The Penn is mightier than the sword
Argentina's use of Sean Penn to goad Britain over the Falklands confirms the terrifying power of celebrity today.
Easily the most extraordinary thing about Sean Penn’s recent comments on the Falkland Islands is the impact that they made. The tidal wave of furious commentary has tended to focus on Penn’s undoubted combination of daftness and arrogance, with enraged British hacks asking ‘where does Mr Madonna get off holding a press conference to pontificate about the serious affairs of the South Atlantic?’. That is indeed a good question. But a better and more pressing one is this: how on earth did the musings of one muppet make such a massive impact, intensifying the stand-off between Argentina and Britain, generating acres of newsprint, and even provoking a huge protest in the Falkland Islands themselves under the banner ‘Falk You, Sean’?
Penn, during a trip to visit Argentine president Cristina Kirchner, said it was time Argentina and Britain came to a better agreement about the Malvinas. Simply in using that M-word – the Argentine name for the islands that Britain has claimed dominion over since the early 1800s and which it fought an infamous war to defend in 1982 – would have been enough to send certain, mostly Tory-leaning commentators into a tailspin. But then Penn went further and, in reference to Britain’s recent sending of ships to the South Atlantic, and the posting of Prince William in a military role there, said we should no longer tolerate Britain’s ‘ludicrous, colonialist and archaic’ attitude towards the Malvinas/Falklands. Cue outrage in British media and political circles and amongst the couple of thousand of British settlers in the Falklands.
The Penn affair confirms the extraordinary and terrifying power of celebrity today. It shows that in our celeb-obsessed era, the famous and allegedly fabulous are no longer used simply to advertise booze or to titillate the readers of gossip columns – they have become actual tools of global politics. (In both senses of the word ‘tool’ – ‘a device used to carry out a particular function’ and ‘one who lacks the mental capacity to know he is being used’.) Indeed, Kirchner’s use of Penn in her war of words with Britain shows that she is a sussed and wily leader – she recognises that, today, a comment from a celeb is a far more effective political manoeuvre than readying a warship or making a stern speech at the United Nations. Her message is basically: ‘I’ll see your Prince William and raise you Sean Penn…’
And in this celeb-fuelled stand-off, where victory is judged by column inches in newspapers rather than columns deployed on the battlefield, it seems Pinko Sean of Hollywood is a more powerful weapon than Prince William of Wales. Indeed, Kirchner’s A-Bomb, or perhaps A-List Bomb, has blown this conflict wide open. Sure, her recent public statements about British militarisation in the South Atlantic and her foreign minister’s angry speech at the UN made ripples, but her Penn-pushing has made waves. It infuriated Britain’s media elite, provoked responses from Tory MPs, led British celebs to retaliate by saying Penn should be ‘fed to crocodiles’, and it even galvanised the Falklanders to organise a mile-long, flag-waving motorcade designed to tell Penn he should ‘mind his own business’.
In its report on the Falklanders’ anti-Penn motorcade, the Sun patriotically declared: ‘The flag is mightier than the Penn.’ But is it? Really? It might not be anymore. The very fact that so many influential Brits and ordinary Falklanders felt the need to reassert the Britishness of the Falkland Islands in response to one celeb’s global moral posturing, even the fact that ‘the flag’ must be contrasted with ‘the Penn’, suggests ‘the flag’ is weak and extremely defensive. It also confirms the immense power of celebs to determine political agendas today. Kirchner has fairly instinctively discovered that having a very famous person make an anti-British statement will make a bigger hit against Britain than could ever be achieved through the normal diplomatic or militaristic channels these days. Her use of ‘the Penn’ against ‘the flag’ propelled her clash with Britain from the foreign pages in a few European and Latin American newspapers on to the front pages of papers around the world.
The Penn affair reveals what motors celebrity culture today. It is not, as we are often told, salaciousness and/or hero worship amongst those at the bottom of society, but rather a severe crisis of authority amongst those at the top. It is a powerful sense of disconnection and disarray within modern political elites which has led to the instinctive cultivation of celebrity as a new source of authority, so that the prefix ‘celebrity’ – as in celebrity campaigner, celebrity lawyer, celebrity chef – now carries far more weight than much-doubted, even frowned-upon prefixes such as ‘royal’ or ‘political’. Today, more and more political leaders, feeling isolated from the public and bereft of moral authority, effectively outsource authority for various of their campaigns to celebs, hoping that the popularity and purchase enjoyed by those celebs will give the campaigns some oomph and impact, some authority. In granting Penn authority over her pretty tense run-in with Britain over the Falklands, Kirchner has simply taken the celebrification of politics to a bizarre and scary new level, where even international fallouts must now be fronted by the famous. When even war talk requires celebrity endorsement, you know the Penn is mightier than the sword.
Ironically, in finding itself on the receiving end of Penn’s preaching, Britain is merely experiencing the sort of celebrity hectoring it has frequently given the nod to itself. Remember when Gordon Brown had a chat with Angelina Jolie to try to decide what to do about Africa? Other British ministers, in cahoots with George W Bush, allowed Bono to become spokesman for the whole of the Third World. Yet now we don’t like it when an Argie and her celeb mate use similar tactics against ‘us’, likewise deploying the power of celebrity to try to embarrass Britain into changing its ways and rethinking its politics. As it happens, I also think the Malvinas belong to Argentina, not Britain – just look at a map for God’s sake! But I also think that this pretty important international disagreement ought to be had out honestly, in political terms, rather than being reduced to a weird celeb re-enactment of 1982.
Penn is an idiot, of course he is, and the fact that he beat the peerless Mickey Rourke to the Best Actor Oscar in 2009, simply for mincing about in Milk, suggests Hollywood is full of similar idiots. Which only makes it all the more curious that these people can make such a big impact these days simply by opening their gobs and allowing whatever is in their tiny minds to pour forth.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
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