I think Sean Penn is a great actor.
He ought to stick to acting, though. Because he is to journalism what his ex-wife Madonna is to rocket science.
There was SO much I was tempted to write about this horribly embarrassing "interview" with Raul Castro Penn has on the cover of The Nation magazine this week. But I'll keep it short and let y'all squirm through the original copy.
I will say: It's written like he's the winner of The Oliver Stone Bad Writing About Cuba contest.
I thought Oliver's painfully pliant lay-down session with big brother Fidel a few years back would have been the final chapter in Hollywood celebrities slobbering over dictators and demagogues (though Danny Glover has been pretty shameful in his public worship of Hugo Chavez).
But now Penn pops up giving his own tongue bath to Raul -- complete with poems and everything.
I gotta say, I understand the glorification of a somewhat mythical (if now addled) figure like Fidel. After all, Fidel is Fidel. But Raul? He's never been anything but a dreary bureaucrat known for his dumb loyalty to his brother and his rather steely, authoritarian stewardship of the Cuban military. No one actually likes Raul. They only fear him. Except Sean.
The most stupefying passage from Penn's paean to the creaky current dictator of Cuba is one -- near the end of the piece-- where he writes: "The hour was getting late, but I didn't want to leave without asking Castro about allegations of human rights violations and alleged narco-trafficking facilitated by the Cuban government."Allegations of human rights abuses? Allegations in a country that has been ruled by one family for 50 years, where there are no recognized civil liberties, no political opposition tolerated, where notions of freedom of press, expression and assembly are punishable in courts which provide no independent defense for the accused? Where the death penalty is applied with no appeals process? Where possession of dangerous books can land you in Boniato prison? Where the Web is blocked? WTF?
Of course, Penn answers his own minor doubts about these accusations by reminding us that the U.S. itself violates human rights just a few miles away in Guanatanamo -- and, um, so what? And for good measure, he quotes Raul saying these allegations are, of course, exaggerated and inflated by paid agents of U.S. Imperialism. All those dissidents are on the pad.
The truly maddening part of this whole exercise in vanity by Penn is that his sojourn to Havana was motivated in great part by his desire, he says, to discuss the results of the recent U.S. presidential elections with Raul. He might have, for the hell of it, asked Raul when the next Cuban elections might be scheduled. But, alas, I think such fancy notions still remain in the category of mere "allegations."
Penn does confess that if he were a Cuban writing as critically about that country's political leadership as he does about his own he would certainly wind up in jail (true). And while he says he was thinking about raising such questions directly with Raul, he decides, nah....he's got other things on his mind. Anyway, it would sort of be an impolite act of coitus interruptus.
Penn's apologia for the dictatorship are of the usual sophist construction. Cubans (and Venezuelans) he tell us, could make an historic choice between our imperfect system or their imperfect system and they chose their own. Scratch that poorly used adjective of "sophist." Replace it with a reeking arrogance. What we have is an ultra-rich mega-star deciding for the Cuban people that they should settle for "imperfection" -- as he politely calls it. If we don't settle for it in our country, why are Cubans --standing in ration lines-- supposed to be so damn grateful to a tyrant that feats an American movie star and pretends he's a journalist worthy of a seven hour interview?
Here's a video clip of a somewhat dazed-looking Penn explaining why he went to interview Castro and Chavez (the Venezuelan portion of Penn's master thesis apparently coming out in print next Monday on HuffPost).
Two questions are raised by this clip. Why do millionaires have holes in their jeans? (That, we'll never know). And, why, if Penn was traveling with historian Douglas Brinkley and the rather accomplished political writer Christopher Hitchens did the Cuban dictator decide to grant the interview only to Penn (That, by contrast, seems rather obvious, no?).
This would be a great time for The Nation to produce a probing piece from Havana on, precisely, how Obama's election might or might not change both internal Cuban political dynamics and U.S.-Cuban relations. Instead, we get this slobber from Penn.
Let's hope he gets tied up with a a lot of new movie deals. I much prefer to watch him on the screen than read him in print.
For an infinitely more incisive and -- I might say-- a more morally elevated discussion of Cuba from a thoughtful and quite courageous Cuban writer, I refer you to the dazzling Generation Y blog from Havana-based Yoani Sanchez. Please check it out and make sure you cast a vote for her blog which is currently up for a Bobs award (Yoani has already won the coveted Ortega y Gasset prize -- which is probably what keeps her out of jail).
Here's an excerpt of one of her recent postings titled "I'd Love to Choose.". It cuts neatly, simply and cleanly like a blue-steel machete through the sort of drivel produced by Penn:
For weeks, there are words like “ballot box,” “votes,” and “candidates” that persecute us everywhere. First there were the elections in the United States and now the issue has been revived with what happened on Sunday in Venezuela. It’s as if at the end of the year everything conspires to remind us of our condition as non-electors, our limited experience in deciding who leads us.
You become accustomed to not being able to choose what to put in your mouth, under which creed they will educate your children, or to whom to open the door, but that resignation shatters when you see someone else vote. Because of this it has risen up, these days, the desire to fold the ballot, to push it into the slot and to know that with it goes my stentorian shout that demands: “to choose.”
What a romantic this gal is. She should just accept the imperfections of her system, shut her yap and go see a movie or something.
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42 Responses to “Sean Swoons Over Raul! Haven’t We Seen This Flick Already?”
First of all Happy Thanksgiving! Second of all I still have friends in Havana. I was there in 1996. The Cuban Revolution collapsed a long time ago. There is little or no freedom for artists and writers. Penn is a dollar short and a day late on this. Back in 1968 yes. 2008 no!
I think that Americans with radical politics will always have an affinity for foreign politicians with radical politics, just as liberals like Marc Cooper will always have an affinity for moderates like Lula. That’s what makes life interesting.
“Back in 1968 yes.” Yeah, the year that Fidel supported the Soviet invasion of Chechoslovakia.
DJ – what “radical politics” does the 2nd rate hack Raul represent ? What’s “radical” about unfettered statism, suppression of any organized opposition and jailing folks for dissent ? For that matter – moving South – what’s “radical” about carving a welfare state out of oil revenue ? That’s already been done in various Middle East emirates. Hell, it’s the secret to Sarah Palin’s modest “success.”
The gist of the article seems to be that the US and the Cuban state might get together to promote offshore drilling in the Caribbean. I see in the not too distant future Barack (or maybe Hillary) after meeting with Raul to signal an end to the embargo, being greeted by crowds of Cubans in the Plaza de la Revolucion shouting “Drill, baby, drill!” The Revolution may be dead but irony is alive and well.
Reg, the radical politics that Raul Castro represents is called Marxism. Books about Marxism are available from your better bookstores. If you are comparing Venezuela to Kuwait, then you really require psychiatric help. Perhaps a lobotomy might be in order.
I have to say that I blame the Nation editors for featuring this stuff more than I blame Penn for his efforts. His mediocre contributions would be fine in that often silly sidebar “blog” at Huffington Post. In a weekly print magazine that purports seriousness, not so much. I think you’re also really more pissed at your editors over there than at Penn’s rampant exhibition of earnest lefty conventional “wisdom,” which more than anything makes him look silly. The Nation should know better. I have to say that his intent, which was to bring a couple of more seasoned journalists of diverse views to interview these guys was better than what came out of it.
By the way, Reg, I fully agree. Penn was only doing what you would expect someone like him to do. And correction, I’m not pissed. My health is way too important to me to get exercised over such meaningless twaddle. But I will admit that I am rather surprised at how predictable all this continues to be. And the Penn piece DID border on self-parody.
Fact is, The Nation has a bit of a “Cuba problem.” Working there during 14 years (until last January) I had only two pieces killed: one was in early 2001 when I went to an NRA conference and my editors were unhappy with my conclusions that gun control had ceased to be a viable issue on Capitol Hill because the Dems had decided to punt after the way the issue was used by Repubs in 2000. I was right of course. The other piece was in 1996 when I wrote something very critical about Castro from Cuba, warning precisely against the sort of Penn-like adulation that still plagues the left. And at the time, I might say, I myself was way more left than I am now and… irony of it all.. much farther left than the Nation as a whole.
The Nation is not a Marxist publication. It’s political center of gravity is slightly to the left of Obama. But it definitely has a Cuba hang-up. When the mag did a special issue on Cuba two years ago I was somehow omitted from the invited contributors even though I have probably been to Cuba more times than the combined editorial staff.. which is probably exactly why I was considered to be unreliable. The only critical piece in that package (about Cuba) was one from my friend John Dinges who was asked to write about recent expulsion of some foreign reporters from Cuba. It was a good piece. And the other pieces, for what they were (critiques of US policy) were also quite good. Missing was the 800lb gorilla: a ground level report on what it was actually like to be an ordinary Cuban nowadays. Not a cheery topic area.
I have to say I much more enjoy working with the fresh minds of a new generation of journalism grad students than I do working around many of the ossified notions of my own generation.
“His mediocre contributions would be fine in that often silly sidebar “blog” at Huffington Post.”
“And the Penn piece DID border on self-parody.”
I must check it out. If it “borders on self parody” in Marc’s eyes, I ‘m sure it’a goddamn hoot.
“The other piece was in 1996 when I wrote something very critical about Castro from Cuba, warning precisely against the sort of Penn-like adulation that still plagues the left. And at the time, I might say, I myself was way more left than I am now and… irony of it all.. much farther left than the Nation as a whole.”
Katrina must have had a bad week with her gardener.
Redbaiting is just so passe. Who cares about Sean Penn and what interest does it serve, except the penchant to redbait, to write such tripe? I mean, even if I concede that Raul Castro is no Marxist, he wants to take the “Chinese Road” to capitalo-stalinism, even that Cuba, given the state-socialist model, is not a place to emulate, Penn wrote an interesting travelogue from his perspective- a perspective we all know that is a privileged “progressive” celebrity – that hardly fawns, in fact, is quite nuanced.
But the real point is why waste bandwidth on redbaiting, and not examine how the US is gonna use the horrfying attacks on India today to (as India is already doing) blame Pakistan, for Obama’s first great war!
Rebaiting? Get lost, comrade. What’s your logic here? If a dictator calls himself a communist he becomes exempt from public criticism? What a steaming pile.
Why waste time on this you ask? I hope that will be the lead of your letter to the editors of The Nation. To tell you the truth Jordi, I dont give a flying fug what Sean Penn thinks about Cuba or anything else for that matter. And I hardly stayed up last nite fretting about it.
I would think, however, that you MIGHT care that this tripe is the sort of stuff that makes the cover of America’s leading progressive publication especially in the sort of perilous times you outline. Raul Castro stages a publicity stunt saying that he “might” meet Obama at Guantanamo (something that has NO chance of happening and that would pretty much sink Obama immediately) and a dolt like Penn acts as transmission belt and The Nation sees fit to put it on the cover… but, wait, this is all redbaiting!!!!!
That Penn’s dopey drivel is a waste of time was precisely my point. But, wait, I don’t have time to write any longer of an answer to you because, alas, there are terror attacks in Mumbai and US Imperialism is gearing up for war against Democratic Pakistan! There’s also genocide in Darfur. Famine in North Korea. Anarchy in Zimbabwe. (And of course there’s that picket line of a bunch of well-fed Canadians that we ought to be worrying about as well)
By the way… I think Obama SHOULD accept Raul’s offer and agree to not only meet him at Guantanamo but also to close Guantanamo.
And Obama should fix a firm datefor the meeting: exactly 24 hours after Raul Castro announces a date for open and internationally supervised elections and lifts all prohibitions on publishing, freedom of assembly and the right to organize INDEPENDENT unions and voluntary political opposition parties. What a great day it would be for ALL of us. Try walking a picket line in Havana and let’s see how the cops respond
“By the way… I think Obama SHOULD accept Raul’s offer and agree to not only meet him at Guantanamo but also to close Guantanamo.”
Cooper, are you aware that Obama has come under scrutiny for basically recreating Guantanamo inside the US, keeping some prisoners captive for the rest of their lives without ever going to trial? Compared to not being able to walk a picket line in Havana, this amounts to a much greater abuse of human rights although an Obamaniac like you is incapable of perceiving that.
This is not an apologetic piece of propaganda for dictatorship, as Marc suggests but a fairly balanced and quite interesting account of Senn Penn’s trip where him and his eccentric crew were given total access to Chavez and to a lesser extent Castro. I could think of far worse stories on the cover of the Nation than this genuinely interesting one. Penn, btw, seems to have an open mind and a far more nuanced take on the world than our host suggests. There’s plenty to admire about the Cuban revolution alongside its real limitations, and Penn points out that his writing exercise for the Nation would not be permitted if he was a Cuban. That said his eyes are open, he lives in the US and as a citizen he shows some commendable awareness of the ways in which US policy has actively worked to crush revolution and hypocrtically targets it as the US commits crimes on Cuban soil all the same time condemning Cuba for human rights abuses. It’s worth reading.
Jb is on to something. It occured to me that Marc may be smirking a bit that didn’t get an invite for the Brinkley, Hitch, Penn trip. It sounds alot more intriguing than another night of smoozing it up at one of Arianna’s now ubiquitous shing digs
First, anything that keeps Sean Penn away from directing god awful films should be seen as at least a silver lining in a dark cinimatic cloud. And after that cheap but accurate shot; I would say he deserves some points for his preinvasion pleas from Iraq.
As far as what the Cuban people really want, it’s possible Cooper knows roughly as much as Sean Penn. Anyone still writing in terms of admiration for a crackpot war monger like Chris Hitchens is hardly to be trusted on such matters.
[...] fawning paean to Chavez and Raul Castro by Sean Penn in The Nation – as well as Marc Cooper’s searing dismissal of it. Wrote Cooper: “This would be a great time for The Nation to produce a probing piece [...]
The hyperventilation on display here should make clear who has a “Cuba hang-up.” It certainly is not The Nation, who’s only crime (like Penn’s) was to think the most important duty in US journalism is to speak about things that the United States Government should and should not be doing in our name. Lord knows the capitalist media (and politicians) give us little else but the over-the-top, attack the enemy rhetoric Cooper apparently wants more of. The rest of the world laughs at our Cold War obsessions.
Penn’s version of journalism is actually a brave, breath of fresh air. The piece reads like a movie and was actually newsworthy. He is critical of Cuba and Chavez on many points but has a right to be madder at pols (like Biden and Lieberman) who routinely call Chavez a good for nothing dictator and distort the way Americans look at Latin America.
Cooper does not have to find inspiration in Cuban socialism (as
so many in the world do). He, like many good liberals, can continue to say the US system is broken but ridicule people who are trying to build a new world elsewhere. I’m sure he fancies himself an anti-imperialist but uses his pen more against Cuba and Venezuela than of all the recent US misdeeds in the region. That’s fine. All we proud socialists ask is why he goes out of his way to cow journalism with a different point of view?
And by the way, some facts were wrong. Cubans indeed have the right to an appeal (up to the Supreme Court). They also have a moratorium on the death penalty and publicly state they hope to never use it. There are no banned books in Cuba and no one has been arrested for having the wrong books in their house. That’s absurd. The “independent librarians” (in prison) Cooper is probably referencing were the handful who chose to work and take money from the US Government – just like most of the few dozen “prisoners of conscience” that Amnesty recognizes. Does Cooper know that the US Government wastes even more money trying to coerce groups and hacks around the world to print that Cuba is arresting people for their books? If he does not see the USG engineered circle that he is falling for, I don’t know what to say.
[...] Penn had the temerity to write about his trip to Cuba in the pages of the Nation Magazine, Cooper fulminated on his blog: “But now Penn pops up giving his own tongue bath to Raul — complete with poems and [...]
By any objective journalistic standards, Penn’s piece is a better and more professionally written piece than the one above by Marc Cooper. Which leads me to conclude that Cooper should consider taking his own advice and stick to his own vocation — in his case teaching USC students.
Hello Marc, the useful idiots are being used for something. The timing of Oliver Stone’s Chavez rewrite is an affront on the Venezuelan opposition during a crucial moment. Is Chavez financing Stone? Glover got $30M. Is Penn looking for future project financing? I read Penn is a control freak … just like Chavez!
If Oliver Stone’s rewrite is an affront to Venezuela’s opposition during “a crucial moment” like this…um….who cares? But as long as you’re writing about this, who from the opposition has time to read Oliver Stone’s rewrite? Who from the opposition is affronted by this rewrite? And how did they take this grave affront? Just curious.
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