SEAN PENN SAYS WAR WITH IRAQ IS AVOIDABLE—so read the Washington Post headline, shortly after the actor arrived in Baghdad on his “fact-finding” expedition. The sigh of relief was audible throughout Beverly Hills and Berkeley, California, as well as in several Manhattan redoubts. There hadn’t been such reassurance since Lincoln Steffens toured Stalin’s USSR to proclaim that he had seen the future, and that it worked.
Penn hasn’t been alone among his profession in questioning the president and his administration for their Middle East policies. Harry Belafonte characterized Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as akin to twenty-first century antebellum slaves who sold out their people in order to be “invited to the Master’s house.” Cheers’ Woody Harrelson grumpily opined that the present Iraq fracas was “a racist and imperialist war. The warmongers who stole the White House have hijacked the nation’s grief and turned it into a perpetual war on any non-white country they choose to describe as terrorist.”
At a Hollywood news conference, a new group, Artists United to Win Without War, released an open letter to the president warning that a conflict with Iraq would “increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks, damage the economy and undermine our moral standing in the world.” One “artist,” Mike Farrell (BJ Hunnicutt on the old M*A*S*H television program), elaborated. Never mind that Saddam had used poison gas on his own people, attempted to assassinate a U.S. president, funded research for a nuclear device, and paid thousands of dollars to the families of suicide bombers; the actor considered it “inappropriate for the administration to trump up a case in which we are ballyhooed into war.” Farrell’s colleague Martin Sheen, who impersonates a U.S. president on The West Wing, discarded geopolitical interpretations of current events. To him, the confrontation with Iraq was pure paperback Freud: “I think [George W.] would like to hand his father Saddam Hussein’s head and win his approval for what happened after the Gulf War.”
Inevitably, Susan Sarandon had something to say (“I’m afraid for our children. I’m afraid for the Iraqi children”), as did the ineffable Barbra Streisand. She conceded that Saddam was an “Iranian” dictator, but warned at a Democratic Party fundraiser, “In the words of William Shakespeare, beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into patriotic fervor.” Someone unkindly informed her that Saddam doesn’t live in Iran, and that the Bard did not write anything about whipping up the citizenry—the phrase originated on the Internet. It didn’t matter who the author was, said an unrepentant Barbra, it was the thought that counted.
All Americans have the right to speak their minds, of course, especially on the grave subject of war. But these performers, despite posing as valorous dissenters, take no risks at all. They enjoy an adoring media, make sultanic incomes, live in exclusive neighborhoods far from the madding crowd, and surround themselves with sycophants who wouldn’t dare remind them that not everyone believes that George W. Bush thirsts for Empire.
Curiously, moreover, these show folk remained silent when the Oval Office housed a different bellicose chief executive. In 1999, Bill Clinton ordered massive air strikes against Serbia, yet there was no Sarandonian concern expressed for the Serbian or Croatian children; a catastrophic Clinton-era skirmish in Somalia in the name of regime change brought no objections from Artists United, or indeed, from United Artists.
Then again, the entertainment industry has never suffered a shortage of hypocrisy. As that sage, Irving Berlin, observed long, long ago:
There’s no people like show people;
They don’t run out of dough.
Angels come from everywhere with lots of jack,
And when you lose it, there’s no attack—
Where do you get money that you don’t give back?
Let’s go on with the show.
Let’s go on with the show.