Birdman director-writer-producer Alejandro González Iñárritu accepting the Oscar for Best Picture at last night’s Academy Awards.
Sean Penn’s green card dig at his friend Alejandro González Iñárritu was boorish, insensitive, inappropriate, unfunny, kind of mean, and a real cheap shot. It was the kind of “joke” that only gets a laugh between friends who are in the habit of teasing each other. It’s not the kind of joke you should make in public especially when your friend's big night when he's just won his third Academy Award of the evening. Penn should have saved it for the party afterwards. Better yet, he shouldn’t have said it all and let his friend have his night. The fact that Iñárritu responded by giving Penn a big hug shows that Iñárritu is a gracious and forgiving friend and Penn is lucky to count him as one of his. So it was a rude and stupid thing to say.
But it wasn’t xenophobic or racist unless you believe that A.) only Mexicans get green cards and B.) Penn doesn’t want Mexicans to get green cards or anybody from anywhere to get them.
After Penn made his little not-funny, the scolds came out in force in my Twitter feed. Instead of listening to Iñárritu’s third great acceptance speech of the night, they tweeted their outrage at Penn, making sure all the world know that they knew better than Sean Penn, as if knowing better is the same as being better.
This is one of the things I dislike about Twitter. People use it as the opposite of a mourner’s bench. They stand up to testify about other people’s sins. Everybody does it. I do it. It’s typically human. It feels so good to be morally superior, especially when we’re feeling morally superior to someone who is in many other ways our moral, intellectual, or professional superior.
And sometimes we are morally superior.
Not enough times, probably, though.
After the Oscars were over I thought about this and tweeted:
Sean Penn raised $6 million for Haiti. I gave $10 to the Red Cross. I think I should keep my mouth shut.— Lance Mannion (@LanceMannion) February 23, 2015
This got a vanity-satisfying number of I assume approving retweets, although I must keep in mind “RTs =/= endorsement”. Which, by the way, is foolish. Why are you RTing then? You can “ endorse” a tweet without agreeing with it. If you feel you need the disclaimer why not put it this way: “RTs =/= agreement” or, more directly and honestly, “sometimes I RT stuff just for the sake of discussion” or “Sometimes I just like to troll my followers” or “If I RT one of your tweets, it might be because I want the world to see what an idiot you are”?
Anyway, I got RTed. I also got scolded.
The theme of most of the scoldings was that Sean Penn shouldn’t be awarded a Get Away With Being a Jerk Free card just because he's a rich do-gooder. Doing some good in Haiti doesn't give him permission to behave badly at the Oscars.
And I was reminded that my being comparatively poor and decidedly not famous doesn’t mean I have no right to criticize the rich and famous.
Thank you. That’s good to know. Now I can start a blog.
I also had it pointed out that Penn didn’t raise that money for Haiti. He raised it for his NGO to spend in Haiti, and NGOs are a suspect way to deliver aid to stricken nations. They go through too many middlemen, they put too much money and power in the hands of outsiders, they don’t make enough of an effort to involve local governments and local businesses and locals, that is, the people who are trying to rebuild their lives. They tend to spend their money on showcase projects that yield immediate and relatively easy success but don’t do any longterm good or do good in the places that need it the most. They misspend the money or don’t spend it at all. I don’t know how much of this is true of Penn’s NGO. Likely some of it, possibly much of it, I hope not all of it. But I don’t see that that matters to my point.
The question is, what was my point?
I made a half-hearted attempt to make it clear.
The tweet wasn’t about Penn.
It was about me.
It really doesn’t matter how much good Penn is doing with his NGO. It matters that I am not doing enough good with the limited resources I have.
I’m not talking about money.
I know about the widow’s mite.
There are ways of making the world better besides giving lots of money to charity or any money.
At the very least I can try harder to follow the the latest iteration of Do unto others:
“Try not make anyone’s day worse than it probably already is.”
I wish I could remember where I heard that so I could give whoever said it proper credit.
I’m not doing anything to make the world better by scolding Sean Penn for a bad joke in a tweet he will almost certainly never see.
I’m sure not doing it by parading my own virtue in front of other self-righteous paraders of their virtue.
What I’m getting at is that before I congratulate myself on being morally superior to the likes of Sean Penn I ought to work on becoming morally superior to me. I’m no saint and I'm not going to come close to becoming a candidate for canonization no matter how much I shape up before I hand in the lunchpail. But I can shave some time off my deserved long stint in Purgatory. Indignant tweeting about boorish movie stars who’d probably gotten a head start on the after-Oscars celebrating isn't going to do it for me, though.
At any rate, I hope that while they were furiously tweeting their indignation the scolds weren’t missing Iñárritu say this:
I want to dedicate this award to my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico, I pray we can find and build the government we deserve, and the ones who live in this country who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray they can be treated with the same dignity and respect as the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.
If the camera noticed him at all while Iñárritu was talking I didn’t catch it, so I don’t know what Penn’s reaction was. Probably somewhere between enthusiastic applause and jumping up and down, fist-pumping hooting, whistling, and loudly cheering.
Unless he was already backstage, buying drinks and waiting for his friend to join him so he could toast him with another round of bad, teasing jokes, in the goofy way guys do to avoid telling a pal we love him and are so happy for him our hearts are ready to burst.
Here’s the speech. Watch for the hug.
Iñárritu’s immediate response was the hug. Later he said he thought Penn’s dig was “hilarious” and he added, “Sean and I have that kind of brutal (relationship) where only true friendship can survive."
I’d call that pretty gracious of him.
I’d also call it a dig.
The fact about Penn and his NGO was pointed out to me by author and journalist Jonathan M. Katz whose book about the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, is gripping, infuriating, heartbreaking, and edifying. Penn figures prominently in a not unflattering light.
Penn started giving the extend answer the secretary-general hadn't, and his delivery was everything Ban's wasn't: demonstrative, vivid, intense. You cold forgive all the swooning he had elicted: He was handsome, if weathered by forty-nine years on earth and seven weeks in Haiti, with tanned skin wrapped tight around hollow cheeks, blue-ink tattoos running over veiny, muscular arms, and a pair of aviator sunglasses dangling from his neckline. As Penn explained the details of camp life, he seemed to draw from his recent portrayal of Willie Stark, the charismatic but vindictive governor of Louisiana in Steven Zaillian's remake of All the King's Men---though where that doomed character seethed with 1930s southern populism, Penn in Haiti went for the argot of the modern NGO. "Another thing that I think has to be very clear is that a tarp is not a tent," he said, squinting in the midday light. "A tarp structure is not a tent. A tarp structure sits on dirt. This is toxic dirt. This is dirt which carries backteria. This is dirt which could carry in high numbers of life-threatening bacteria, very shortly." Finally he nailed his point: "This is a camp that should be relocated, as many of them should be, flood zones and so on---and frankly in my view, we have to work to understand how to address the relative unliveability, currently, of this city, if only for children. You know, every good deed today is another cancer patient tomorrow, from what they are breathing on these streets."
The actor set out parameters for relocation with confidence of a hardened field manager: outside Port-au-Prince (the old dream of decentralization). Not in a flood zone. "Large-scale urban camps with manufacturing, deeded lands for agriculture, the ability to build communities." It was an impassioned plea, unfraid to contradict U.S. policy---tarps were a measly solution---and impressively informed on squatters' needs, especially considering it came from a newly minted, recently arrived aid worker. But perhaps it wasn't so hypothetical after all? When the Population Fund spokesman asked if Penn was helping to choose the resettlement sites himself---and odd question for an aid worker, let alone a celebrity, when you think about it---Penn surprised me again by saying that he "had a meeting with President Preval the other day in Washington and he's extended the members of his government to us who can advise us on this. We're going to be shown some of these sites."
I was confused. Sean Penn had a meeting with Preval? In Washington?...Penn, who had been involved in politics for years as an advocate, seemed to be taking the next step: contributing directly to policy making...