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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Milk' star Sean Penn: Pal of anti-gay dictators?

PennI'm not surprised to discover that Sean Penn is under attack again for his outspoken admiration of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Raul Castro. The real shocker is who's doing the attacking: The Advocate, America's leading gay publication. James Kirchick, an assistant editor at the New Republic, pretty much eviscerates Penn, who just wrote a cover story in the Nation singing the praises of both Latin American dictators. Up until now, in the wake of his bravura performance as gay activist Harvey Milk in "Milk," the mainstream entertainment press hasn't bothered to ask Penn any tough questions about his political views.

But the Advocate doesn't pull any punches. Saying Penn is likely to win all sorts of prizes from prominent gay organizations for his role, Kirchick writes that "Penn's political activism, irrespective of his views on gay rights, negates the values for which a movement based upon individual freedom must stand." Kirchick calls Penn's Nation story a "love letter" to the dictators, comparing it to the notorious dispatches starry-eyed liberals sent back home during the early years of the Soviet Union, describing it as a worker's paradise, "neglecting to mention anything about the gulag, the 'disappearance' of political dissidents or any other such inconvenient truths about Communism."

Penn, who received a Golden Globe nomination today for his performance in "Milk," seems to have forgotten that not long after Fidel Castro took power, the Cuban government ordered the internment of gay people in prison labor camps where, as Kirchick puts it, "they were murdered or worked to death for their 'counterrevolutionary tendencies.' " He adds that Penn's pal, Raul Castro, was notorious for executing political opponents, whose only crime was often their homosexuality. Though Cuba has since decriminalized homosexuality, the government still bans all gay organizations or any other group critical of the regime.

Thor Halvorssen, president of the respected Human Rights Foundation, also takes aim at the actor in the piece, calling the Castro brothers "thugs and murderers," saying "that Sean Penn would be honored by anyone, let alone the gay community, for having stood by a dictator that put gays into concentration camps is mind-boggling." I'm an old leftie myself. But having grown up in Miami, where I saw up close and personal the flood of people--straight and gay--fleeing persecution in Cuba, I no longer share Penn's naive admiration for totalitarian despots who pass themselves off as populist heroes.

In an era of softball showbiz journalism where newspapers and magazines--including my own paper--rarely ask actors or filmmakers any inconvenient questions about their political beliefs, I'm not holding my breath that anyone will be holding Penn's feet to the fire. Kudos to the Advocate for reminding us that it was Harvey Milk who said that gay rights are human rights and it is Penn "who discredits both when he rushes to the defense of thugs who posture as victims of the West."

It raises a fair question that I'd like to hear your opinions on: Should we only concern ourselves with Penn's wondrous work as an actor in "Milk," which coming in the wake of the controversy over Proposition 8 will surely remind people that the struggle for gay rights in America is far from over? Or does his offscreen embrace of gay-bashing dictators matter just as much as his onscreen artistry, especially when the views of his political heroes so completely conflict with the free-speech message of the man he celebrates in "Milk"?

Photo of Sean Penn in "Milk" by Phil Bray / Focus Features

 
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I know a lot of celebrities are out there cozying up to dictators like Castro and Chavez to burnish their credentials as anti-Bush compatriots, but isn't that so 2008 already? Look, we have a new role model, Obama, an American, and the new president to boot. We no longer need to look abroad for other corrupt ideologies. I applaud The Advocate for standing up to Penn for his hypocritical views, just as the actor brings Harvey Milk back into the consciousness. This is a tough move, but necessary. The Castros and Chavez (and Bush together) are products of a bygone era of bankrupt ideas. Rejecting Bush does not necessarily mean embracing his enemies, especially when such a promising third way is on the cusp of leadership. Shame on you, Sean Penn, for betraying your country's principles (now about to be personified) for cheap, shallow, sophomoric Hollywood political points. The writer's point about past progressives' support for the Soviet regime is dead-on; we don't need any latter-day Jane Fondas.

To people like Penn, the sociaiist Chavez and communist Castro regimes exemplify supposed ideal societies, i.e. polar opposites of the American capialist society Hollywood loves to denounce. Human rights violations? Political persecution? Easily overlooked in the name of America-hate by many of the Hollywood elite who fawn over the likes of Hugo Chavez and the Castros.

How Mr. Penn can identified himself with gays characters and at the same time be friendly with the most anti-guys regimes on earth? Is he playing the gay card to get his name in the news? Does he knows what happened to homosexuals in Cuba?

Leaving Cuba off the table for a moment- As Penn rightly points out in his article in the Nation, Chavez has been democratically elected multiple times at the ballot box and has also had his initiatives and allies suffer defeat in elections. So why is the L.A. Times propagating false accusations that Chavez is a dictator? This strikes me as harmful journalism that can lead to misunderstandings and misconceptions about foreign countries. A misinformed public is vulnerable to being misled...

Thank you for this post Mr.Goldstein.

I find so much irony in what Penn and other fellow travelers do. They protest and scorn the US government, but you don't see the same freedom given to dissidents in the countries which they so lavishly praise.

When my humble family lived in Cuba, gays were routinely beaten, and long haired "hippies" had their hair cut right on the street by the police.

Penn proves that Dictators do -give- similar people civil rights, but only when it is to critique the so called enemy.

Sorry Penn, but not everyone who dissents in a worker's paradise is a mercenary.

I'd like to interview Sean Penn and the likes of Benicio de toro and the rest of the Hollywood useful idiots and ask them WHY, WHAT makes them admire and believe in these dictators? I already know the answer: if these dicatators are ANTI-Americans, and they are, they must be good people. dictators PRO Americans are bad very bad criminals. The conclusion is, therefore, the useful idiots are ANTI Americans themselves.

It is Patrick Goldstein who is the kneejerk supporter of evil politicos. He's right on Castro, wrong on Chavez. The media line on Chavez is uniformly shrill, never revealing the Bush/Dem support of the oil-wealthy thugs that make up the Venezuelan upper-class who followed American direction to try to overthrow the very popularly-elected Chavez. How democratic are Goldstein's jack-booted principles in his ugly rightwing diatribes?

Take Penn's article, replace 'Castro' and 'Chavez' with Hitler, and you have your answer. Why is the murder of 6 million by Hitler unaceptable but communists who are collectively, (Stalin, Mao, the Castro's, etc.) responsible for the death of over a hundred million people wind up on t-shirts and glorified by Hollywood? Absolutley we should concern ourselves with the politics of these apologists for dictators; their endorsement provides propaganda for these thugs and perpetuates the misery of those living under their boot.

Just to make a few points that no one else has made. SP says that anti-sodomy laws were repealed in Cuba in1979, but the following year anti-gay repudiation mobs were organized by the Cuban dictatorship and filmed by that country's state television system, all you have to do is view the documentary "Improper Conduct" that was made by N.Almendros and O.Jimenez-Leal, and SP should know about that after having appeared in the film adaptation of Reinaldo Arenas' life. What fascinates me is the oppurtunism in these people. I remember in the 1980s there was an open letter written by Nestor Almendros and R.Arenas demanding free elections in Cuba, two of the signatories were G.Depardieu and Jack Nicholson, once NA's cadaver chilled they went flying off to Cuba to render homage to FC, basically spitting on NA's grave. Remember Marisa Tomei in "The Perez Family"? She goes flying off to Cuba as well. Kudos to The Advocate for showing a sense of right and wrong, what they're teaching me is that it's not a question of right vs. left, but democracy versus dictatorship. I would much rather sit next to a gay person who defends human rights than a reactionary Republican farmer who goes flying off to Havana to sign a wheat sale.

Penn reminds me of the young naive tourists I always saw running around Havana with Che T-shirts and the Lonely Planet Guide. Yet, as a result of his celebrity, he gained access to the higherups like Raul, who saw him as a useful propaganda tool. I thought Cuba was paradise myself, until I tried to live there as a Cuban, and saw the miserable failures of the Revolution and their whole system. Sean, come on down to Havana with me, and see the real thing. I speak Spanish, and the ordinary Cubans I'll introduce you to will open your eyes. They aren't dissidents, most of them think of Fidel as 'papa.' They just can't do anything but barely exist. We won't let Raul know you're there.

 
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