Sean Penn is a saint.
Did that get your attention? Good.
Since we know that there are no such things as saints, and we also know that the people we call saints are canonized by old men who wear fancy costumes, it is, therefore, reasonable to suggest that those who call themselves authorities in these matters warrant considerable skepticism from believers and non-believers alike.
So where does that leave us?
Nowhere, really, but it affords me the opportunity to celebrate the celebrity most people love to hate: Sean Penn.
Smug, talented, truculent, egomaniacal, indifferent, et cetera.
Leave aside the facts that he has turned in some of the more remarkable film performances and has shown himself to be an incredibly capable director, and definitely leave aside the silly and ceaseless contretemps with the press corps. Leave aside everything except for the thing that makes the most people uncomfortable: his activism. He is on the short list, along with Oliver Stone and Susan Sarandon, of people whose mere names can make certain types of people throw up in their mouths. It’s understandable, somewhat: if there is one thing we hate as Americans, it’s having people tell us how selfish and stupid, how…American we often can be. Add to that a rich person doing the hectoring and it is like an allergic reaction.
(The fact that we traditionally, even instinctively bestow credibility to politicians and priests, especially when we are reminded, over and over, how little difference they make –unless it involves their wallets and their peckers– is adequate commentary on our cultural cluelessness.)
Here’s the thing: I leave my cynicism on the side of the road and fully embrace anyone, no matter what their politics or profession, if they spend even a tiny bit of time doing actual good for the world. (Even the lip-service liberals who give their names to causes but don’t get any dirt –real or metaphorical– under their carefully-manicured nails.) But there are the handful of iconoclasts who put their millions where their mouths are.
Let’s name names and be impertinent about it: Penn, along with Brad Pitt and George Clooney –names that make Republicans shudder– have collectively done more good for the world in the last decade than any trinity (be they pols, preachers or holy ghosts) combined.
(Sidenote: speaking of preachers, The New York Times, still reeling from the departure of the irreplaceable Frank Rich, just received its last column from the incorruptible Bob Herbert. Herbert wrote repeatedly about topics that affect the largest numbers of people and receive the smallest amount of attention: those slipping steadily outside of middle class status and those falling farther into the despairing sinkhole of poverty, all while the well-fed politicians fiddle, dither and give less than a fuck. His track record on these matters is identical to Paul Krugman’s on the financial debacle of the last few years: both of them sounded off early, often and with increasing urgency; both were ignored or ridiculed, and both were approximately 100% correct about everything they predicted and reported.
My quick take:
Bob Herbert was exactly like a fundy preacher in this regard: he pounded the same things, week after week, with a fervor that could seem like it was set on auto-pilot.
Bob Herbert was exactly unlike a fundy preacher in this regard: what he was talking about was not self-evident (if sanctioned) hocus-pocus.
I happily, even ecstatically cede the floor to John Cole who celebrated Herbert over at Balloon Juice better than I could ever do, while bitch-slapping the inside-the-beltway country club intellects who damned Herbert with faint praise or dismissed him altogether:
The reason many pundits sit in the back of class yelling “BORING” while making armpit farty sounds when it comes to Bob Herbert is simply because what he writes about does not affect them. Most of the pundit class is privileged, white, insured, employed, and talking about the widespread despair for millions of Americans is akin to talking to Eskimos about what suntan lotion is the best for a trip to the French Riviera. When you read about the issues Herbert discusses and say to your self that this “his motives were obviously honorable, his compassion deep, and his solutions sincere, if invariably trite,” and that he was such a “boring, familiar voice,” you probably aren’t focusing on what he is saying at all and instead are mentally composing your next piece on Trig Palin or beards, or in Joe Klein’s case, how the DFH’s are ruining America.
Here is what E.J. Dionne (one of the last truly liberal voices) had to say, quoting generously from Herbert’s epic last column:
More than any other columnist, Bob has stayed on the story of the left-out: the poor, and working people whose incomes have stagnated or fallen through the floor. He heard them out and told their stories. He paid close attention when Washington had a chance to act on their behalf, and when, too often, it missed those opportunities or made things worse. He never pulled punches about the scandal of growing economic inequality in the United States — and in his final column on Saturday, he made sure to remind his readers of how big a scandal it is:
Through much of the post-World War II era, income distribution was far more equitable, with the top 10 percent of families accounting for just a third of average income growth, and the bottom 90 percent receiving two-thirds. That seems like ancient history now.
The current maldistribution of wealth is also scandalous. In 2009, the richest 5 percent claimed 63.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The overwhelming majority, the bottom 80 percent, collectively held just 12.8 percent. . . .
Overwhelming imbalances in wealth and income inevitably result in enormous imbalances of political power. So the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well. The employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end. And nation-building never gets a foothold here at home.)
(Sidenote two: read this article by Mark Bittman, entitled “Why We’re Fasting” to see another all-too-rare instance of people in positions of influence trying to make a discernible difference.)
Back to Sean Penn.
You may have heard he has spent some time in Haiti.
This piece, entitled “The Accidental Activist” (by Zoe Heller) appeared on NYTimes.com and is, in many ways, a revelation. He went to Haiti after last year’s earthquake devastated the country, and has spent much of the last year there, sleeping in tents and burnt-out buildings. Check it out:
Over a year later, Penn is still in Haiti and his initial ragtag group of medics and fixers has grown into a team of 15 international workers, 235 Haitians and hundreds of rotating medical volunteers. In addition to coordinating sanitation, lighting, water and security for the Pétionville camp, J/P HRO runs two primary care facilities, a women’s health center, a cholera isolation unit and a 24-hour emergency room. It has pioneered a rubble removal program that has become a model for other N.G.O.’s, and it has developed one of the most effective emergency response systems in the country, using state-of-the-art bio-surveillance techniques and helicopters to reach cholera-stricken communities in remote areas.
How you like them apples?
Regarding what he’s done and what motivates him, he says something that should end up as his epitaph (and is something any of us should aspire to have as ours):
You’re either willing to be part of all time, or you’re going to limit yourself to being part of the current time.
That might be the most powerful (and admirably succinct!) call to arms I’ve ever seen in regards to activism and eschewing the trappings of fame and/or the soul-sucking infotainment detritus that surrounds and distracts all of us.
It’s funny to me, in a sad way of course. We venerate vapid tricksters like Donald Trump (who is currently being included in “the conversation” about potential presidential candidates; talk about the audacity of hope), or Oprah who, for all the bathos and boasting, has been interested in exactly one person for the last three decades. But I’m not content to pick off the usual –and easy– list of stagnant suspects; including the self-aggrandizing (and enriching) political bootlickers…I’d like to include the self-absorbed celebs who generally get a free pass. Let’s take the lovable lightweight, Conan O’Brien, who seemed to be everyone’s favorite underdog in 2010. For starters, there is little need to revisit or linger on the empty soul of Jay Leno: he can’t even defend his own vacuousness, so no point in anyone else doing so. But certainly I wasn’t the only person who felt dirty listening to this incalculably fortunate carnival barker whining about losing a multi-million dollar gig (getting multiple millions for a few months of work) before landing another multi-million dollar gig? Wouldn’t it have been refreshing to see O’Brien work some of that narcissistic angst for a cause (say Habitat For Humanity) that benefitted someone other than himself?
Today, with reality TV and the unreal proposition that anyone, anywhere can do something, anything, and get famous for a few seconds, we have effectively replaced actions with images and community with the cult of self. We have made each individual the center of their own universe, which can’t help but have a deadening effect on our collective sensibilities. With this bizarre mixture of apathy and egomania, it is easier to understand how we can sit back and listen to Wall Street executives lament the small percentage of taxes they are obliged to pay. It’s easier to see why we can avoid mind-shattering cognitive dissonance watching the CEO from the company that paid no taxes at all in 2010 work as Obama’s “key advisor” on jobs and economic growth. It’s easier to reconcile the pitiful fact that too many people who pray to Jesus worship the money-makers (and money-lenders) He repeatedly castigates throughout The Scriptures.
And here is Sean Penn: easy to lampoon but difficult to deny or diminish. He is in many regards the anti-celebrity of our time because he is utterly uninterested in helping us feel good about ourselves. Indeed, he makes us feel worse. More, he relishes doing so. In my estimation he serves the role, in an increasingly secular world, of the cranky old clergyman who browbeats his flock each week. We need that admonishment right now; we certainly need the example and this inspiration. We need to recognize that if anyone on our planet is emulating the actual, literal teachings of Christ, it’s this sullen, unsanctified savior.