfair, especially when we're the ones that decide what he says is important.

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