Let's face it—we live in a country where filmmaker Michael Moore's anti-war outburst at the Oscars got more public attention than did several million Europeans (and a million or so of us) marching in the streets for the same cause.
It's sad, but true. American political dialogue has about as much depth as one of those new flat-screen TVs and as much variety as your choice of computer operating systems. We're entertained to death and intellectually starved. So often the only way to get an alternative viewpoint heard is to put it in the mouth of an entertainer.
This situation has been a long time coming. Film stars have used their notoriety to bring attention to progressive causes since the 1930s. There was a break in the tradition during the blacklist of the 1940s-50s Red Scare. But beginning in the late 1960s, Hollywood celebrities became staples of the anti-war and civil rights movements. Warren Beatty funded and advised the McGovern campaign. Jane Fonda went to Hanoi. Marlon Brando hung out with AIM and the Black Panthers. When the Democratic Party went into hibernation during the Reagan era, Hollywood voices and dollars became even more important to peace and justice movements.
Historically, this happened because film represents the ultimate alliance of art, big business, and cultural power. Art requires artists, with their messily independent spirits. And the power to make the myths of American culture (from Gone With the Wind to Easy Rider) is inevitably political. Add to all that the fact that many people in politics (electoral and otherwise) are frustrated performers drawn to the spotlight, and you've got the makings of a political hothouse.
Hollywood dissent was dampened during the Clinton era, when the film industry's biggest movers and shakers were ensconced in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House. But lately there's been a resurgence of entertaining protest or, at least, protesting entertainers. During the late unpleasantness in Iraq, there was nary a nationally known politician who spoke against the war. CNN had to turn to comic actor Janeane Garofalo to find a recognizable face for the anti-war position. As a result, "Hollywood"—which was once synonymous with glitz and debauchery—became a right-wing code word for "subversion," and film stars became the object of a minor political backlash.
MICHAEL MOORE may be untouchable. He operates outside the Hollywood system and doesn't care what anyone thinks. But Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, for example, are in a different position. They may be independent artists who might willingly sacrifice their fame, and even some of their comfort, for the right cause, but they also know that their political utility depends on their continuing ability to headline mainstream (i.e. corporate-financed) film projects. So it's no surprise that, in the midst of the shooting in Iraq, those two celebrities in particular were targeted for public retribution.
First Sarandon was disinvited from a United Way dinner in Tampa, Florida. Representatives of the charity said her presence in the hometown of the U.S. Central Command would prove "divisive." Then the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, cancelled a celebration of the 15th anniversary of Bull Durham, the legendary film about minor-league baseball. In an exchange of correspondence that can be read at www.thenation.com, Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey wrote, "As an institution, we [the Hall of Fame] stand behind our president and our troops in this conflict." In his reply, Bull Durham co-star Robbins noted that many baseball fans "will react with disgust to realize baseball is being politicized." Robbins closed: "Long live democracy, free speech, and the '69 Mets; all improbable glorious miracles that I have always believed in."
Of course, being cut out of a few photo-ops is no big deal compared to the hardship suffered by blacklisted film artists in the 1950s. But Robbins was right to go ballistic over the Hall of Fame snub. He knows that if he can be portrayed as outside the American mainstream, then his ideas can, too. And if he can be perceived as a mainstream cultural figure, then there is at least one teeny-weeny crack in the corporate monolith.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.