It’s not surprising that Sean Penn, thanks to his star turn as Harvey Milk, is becoming a hero of the gay community — likely to be showered with acting prizes, and deservedly so. But his outspoken admiration for the Castro and Chavez regimes should make everyone think twice.
It’s not surprising that Sean Penn, thanks to his star turn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s biopic Milk, is becoming a hero to gays. His performance is moving and, judging by the archival film footage, flawless; Penn simultaneously renders Milk as a figure of historic importance and a vulnerable individual with a sparkling sense of humor. Aside from the acting prizes he will surely win (and deservingly), Penn is likely to earn himself the iconic status of “straight ally,” a heterosexual who goes out of his way to take a stand for gay rights and is thus showered with praise from gays. A GLAAD Media Award, honors from the Human Rights Campaign, and a slew of prizes from other prominent gay rights organizations are only a matter of time.
Which is a shame, because Penn’s political activism, irrespective of his views on gay rights, negates the values for which a movement based upon individual freedom must stand.
The same week that Milk premiered in theaters, The Nation published a cover story by Penn based on interviews he conducted recently with Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro, the dictators of Venezuela and Cuba respectively. The article is a love letter to the two men, defending them against all manner of Western “propaganda.” It hearkens back to the notorious dispatches penned by Westerners fresh from the Soviet Union who reported on the amazing progress of the workers’ paradise. These worshipful epistles, often published in The Nation, neglected to mention anything about the gulag, the “disappearance” of political dissidents, the Ukrainian famine, or any other such inconvenient truths about communism. Lenin termed the individuals who delivered these apologetics “useful idiots,” and Penn and his enablers are nothing if not that.
Penn traveled to the region with the polemicist Christopher Hitchens, and while the loquacious Chavez was happy to entertain both men, the reclusive Castro was a harder get. Penn’s long-standing defense of the communist regime in Cuba, however, must have endeared him to the Castro brothers, as Raul decided to grant an interview only with the actor. The import of a communist dictator purposely deciding to sit for an interview with Penn and not Hitchens, who would have been less — how to put it? — deferential in his line of questioning, was apparently lost on the movie star and his readers. Reporting on his dinnertime conversation, Penn dutifully made all the standard arguments in defense of the Cuban regime, from pointing out that the Communist Party would win 80% of the vote in an open election to morally equating the United States’ Guantanamo Bay prison to Cuban jails that house the Castro brothers’ political enemies.
It’s only in the closing moments of his otherwise adulatory, seven-hour interview that Penn bothers to ask about human rights abuses on the island, and just the “allegations” of abuses at that. The lack of interest in individual liberty, hardly surprising for a far-left fellow traveler like Penn, is nonetheless ironic given the Cuban regime’s treatment of gay people, a subject that one suspects Penn might have some interest in given his critically acclaimed performance in Milk. Not long after the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro ordered the internment of gay people in prison labor camps, where they were murdered or worked to death for their “counterrevolutionary tendencies.”
Over the gate of one of these camps were the words “Work Will Make Men Out of You,” an eerie homage to the welcome sign at Auschwitz instructing Jews on their way to the gas chambers that “Work Will Make You Free.” (The plight of gays in the Cuban revolution is movingly told in the novel Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas, made into a film starring Javier Bardem. Playing a gay character in a film that has both an antitotalitarian and pro-gay message, Bardem is an “ally” less morally compromised than Penn.) In the early years of the regime, Raul Castro was notorious for ordering the summary execution of its opponents, including people whose only crime was their homosexuality. This is the man with whom Penn was “in stitches” knocking back glasses of red wine.
While homosexuality has since been decriminalized in Cuba, the communist government bans gay organizations, as it does any organization critical of the regime.
“There isn’t a single individual that is taken seriously in the human rights community — whether you’re talking about Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or Freedom House — that would describe the Castro brothers and their regime as anything other than a police state run by thugs and murderers,” says Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, which focuses on Latin America. “That Sean Penn would be honored by anyone, let alone the gay community, for having stood by a dictator that put gays into concentration camps is mind-boggling.”
Penn’s credibility as an effective advocate for gay rights is also weakened by the generally illiberal policies of the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes. Chavez, in spite of Penn’s apologetics to the contrary, is no democrat; the record of his rule is unmistakably authoritarian. The latest State Department human rights report cites the following government infringements in just the past few years: “unlawful killings; disappearances reportedly involving security forces; torture and abuse of detainees; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; a corrupt, inefficient, and politicized judicial system characterized by trial delays, impunity, and violations of due process; searches without warrants of private homes; official intimidation and attacks on the independent media; government-promoted anti-Semitism; widespread corruption at all levels of government; violence against women; trafficking in persons; and restrictions on workers’ right of association.”
Chavez has also cavorted on the world stage with individuals like Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe, trying to form a bloc of third-world, authoritarian regimes to stand in opposition to the West. Penn, playing the role of the apparatchik almost as well as he did the former San Francisco supervisor, doesn’t bother to ask Chavez about any of these manifold abuses or associations, preferring to repeat without skepticism the crazed dictator’s claim that the United States is plotting an invasion of his country. “It’s true, Chavez may not be a good man,” Penn declares. “But he may well be a great one.”
That Penn would write an homage to Latin American caudillos is nothing new, as both he and The Nation have sung the praises of anti-American dictators for quite some time. Indeed, Penn fancies himself something of a foreign correspondent.
In December 2002 he traveled to Baghdad to meet with cronies of Saddam Hussein — the killer of hundreds of thousands, if not over a million people — to defend the Ba’athist regime against impending war. Penn hobnobbed with notorious individuals like Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister infamous as the public face of the Hussein regime, and pleaded on their behalf. This is not to condemn the notion of antiwar activism, but there were principled arguments to be made against the Iraq War and means of arguing against it that didn’t require the knowing exploitation of oneself as a propaganda tool for a totalitarian regime. While Penn nary has a word of criticism about genuine tyrants and terrorists, last year he delivered a speech naming senior American government officials as “villainously and criminally obscene people” (Chavez proudly read the letter on state television).
Why should anyone care about an actor’s politics? The bloviations of Hollywood stars tend to be ignorant and irrelevant to those interested in serious debate about the issues of the day, but Penn’s grandstanding matters due to both his role in Milk and the film’s political relevance in the context of Proposition 8 and the nationwide campaign for gay rights. Gay rights are human rights, as Milk said, and Penn discredits both when he rationalizes illiberal ideologies as “anti-imperialist” and rushes to the defense of thugs who posture as victims of the West. Penn’s ignoble political side projects taint a noble cause.