Meet Mayor Lightfoot's Coronavirus Czar
A presence in Hollywood for over four decades, Sean Penn has become a powerful figure on the big screen. Starring in more than 50 films, Penn is also a two-time Academy Award winning actor and director who has been recognized and nominated for dozens of industry awards in his acclaimed career, including a Golden Raspberry. Like many of his peers in Hollywood, Penn has seen fit to parlay his screen success to become an opinion leader, political player, and humanitarian.
Aside from his big-screen triumphs, Penn’s humanitarian work includes a deep and abiding commitment to charitable giving through Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE), an emergency relief foundation he founded in the wake of a 2010 earthquake which rocked Haiti. A group which established a presence in Chicago to assist in the fight against COVID-19, Penn was recently welcomed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to aid in spreading the mayor’s coronavirus message. While touring Chicago with Lightfoot, Mr. Penn parroted the machisma mayor’s message Chicago can only emerge from the lockdown gradually. “We all just have to be very deliberate,” Penn stated. The Fast Times at Ridgemont High star later added the coronavirus presents “a very different dynamic than most of the disasters” he has witnessed.
Penn should know quite a bit about disasters. Though his charitable work has taken him to Haiti and New Orleans, his role as a roving diplomat and rookie journalist has taken him to every corner of the planet. Since 2002, Penn’s globe trotting has revealed him to be fond of brutal dictators and a journalist who fails to present a full picture of his subjects. It is a side gig Penn should be ashamed of and a past which should have disqualified him from becoming a spokesman for Chicago’s mayor. In the past two decades, Penn’s habit of making icons of megalomaniacal tyrants has courted controversy and should have rendered him a toxic embarrassment. Ms. Lightfoot, nonetheless, is in need of assistance and Penn’s star power was obviously too much for the mayor to resist.
Though Penn’s world tour has been not merely embarrassing but disgraceful, the Milk star is not the first American celebrity to stir public debate for traveling abroad and meeting with the leaders or leading members of authoritarian regimes. Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh took several trips to Nazi Germany between 1936 and 1938. Though the trips Lindbergh paid to the heart of Nazism were friendly, it occurred at a time when the Nazi regime was growing more threatening toward its neighbors and less than a year after the Nazis enacted the revolting anti-Jewish Nürnberg Laws, which deprived German Jews of citizenship. Missions undertaken at the request of the U.S. government, Lindbergh was urged to travel to Germany to assess the pace of German re-armament and to measure the capabilities of Germany’s Luftwaffe. During his 1936 trip, Lindbergh toured airfields, aircraft factories, and research facilities. Although Lindbergh did attend a function hosted by the U.S. embassy in Berlin during his 1938 trip and did receive an award from ranking Nazi Hermann Göring, the award was unexpected, and Lindbergh never met with Adolf Hitler. While Lindbergh’s tours were at the behest of the U.S. government, his reputation suffered considerably: Lindbergh accepting the honor was widely interpreted in American media as an endorsement of the Nazi regime. While Lindbergh had provided vital information to the U.S. military, his trips were a propaganda windfall for Hitler’s Germany.
Decades later, while the war raged in Viet-Nam, actress Jane Fonda and folk singer Joan Baez visited Ha Noi, North Vietnam. Although the two women journeyed separately to the communist North, Ha Noi’s disinformation machine made good use of Fonda’s July 1972 tour. During her two-week trip, North Vietnamese propagandists filmed Fonda’s every move as she visited sites targeted by American combat aircraft, sat with members of a communist anti-aircraft battery, and her meetings with Americans servicemen in communist captivity. In a reprehensible act for which she has never entirely been forgiven, Fonda delivered a series of ten broadcasts on Ha Noi Radio condemning the American involvement in Viet-Nam. Fonda also accused captured American aviators of committing war crimes and demanded they be judged and some sentenced to death. Following Paris peace negotiations in 1973 which brought about an end to the war, Fonda defended Ha Noi’s despots by insisting first-hand accounts of torture inflicted on American prisoners by North Vietnamese jailers were advanced by “hypocrites,” “pawns,” and “liars” and intensified her anti-war stance. To underscore her solidarity with the communist North, Fonda would return to Ha Noi in 1974 to produce a documentary with her then-husband, Tom Hayden.
Fonda, however, was not alone in denouncing U.S. policy in Viet-Nam. Five months after Ha Noi celebrated its public-relations coup with the Hollywood actress, lyric poet and activist Joan Baez traveled to Ha Noi. Arriving one day prior to President Nixon’s December 1972 Christmas Bombing, Baez was confined to Ha Noi for the duration of the 11-day aerial bombardment but became useful for the communists’ agitprop engine by recording the devastation wrought by the bombardment. While carefully guided to staged areas by her communist hosts, Baez captured images of buildings her communist handlers claimed were ravaged by American bombs. While Baez rebuked American policy, her comments were moderate in comparison to Fonda’s. To her credit, Baez finally acknowledged the brutality of Vietnamese communists in 1979 and took out advertisement in the New York Times to vilify Ha Noi for its abuses, its forced re-location policies, and its political re-education camps. Charging Baez guilty of heresy against Fonda’s unique brand of anti-Americanism, Fonda organized a counter campaign to upbraid Baez’s negative tone and asked Baez if her re-appraisal of the war and budding anti-communism was inspired by the view communism was “worse than death.”
Like Fonda and Baez, who traveled to North Vietnam on their own volition, actor Sean Penn has undertaken foreign trips under the fevered fantasy he is a humanitarian and journalist. In one of his earliest trips abroad in December 2002, Penn’s compass took him to Baghdad, Iraq, to protest the Bush Administration’s expected plans to for a military strike against the rule of Ba’athist dictator, Saddam Hussein. Touring a children’s hospital and inspecting a water treatment facility devastated in the 1991 Gulf War, Penn later got an audience with a top adviser to Hussein, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. Baghdad triumphantly seized on Penn’s visit as a victory over Western provocations and upon his return home from Iraq, Penn was met with controversy over his public remarks while visiting the country. According to Iraqi state media, Penn was quoted saying Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction. Countering the claim, Penn stated he had been “misrepresented” by his Iraqi hosts but declined to say how. Though Penn is not recorded to have uttered any criticism of American policy toward Iraq while visiting, a statement from Hussein’s Iraq was not necessary: Two months prior to departing for Baghdad, Penn paid $56,000 to publish an advertisement in the Washington Post, accusing the Bush Administration of stoking fear and suffocating debate over Iraq.
Returning to the Middle East in June 2005, Penn journeyed to Tehran, Iran, again posing as a journalist. Moonlighting for the San Francisco Chronicle, Penn looked into U.S. suspicions Iran was aiming to build a nuclear stockpile. Though his mission to Tehran mirrored his visit to Baghdad three years earlier, to vindicate an oppressive regime, Penn wrote with passion over how the Iranian populace was remarkably immune to daily state-run broadcasts calling for the destruction of both the U.S. and Israel. In a win for Iran’s public profile, Penn gave his interpretation of U.S. involvement in the region by bludgeoning the Central Intelligence Agency’s role in ousting Mohammed Mosaddegh and replacing him with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Despite Mr. Penn’s careful observances in two trips to the Middle East, both of which received substantial worldwide attention, Penn remained silent in the fifteen-year period after he last departed the region. Though his visits to the Middle East were entirely rooted in politics, and Penn had written with great affection for the Iraqi and Iranian people, the Oscar winner was quiet when the Obama Administration concluded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Tehran, which essentially allowed Iran to become a threshold nuclear state and endangered Israel. Furthermore, Penn was uncharacteristically silent as the Obama White House pursued the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and drastically intensified drone strikes against suspected terror leaders throughout the region. Though Penn had publicly scolded President George W. Bush for his conduct of the war, no word of outrage was uttered from the humanitarian actor over the considerable rise in civilian casualties incurred by the distant drone war carried out by Obama. Furthermore, although Penn wrote warmly of Iranian society, no essay he submitted to the Chronicle mentioned the depraved nature of the Islamic government, particularly the fact since coming to power in 1979 the mullahs had executed 75 times as many Iranians than the Shah’s infamous secret police, the SAVAK.
While Penn’s attempt at advocacy journalism may have earned him some praise in far-Left circles, it was three years before Penn returned to amateur foreign policymaking. Though Penn had first visited Cuba and met with its dictator, Fidel Castro, in 2005, on a family Christmas trip, Penn put a fresh coat of gloss on the totalitarian regime in Havana while on assignment for The Nation in 2009. Freelancing again, this time for a Progressive publication, Penn sat with Cuban President Raul Castro for an exclusive interview and wrote gleefully of Castro’s demand the U.S. lift its longstanding trade embargo. Acting as an echo chamber for the Cuban despot, Penn relayed with enthusiasm Castro’s words Cuba had been devastated by hurricanes, decrying the inhumanity of the American embargo, and Castro’s rousing reminder of the eternal flame of Cuba’s revolution.
However, while shouting viva la revolución with Raul Castro, Penn disregarded the full depth of evil the Castro brothers had inflicted on their homeland. Preferring to maintain the fiction of Castro the heroic guerrilla, Penn ignored how almost five decades of Castro’s rule had transformed an island paradise into a poverty-stricken Marxist hellhole. Disregarding reality, Penn got so carried away with wrapping his arms around Castro he omitted both Castros became petty, self-absorbed tyrants who brutally repressed dissent, seized property, shuttered Cuba’s religious institutions, and drove hundred of thousands from private homes to other lands. Penn similarly overlooked the fact for fifty years the Castros held stubbornly to a Marxist-Leninist theory which renounced free markets, relied on mistrust between citizens to assure conformity, restricted citizens’ movement, strictly limited travel abroad, and denied political opponents the most basic of common comforts.
While Penn was intent on dismantling myths surrounding both Castros, he excluded the fact economic conditions in Cuba deteriorated to a level at which the average income among Cubans reached $25 per month, civil liberties were nonexistent, show trials were held as late as 1992, no free elections had been held in over half a century, and despite Fidel Castro’s vow to transform Cuba into a classless society, Cuba was more stratified under the Castros than under Fulgencio Batista. Penn also failed to report while hopelessness cast a shadow over the country and his countrymen endured misery, Fidel Castro spent millions financing the exportation of his wretched brand of revolution across the globe, particularly in South America and Africa, and how Castro acted as liaison between Soviet rulers and global Marxist revolutionary movements. Additionally, Penn made no mention of how Cuba under Castro had become a refuge for over 100 fugitives from American justice, including Assata Shakur.
Travelling further south, in separate trips to South America Penn gushed over Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez in the most servile manner. Writing in the same article for The Nation in which he praised the Castros, Penn referred to Chavez as a “romantic hero” and a “visionary” whose rule had held back the tide of foreign influence. Though Penn toured parts of the country, he overlooked widespread human rights abuses and the brutal suppression of dissidents. Lauding the dictator and extolling Chavez’s commitment to democratic socialism during Chavez’s re-election campaign in 2012, Penn elected against reporting on the economic ruination occurring in the background. Hardly immune from the 2008 global economic crisis, Venezuela’s economy cratered between 2009-2010 and has since failed to make any substantial recovery. Hardship, hyperinflation, want, and bloodshed mark Venezuelan daily life, poverty and starvation are common. Basic goods, power, and clean water are luxuries to be enjoyed only by the powerful. Crime has reached epidemic levels, with the murder rate in Caracas soaring to levels eclipsing Chicago’s, and narcotics trafficking so widespread it is alleged to include ranking government officials. Penn also failed to report over how Venezuela’s economic dislocation has created a regional immigration crisis owing to Venezuelan citizens fleeing repression and economic blight.
Though Venezuela’s fortunes sank, Penn made a public appeal to jail those who dared to refer to Chavez as a dictator. Later, in 2012, Penn returned to Venezuela to appear with Chavez as he sought another term as president. The last time Penn personally visited with the Venezuelan tyrant, upon Chavez’s death Penn lamented the loss on Twitter. In a tweet which resembled an entry into a personal diary, Penn wrote with compassion of Chavez, saying: “Today the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion.” While Penn sat gloomily through Chavez’s 2013 funeral service, almost immediately after the last shovel of dirt was thrown over Chavez’s grave, Penn embraced Chavez’s successor Nicolás Maduro. Though Maduro has continued to lead Venezuela down the road to ruin, Penn has continued to deny Venezuela’s manifold problems originate with its rule by tyrants.
If Ms. Lightfoot needs assistance communicating her COVID-19 edict, she should ask someone who can at least tolerate America as opposed to someone who loathes America.
Sean Penn’s world tour was neither taken to inform the public nor was it driven by a basic curiosity. While it is possible to describe Penn’s trips to the Middle East, Cuba, and Venezuela as misguided, Penn did have an objective. A man who specifically befriended those with whom the U.S. quarrels, the purpose of Penn’s foreign journeying was to send the resonant messages democratic socialism produces miracles and American foreign policy historically and unnecessarily demonizes its antagonists. While the world looked on in horror as nations suffering under the heel of dictators, Penn refused to either see or chronicle events accurately, preferring to cheerlead for dictators and despots and allowing his bias to distort truth, fact, and history. A slight to those suffering under tyrannical rule, Penn’s passion for democratic socialism does not provide a rationale for brutality. Though Penn intended to establish murderous dictators as morally sound players on the world stage, he failed to mention democratic socialism, time and again, leads to mass violence, economic catastrophe, and oppression. Worse, what Penn is truly opposed to is the use of American military power or war when it is waged by the U.S. Judging from his travels, the company he keeps, and his dispatches, Penn appears perfectly comfortable with chumming it up with merciless dictators who harness secret state security services or the military to brutalize their own people as long as those repressive regimes publicly claim they are pursuing the democratic socialist dream.
Mayor Lightfoot could have politely declined a visit from Mr. Penn, but she chose not to. That she chose not to meet with Penn presumes Lightfoot has correctly sensed a growing dissatisfaction with her lockdown orders and welcomed the opportunity to use Penn’s star power to drive through her stay-at-home message. Great (or even good) leaders are capable of articulating what they believe in. Great leaders can state a case and persuade the public to logically think along with them. Mayor Lightfoot is unable to make an argument for her lockdown so she turned to Hollywood star power. Picking an apologist of murderous thugs is a terrible mistake.