The Sean Penn Controversy (So What?)

The feverish over-reaction to the weekend revelation in Rolling Stone that two-time Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn had interviewed a recently recaptured Mexican drug lord points up some of the biggest toxic dynamics in our media culture. They're the four hypes: Hyper-ventilation, hyper-partisanship, celebrity hype, and hypocrisy.

Penn's long if not long-winded Rolling Stone piece chronicling his colorful, risky journey into the Mexican jungles to visit and interview the infamous El Chapo makes for an interesting and at times intriguing look at a figure who boasts he is the biggest drug kingpin in the world.

Aside from the colorful adventure and sometimes telling atmospherics of Penn's visit to El Chapo in what the intriguingly unimpressive and rather banal drug lord believed to be his mountain fastness, there is nothing all that unusual about what Penn did.

Acting as a journalist, a title pretty much up for grabs these days and one which Penn has exercised in the past, the actor secured face-time and an exclusive interview with a newsmaker. In exchange, he produced a vilification-free presentation of the subject and his milieu, one largely free of the hagiography which usually accompanies such arrangements.

Sean Penn interviews a strikingly banal Mexican drug lord.

Penn and Rolling Stone acknowledge up front that the piece was approved by its subject, evidently with no changes requested. That's caused some caterwauling from critics as a departure from journalistic ethics.

But the reality is that in the access journalism of today, the acceptability of the story to its subject is implicit; if it's not acceptable, the access is withdrawn. (And much of Washington and Wall Street journalism disappears.)

Let's not pretend naivete. That is the reality of established journalism, always publicly unacknowledged.

While some of the hyper-ventilation has come from the dwindling ranks of professional journalists and media academics, the great bulk has come from the right-wing, part of the pervasive hyper-partisanship of our time.

Penn, with whom I shared a few dinners in the '90s with Warren Beatty and Annette Being and with Tom Hayden, is largely regarded as a man of the left. That's especially so given his anger over the Iraq War and what I think was his unfortunate friendship with late Venezuelan strong man Hugo Chavez.

So anything conceivably controversial that he does becomes immediate grist for the hard-right media machine.

While Penn, with whom I haven't spoken in years, struck me as generally left of center, he seemed even more an iconoclast, not to mention a very curious guy in the bargain. He struck me as someone seeking the existential edge, a searcher for authenticity.

Even very flawed authenticity.

I recall a discussion of the former world chess champion Bobby Fischer, who had become a famous recluse and pulled his dental fillings to avoid surveillance. I clucked about how sad it all was.

Penn saw it differently. "He made a choice," he declared, "he made a choice."

"Yeah, he made a choice," I replied, "a choice to be f---ing nuts."

Penn's then famous temper flared in his eyes and, recalling his encounters with the paparazzi who'd harassed him and Madonna, it occurred to me he might come over the table. He did not, of course, and I think what he was getting at is that Fischer had been true to his own sense of integrity. Even if it cost him his sanity.

Since then, Penn has become a notable activist, especially spending months of his time on the ground helping disaster victims in Haiti. And he's played major political figures, including his Oscar-winning turn in Milk as slain gay rights champion Harvey Milk, with whom I was acquainted and, rather less successfully, the corrupt crusader Willie Stark in my favorite novel, Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. (The aide Jack Burden is the better role, which Hollywood never gets.)

Does Penn see Hugo Chavez and perhaps El Chapo in the deeply flawed yet arguably redemptive light of Willie Stark, a character clearly modeled on the assassinated Louisiana kingpin Huey Long, the governor and senator who'd been to the left of FDR during the Great Depression?

Perhaps, though there's not too much evidence of that in his piece on the Mexican drug lord. While the kingpin is presented as an alternative power center who like many mobsters has passed out presents to the poor, it's clear that he and his fellow traffickers have corrupted institutions more than created new ones to effect change. That's why it's, oddly, Mexican naval forces used to bring him down.

Penn uses the piece to make the point that El Chapo and his ilk, like the Colombian drug lords before them, exist to service a vast illicit American market created by prohibitionism. And El Chapo comes off as such a banal figure it's easy to see how replaceable he is in the end, as he admits himself.

But Penn doesn't editorialize about a larger geostrategic hypocrisy. Our government's concern about illegal drugs is situational ethics at its, er, finest.

When I backpacked through Afghanistan long before 9/11, there wasn't much opium production there, opium also being the key to heroin. But opium production skyrocketed after America's post-9/11 intervention, which I supported. In fact, before we ousted them, the Taliban nearly had opium eradicated. Now Afghan opium drives the world heroin trade.

Since it would be easy for us to destroy the fields, we obviously countenance the worst of the drug trade when it seems expedient.

In contrast to this reality, Penn's occasional soft-soaping of El Chapo -- which includes some rather paint-by-number questions -- is pretty mild.

Journalistically, though Penn at times is an interesting and quite flavorful writer, the piece is no home run. Which it might well have been. But it is interesting, a real addition to what we already know is a violent and corrupt picture. That is, when the smoke from the four hypes -- hyper-ventilation, hyper-partisanship, celebrity hype, and hypocrisy -- clears away.

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