In a world where politics has become entertainment, current entertainment has yet to become as political as it was in the 1960s, when music and film provided the soundtrack, backdrop and color commentary on the movements for social and political change. Alas, the guardians of the weapons of mass distraction are too busy safeguarding Uncle Scrooge's vault to risk alienating consumers with some real meat on the milk bone of popular culture. And we live in a topsy-turvy world where too many Americans seem more concerned with Britney's boobs and J-Lo's booty than Third World genocide, starvation, and disease.
The war in Iraq and the days leading up to it saw many entertainers speaking out on both sides of the issue. The results were predictable within the current swing to the right while we rally round the flag, right or wrong. Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, whom a mutual friend described to me as something of a scattershot blabbermouth, was hammered hard for what was obviously an offhand onstage comment about George W. Bush. The Baseball Hall of Fame canceled a Bull Durham celebration because of the vocal opposition of Durham star Tim Robbins to the war. I see this less as a freeze on free speech and more as a refusal by citizens to listen to viewpoints that run counter to their own. And that is perhaps even scarier than certain provisions of PATRIOT Acts I & II, because it reflects a shutting down of at least one lobe of the collective American mind.
One of the most courageous or egregious examples of celebrity activism, depending on your point of view, was Sean Penn's December 2002 visit to Iraq. It transformed the actor, whose greatest previous controversy was battling paparazzi during his high profile marriage to Madonna -- even though Penn targeted some acquaintances of mine I can still hardly blame him -- into "Baghdad Sean," this season's Hanoi Jane.
In an admirable act of restraint, Penn waited until after the war to present fully his thoughts in an advertisement published in the New York Times entitled "Killroy Was Here" (the text is available at www.seanpenn.com). (Full disclosure: Penn and I share a close mutual friend, musician David Baerwald, who assisted Penn in writing the missive.) To my mind, Penn's ruminations and observations are eloquent, reasoned, and humane, and are constructed on a bedrock of family, God, and love for his country -- values the right wing crows about incessantly.
Contrast Penn's prose and opinions with those of country-rock star Charlie Daniels in his "Open Letter To The Hollywood Bunch" (www.charliedaniels.com/soapbox/03/242.html). (Full disclosure two: Daniels provided me with junkets to Nashville for his "Volunteer Jam" concert for two successive years in the late 1970s.) During the times I've interacted with Daniels in my music journalist role, I found the man to be gracious to a fault. And maybe that's the biggest reason why my stomach clenches when I read his rant. Daniels blasts left-leaning, anti-war Hollywood stars for being hypocritical, idiotic, fanatical, and hateful. I don't believe it's my far leftist viewpoints that cause me to read his commentary as suffused with exactly what he condemns in those he doesn't agree with.
The biggest question in all of this was the one posed by my highly significant other. Even though she agrees with Penn and his principles, her thoughts echo that of many Americans: Who appointed our celebrities as political and social commentators? After all, a sagacious understanding of politics, history, and ethics is not in the job description for American Idol. In fact, it might hinder one achieving such status, if not predispose one to flee screaming from anything resembling celebrity.
My answer to her was simple: We did. As long as we Americans vote more often with our Master Cards and channel changers than we do at the ballot box, this is what we get. And none of us has the right to object to film and music stars and even supermodels or porn actors using the platforms we gave them to spout whatever they please. It is a blatant example of free speech in action, like it or not. And as long as we as a society seem more interested in who the rich and/or famous are sleeping with rather than who we ourselves are sleeping with, our cultural icons shall be loud voices in the public forum.
One benefit from working in entertainment journalism is that I have become unimpressed by celebrity. I even feel a healthy fear of it for myself as well as more than a smidgen of contempt for its addictive and narcotic effects on those who have it and many of the rest of us who observe it. I wish the American people would grok to the fact that stars put on their pants one leg at a time, just like us, even if a valet assists them. At times I even think the Warholian 15 minutes of fame for everyone might be a revealing wake-up call to the hollowness of celebrity.
We have created our own gods in those who act as the bullets in the weapons of mass distraction. And then we shoot them down when they say or behave in ways we object to. But hey, baby, it's only free speech in a capitalist society. And I say either love it (even when you don't agree with it) or leave it be.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.