Sean Penn, Chavista

Understanding the Hollywood star's fatuous defense of Hugo Chávez

In the essay bookending his translation of Plato’s Republic, Allan Bloom argues that Socrates' intention in philosophizing about the best regime was not to inspire his interlocutors to commit acts of revolution for achievements' sake, but rather to moderate their passions, and hence expectations, by showing that the best city is not, as Bloom’s well-known teacher would say, actualizable. Bloom describes this ardent passion to actualize the perfect city as "the infinite longing for justice on earth" and insists that Socrates "constructs his utopia to point up the dangers of what we would call utopianism."

I was reminded of this passage—as I often am when listening to fanatically committed idealists—during Sean Penn’s most recent, and by far most absurd, defense of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. During a brief segment on Real Time With Bill Maher, Penn explained that the mainstream news media in the United States regularly lies about Chávez by designating him a dictator, and that "truly, there should be a bar by which one goes to prison for these kinds of lies." Such a sentiment is likely (or do I mean hopefully?) not Penn’s measured view on matters of free expression, but it is eerily close to the kind of threat Chávez uses to intimidate members of the opposition and elicit self-censorship within the Venezuelan media. Knowing that Penn’s father was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist, I sat befuddled, and slightly incensed, at such a public display of civil irresponsibility. 

Penn also asserted, fatuously, that the Chavista project represents concrete hope for 80 percent of Venezuelans, and that, to crticize Chávez, one would have to be content with merely 20 percent of the population having a voice in their country’s affairs. In Penn’s argument about the justice of Chavismo, which is really the old argument about the imminent consummation of total justice, of justice for the poor and downtrodden, you’re either with the innocent impoverished majority or with the heartless oligarchic minority. Poll results published in January of this year by the respected Venezuelan polling firm IVAD, however, belie Penn’s utopian assertions. The numbers suggest that nearly as many Venezuelans define themselves as opposition (33.4 percent) as Chavista (36 percent)—26 percent do not indentify with either tendency and the rest did not respond. With respect to the upcoming legislative elections in September, roughly 30 percent of those asked said they planned to vote for Chavista candidates, 20 percent for opposition candidates, and 34 percent for independent candidates who are not publicly aligned with either bloc (the remainder are undecided).

Such figures (which are getting progressively worse for Chávez) reflect the toll that the líder revolucionario’s image is deservedly taking amid electrical and food shortages, water rationing, an economy strangled by nationalization, and petrifying rates of lethal crime that I have, try as I might, never been able to adequately describe to my American friends. Despite his continuing fall in popularity, however, I would never deny that Chávez is still the country’s most popular politician, just as I would never deny that prohibiting one of the opposition’s most charismatic and young politicians from running for elected office (Leopoldo López) and persecuting the leader of the most popular social democratic party into exile (Manuel Rosales) are among the surest ways to stay popular. But the 80 percent support level that Penn says Chávez enjoys, or somehow represents, is, to put it kindly, a delusion; or less kindly, an irresponsible lie. I should add that the IVAD poll did reveal that 80 percent of Venezuelans are in agreement about one thing: The rate of lethal crime is by far the biggest problem facing the country. 

Penn also needlessly asserted that Chávez had "gone through fourteen of the most transparent elections on the globe." First, this would mean Chávez has been through more elections than years in office, but this might be a mental typo on Penn’s part, so let’s move on to the question of the transparency of Venezuelan elections. This is by no means a settled matter. I know of several groups of brave (and dare I say, progressive) university students who decamped to voting centers during the 2007 and 2009 constitutional referendums to prevent Chavista redshirts (i.e. Chavismo’s version of Brownshirts) from intimidating voters and registered election monitors. In addition, it is a well-known fact that the Centro Nacional Electoral (CNE), Venezuela’s highest electoral body (and theoretically a separate branch of government), is staffed by Chavista loyalists and has been since 2004. To illustrate this point, I will only add that the president of the CNE during a dramatic referendum vote against Chávez in 2004, Jorge Rodriguez, was later appointed vice president of the republic by Chávez. Imagine Dick Cheney presiding over any electoral body in the US, let alone the highest. What would Penn think of an election carried out under such auspices? 

Despite such a reality, I do not believe Chávez has committed systematic election fraud. I remain convinced—though I might one day be proven wrong—that he’s actually won a solid majority in all of the elections he’s won. But Chávez’ repeated acts of redshirted intimidation and his use of public funds to finance his and his party’s campaigns, among other acts of flagrant despotism, should not be forgotten by any fair-minded person who wants to discuss “Venezuelan democracy.” Yes, it’s true that Chávez’ powers of persuasion, his preternatural talent for demagogy, his unequivocal commitment to a cause he declares he’s ready to die for, and his vast oil wealth all combine to make one long-lasting, elected populist. But to say that Venezuelan elections are among the most transparent is, again, either simply deluded or an outright fabrication. 

But why does Penn continue in this manner? How can the man who starred in All the Kings Men—which focuses on the seductive nature of populist demagogy—and the same actor who made a remarkable cameo appearance in the anti-Castroite film Before Night Falls, remain oblivious to what is in front of his nose? 

But perhaps Penn does not want to know the truth about Chavismo. Intent on seeing his perfect city erected, perhaps he has no choice but to remain acquiescent towards Chávez’ tyranny. Like all political utopians, he must tacitly understand that certain sacrifices are excusable, even unavoidable, if revolutionary policies, which are supposed to herald the irruption of a new world, are to be faithfully carried out. If one believes that Chávez really does offer the hope of such a radically new and just order, one will be ready to believe, or ready to make oneself believe, whatever one needs to believe in order to keep the possibility of such a world alive. This longing, as Bloom correctly noted in his study of Socrates’ political teaching, really is infinite. It is an indefeasible part of human nature. And part of what it means to become truly educated is to learn to domesticate such longings and give them a proper direction. In other words, a good political education gives men a good reason to be moderate in their expectations and actions. But for many, the love of total justice and the belief in its actualization represent higher callings, against which moderate impulses are merely bourgeois cop-outs. 

That’s probably why Penn doesn’t seem to care about the plight of political prisoners in Venezuela or know the names of prominent Venezuelan exiles; that’s why Penn doesn’t mention, or perhaps doesn't even know, that there is currently only one television station left in Venezuela that openly criticizes Chávez’ government, but amid ever increasing pressure and intimidation. Perhaps that’s why Penn doesn’t care to bring up the 16,000 Venezuelans, mostly poor, who were murdered last year in everyday acts of crime amid what is supposed to be a socialist revolution; that’s why Penn doesn’t worry about Chávez’ growing alliance with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or his alleged ties to FARC and ETA, or the fact that Chávez believes 9/11 was an inside job. While Penn continues to believe that Chávez can really give 80 percent of Venezuelans justice, in the deepest and most permanent sense of the word, he will continue to forgive all Chavista sins and distort the truth for his American audience. 

And though it might be impossible to persuade Penn, he should at least be made to realize that if Americans who lied about Chávez on the mainstream media were really sent to jail, he would be the first one in.

Antonio Rumbos, a native of Venezuela, is a writer living in Washington, DC.  

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    False flag attack should be the default assumption for every terrorist event anywhere. Governments don't deserve the benefit of the doubt.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Fuck Sean Penn, and anyone else who supports Chavez.

    And fuck the Fairness Doctrine supporters who look lovingly at how Chavez took over broadcast media in "his" country, hoping the same will happen here.

  • ||

    x10

  • Cookie Kwan||

    Obama has a man crush on Chavez.

  • Michelle Obama||

    He better not.

  • ||

    very funny!

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    libertarian guy =

    +10

  • Gabe E||

    The People's Republic of San Dimas Rules!

  • ||

    Do they have Circle K's in Venezuela?

  • ||

    Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.

  • ||

    Here's a directory ;^)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circle_K_International

  • ||

    Whoa. Those must be the princesses you told yourself about at the Circle-K. We gotta go. It's a history report, not a babe report.

  • ||

    the circle k bit is bill and ted... penn was the stoner in fast times at ridgemont high. his finest work,and the last time he made any sense...

  • ||

    "All I need is some tasty waves and a cool buzz and I'm fine"

  • hurly buerhle||

    Wrong movie. Alex Winter =/= Sean Penn.

  • ||

    I think we're all aware of that, just for the record.

  • ||

    Chavez is a pompous windbag that is WAY too full of himself!

    LOU
    www.anon-toys.cz.tc

  • Tomcat1066||

    The bot can get it, but Sean Penn can't? How sad is that?

  • ||

    Why are you surprised? The bot has a more sophisticated analytical engine.

  • ||

    currently works for the Hudson Institute

    that says it all right there, doesn't it? Does anyone at Reason.com do any reporting or are they all part of the Cult?

  • tarran||

    Besides Radley Balko, Mike Moynihan, Ronald Bailey, Jacob Sullum, Shiksa Dalmia etc?

    Why hardly anyone at all...

  • Jordan||

    What difference does it make? Either what they are saying is wrong, or it's not. I damn sure haven't ever seen you address the substance of any article on this site, instead of resorting to ad hominems, so they seem to be doing a swell job of reporting, regardless of their affiliation.

  • hmm||

    Trolls feed on syllables. You need to tell them to fuck off with less text.

  • ||

    Like this:

    fk of

  • prolefeed||

    Or like this:

  • prolefeed||

    That is, don't fucking respond to trolls at all.

  • ||

    Hey, Ray's back! Maybe my despair over having awful trolls was premature.

  • ||

    Ray Butlers|3.31.10 @ 5:49PM|#
    "currently works for the Hudson Institute
    that says it all right there, doesn't it?..."

    Yeah. It says you have no argument worth posting, so you're ignorant enough to believe that any sort of guilt-by-association suggestion will suffice.
    Bran-dead lefty, are you?

  • prolefeed||

    I'm not sure what "bran-dead" is, but I know some people who deserve that fate.

  • ||

    One too many granola bars and that's it. Suddenly you're bran-dead.

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    No, you actually have to eat several bowls of "Colon Blow" before bran death.

  • Jen||

    +100

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    I prefer Super Colon Blow, myself.

  • dennis||

    The Cult was such a great band. Love is a fantastic album, so is Sonic Temple.

  • ||

    Agreed.

  • ||

    agreed, but what does the rock bank "The Cult" have to do with Sean Penn?

  • ||

    26 percent do not indentify with either tendency and the rest did not respond

    They're not visiting the correct unmarked graves.

  • Entitled Slacker||

    +1

  • ed||

    Who knew that Madonna would end up being the smart one?

  • ||

    Actually, Dennis Rodman was the smart one in that group.

  • hmm||

    Reason has a Krugman, Rich, Penn cycle I am tempted to map.

  • ||

    What, no alt-text?

  • mark||

    I believe Reason.com articles, as opposed to Reason Blog posts, don't have alt-text in any associated image.

  • ||

    I've always felt that of all the characters Penn's played, the closed to who he really is, is Jeff Spicoli.

  • ||

    I thought it was the retarded dude.

  • Tomcat1066||

    No, you can forgive the retarded dude for being retarded. Spicoli was an idiot by choice.

  • BakedPenguin||

    I thought it was the traitor in Falcon and the Snowman.

  • ||

    I'm fairly sure Mr. Penn isn't that good at math.

  • hurly buerhle||

    "Is that my daughter in there? Is that my daughter in there? AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!"

  • ||

    And for your Sean Penn-bashing pleasure I add this

    open letter to sean penn from maria conchita alonso

  • ||

    “Dear Sean, WHY?

    Ocaam's Razor.

    Because he's a shitbag, fuckwitted, socialist cunt. That's why.

    Party before people. Always.

  • ||

    Sir Occam FTW. That's all you need to know about 'why' where retarded tensil-marxist fuckfaces are concerned.

  • ||

    PS She's hawt. Or was. I'm imagining she's aged well, though.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Excellent letter. Too bad it'll be ignored.

  • Suck it up Crybaby||

    Every time Sean Penn speaks he weekens the nation. Penn and Obama have a mutual friend in Chavez.
    www.suckitupcrybaby.com

  • ||

    Sean Penn still a left-wing douchebag, film at 11.

    Why bother rehashing this?

    -jcr

  • ||

    I saw Moyniham filling up at a Citgo station.

  • Trees||

    ...totally undermining his libertarianism in the process!

  • ||

    "Penn also needlessly asserted that Chávez had "gone through fourteen of the most transparent elections on the globe." First, this would mean Chávez has been through more elections than years in office, but this might be a mental typo on Penn’s part,..."

    Entirely too kind; there's a presumption that Penn has some mental capabilities that might not make such a "typo".
    I know that Hollywood brain-deads are popular, more's the shame, but the fact is this is a human who has spent his entire career pretending to be someone else on film.
    Unless he shows some reason to listen to his bleatings, and he hasn't, they carry all the authority of the local 5-YO acting in the school play.

  • ||

    The fact is this is a human who has spent his entire career pretending to be someone else on film.

    FTFY

  • Untermensch||

    And yet people still listen to them and give them some sort of credibility. There is far too much stroking and petting of these people's egos until they get to the point where they believe that they really do know better than anyone else. It's sad that a good chunk of the populace agrees with them.

  • ||

    Untermensch|4.1.10 @ 7:13AM|#
    "....It's sad that a good chunk of the populace agrees with them."

    That doesn't bother me. It's the government which makes laws out of their silly fads that scares me.

  • Sean Penn||

    I'm not a retard, I just play one in movies... and on Bill Maher... multiple times...

  • ||

    Americans are just too stupid to get your wisdom and insight. Oh, fuck teabaggers, I never say anything intuitive, and watch my show.
    Did I say how retarded Americans are?

  • skr||

    this is yet another reason why utilitarianism is fucking evil. "it doesnt matter that thousands have died, he's representing the poor."

  • RichN||

    Words speak LOUDER than actions to those who've been waiting for themselves. Ooooooogo is a 'liberation' theologist not much different than Obama's 20 year mentor Rev Wright.

    "We are the ones we've been waiting for" -BHO
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=molWTfv8TYw

  • ||

    No one has yet to explain to me how you can fucking wait for yourself to show up.

    Then again, it makes a catchy title for some shitty self-help book.

  • Anomalous||

    Sean apparently inherited the Stalinism gene from his dad.

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  • ||

    from an earlier post......."Shiksa Dalmia"......Oy gevalt......

  • Emmy||

    But he's an Oscar® Winner! Won't somebody think of the actors?

  • JoshInHb||

    How can the man who starred in All the Kings Men—which focuses on the seductive nature of populist demagogy—and made a remarkable cameo appearance in the anti-Castroite film Before Night Falls, remain oblivious to what is in front of his nose?

    You mean he's not the same person as the characters he is paid to "play"?

    Shocking

    It's almost like he's an actor or something.

  • Gary Johnston||

    NO! Don't go any closer! It's a trap! He's..... Acting!

  • Matt Damon||

    Matt Damon

  • Jeffersonian||

    Matt Deeehhmon

  • EVL29||

    Way to go F.A.G.

  • ||

    You wish you were me.

  • Zeb||

    What was that German word for someone who really needs to be punched in the face?

  • cynical||

    seanpenn

  • Gary||

    If Sean Penn were a chicken, he would be a "dumb cluck".

  • ||

    I'm not going to defend Chavez as I honestly don't know enough about him, but I do know that our media is far from unbiassed when communicating the nature of foreign governments and I do know that all of the (probably quite fair) criticisms you've expressed had their corollaries in the Bush and--to some extent--Obama administrations, and I don't see too many media types railing against those atrocities.

    Now, if Penn's father was really a victim of the (second) Red Scare as you say, then it's very brave of him to stand up for socialism in the face of the current (third) Red Scare, embodied by people such as yourself.

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    -2

  • ||

    His father was not any sort of "victim" - he was a Stalinist communist.

  • ||

    Based on the batshit denial of reality I've experienced from South and Central-American leftists, I'm pretty comfortable with the coverage I'm getting in my own country.
    It generally begins with "Everything you've ever been told is a lie and I'm telling you the honest-to-god truth about those fucking capitalists"

  • ||

    Maybe he is just a dumb fuck? If he jumped from his ego to his IQ he would be critically injured.
    It is an indictment on our culture that we bestow legitimacy to such idiots simply because of their fame.

  • ||

    Shawn Penn is such a zero that he doesn't warrant all this attention. His sleazebag opinion and 75cents will get you a cheap cup of coffee!

  • Jim Methven||

    What an elucidating commentary. I have never understood much as to why Chavez is so anti-American, but nothing as to why Sean Penn is at least more visibly turning against his own country.

    You have commented on Penn with respect, even in your last paragraph where you eviscerate his philosophical foundation. And your expose regarding the inner politics and social conditions of Venezuela has been most informative.

    Congratulations, and thanks for your rich commentary.

    Jim Methven
    Sturgis, South Dakota (long way from DC).

  • Mitty||

    Those on the McCarthy era blacklist did not suffer nearly as much as those today that wish to work in Hollywood but do not subscribe to the left's beliefs. See "Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance with the Left," by Ron Radosh. And Sean's dad was likely a communist, which may explain some things.

  • ||

    Sean Penn is a fool, and probably hasn't opened a history book in his life.
    "The welfare of humanity is always the alibi of tyrants." ~ Albert Camus

  • Dave||

    Well done. Penn is an idiot. Strange how acting causes actors to think themselves experts on political issues.

  • ||

    Sean Penn is a hopeless cause. A few too many brain cell likely burned out by pot, drugs, or alcohol. He's hopelessly infatuated with Presidente for Life Chavez no matter the eradication of democracy and free institutions in Venezuela, the presecution of opposition, or the destruction of its economy. Mr. Penn likely means it when he says people speaking their minds freely about Chavez should be jailed. The Left Wing Elites in love with Castro and Chavez don't have much use for free speech except when they are doing the talking. You can see that when Obama attacks Fox News. Let's hope Obama doesn't manage to take us down the path we've seen in Venezuela where TV and Radio stations are shut down for airing the truth!!!

  • ||

    "everyone knows you don't go full retard!" Kirk Lazarus

  • ||

    +100

  • ||

    One more instance in which Penn gets attention, when he should be ignored.

    Of course I said the same about the buffoon in the white house and look where that got me!

  • Tnt||

    Course it could be that Penn is just a commie like his ol man

  • TallDave||

    Good article, but there's a mistake here:

    Despite such a reality, I do not believe Chávez has committed systematic election fraud. I remain convinced—though I might one day be proven wrong—that he’s actually won a solid majority in all of the elections he’s won.

    He very clearly stole the recall election. Doug Schoen said it was massive fraud at the time, and an MIT study found a 99% probability the election was tampered with.

    http://vcrisis.com/index.php?content=letters/200604051531

  • ||

    Why doesn't Sean Penn just move in with Chavez, so Hugo can sit on his face and fart every night.

  • ||

    sean penn IS A SUPPISITORY

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    SEAN PENN IS A SUPPOSITORY IN MICHAEL MOORE'S ASS

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    "All propaganda must be so popular and on such an intellectual level, that even the most stupid of those towards whom it is directed will understand it. Therefore, the intellectual level of the propaganda must be lower the larger the number of people who are to be influenced by it."
    "Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise."pelosi don't see much future for the Americans ... it's a decayed country. And they have their racial problem, and the problem of social inequalities ...obama feelings against Americanism are feelings of hatred and deep repugnance ... everything about the behaviour of American society reveals that it's half Judaised, and the other half negrified. How can one expect a State like that to hold TOGTHER.They include the angry left wing bloggers who spread vicious lies and half-truths about their political adversaries... Those lies are then repeated by the duplicitous left wing media outlets who “discuss” the nonsense on air as if it has merit… The media's justification is apparently “because it's out there”, truth be damned. STOP THIS COMMUNIST OBAMA ,GOD HELP US ALL .THE COMMANDER ((GOD OPEN YOUR EYES)) stop the communist obama & pelosi.((open you eyes)) ,the commander

  • ||

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    obama people have no idea of the extent to which they have to be gulled in order to be led." "The size of the lie is a definite factor in causing it to be believed, for the vast masses of the nation are in the depths of their hearts more easily deceived than they are consciously and intentionally bad. The primitive simplicity of their minds renders them a more easy prey to a big lie than a small one, for they themselves often tell little lies but would be ashamed to tell a big one." "All propaganda must be so popular and on such an intellectual level, that even the most stupid of those towards whom it is directed will understand it. Therefore, the intellectual level of the propaganda must be lower the larger the number of people who are to be influenced by it." "Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise. "pelosi don't see much future for the Americans ... it's a decayed country. And they have their racial problem, and the problem of social &^% ...obama feelings against Americanism are feelings of hatred and deep repugnance ... everything about the behaviour of American society reveals that it's half &^%, and the other half &^& How can one expect a State like that to hold TOGTHER.They include the angry left wing bloggers who spread vicious lies and half-truths about their political adversaries... Those lies are then repeated by the duplicitous left wing media outlets who “discuss” the nonsense on air as if it has merit… The media's justification is apparently “because it's out there”, truth be damned. State: *usa Obama chuckles at America*
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  • ||

    Tyrrany begins with an unfair licence to use the mike. Why do we continue to give more podium time to celebrities? Someone should be assigned to make an immediate rebuttle to anything he says. Just kidding.....Sean Penn is useful for p.ssing on. Keep him around.

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