Nearly 24 centuries ago, Plato warned not to confuse innate artistic skill with either education or intelligence. The philosopher worried the emotional bond we can forge with good actors might also allow these manipulative mimics too much influence in matters on which they are often ignorant.
So he would cringe that the high-school graduate Sean Penn is now capitalizing on his worldly fame from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to pose as an informed commentator on the Iranian elections.
Then there’s Robert Redford, who once played Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men” and apparently still believes that role made him an experienced muckraker a la The Washington Post in the Watergate era. Now Mr. Redford lectures reporters to go after George W. Bush, undeterred that the real journalist Dan Rather ended his career by such an obsessed effort.
Mr. Redford and Mr. Penn, of course, aren’t the only entertainers as would-be wise men and moralists who lecture us on the evils of the Bush administration.
The United States took out the Taliban in seven weeks, Saddam in three. Despite a difficult insurrection, there is a democratic government in Iraq. Yet action-hero George Clooney pontificated, “We can’t beat anyone anymore.”
Osama bin Laden declared open season on Americans during Bill Clinton’s administration, well before the September 11, 2001, attacks, Afghanistan and Iraq. But Sheryl Crow announced, “The best way to solve problems is to not have enemies,” as if her musical genius translates into expertise on radical Islam.
Richard Gere of “The Jackal” fame elaborated: “If you can see [the terrorists] as a relative who’s dangerously sick and we have to give them medicine, and the medicine is love and compassion. There’s nothing better.”
Cher often sings of losers and so drew on her artistic insight to share a complex portrait of the president: “I don’t like Bush. I don’t trust him. I don’t like his record. He’s stupid. He’s lazy.”
What’s so disturbing about our leftist celebrities lecturing us on what has gone wrong after September 11? Nothing, as long as we realize why they do it.
Entertainers wrongly assume their fame, money and influence arise from broad knowledge rather than natural talent, looks or mastery of a narrow skill.
In fact, what do a talented Richard Gere, Robert Redford and Madonna all have in common besides loudly blasting the current administration? They either dropped out of, or never started, college. Cher may think George Bush is “stupid,” but she — not he — didn’t finish high school.
If these apparent autodidacts are without degrees, aren’t they at least well informed? Not always. Right before the Iraqi war, Barbra Streisand issued an angry statement assuring us Saddam Hussein was the dictator of Iran.
Second, liberal guilt over their royal status explains why leftist entertainers drown out the handful of conservative celebrities. Sanctimonious public lectures provide a cheap way of reconciling rare privilege with professed egalitarianism.
British rockers draft legions of lawyers to evade taxes, yet they parade around at hyped concerts to shame governments into sending billions of taxpayers’ money “to end poverty” in Africa.
Such public expressions of caring provide some cover for being long-haired capitalists — or, in the case of an impoverished Africa, not worrying how in the messy world one really deals with Zimbabwe’s kleptocrat Robert Mugabe, who just bulldozed the homes of 1.5 million of his own people.
Third, celebrities have lost touch with the tragic world outside Malibu and Beverly Hills that cannot so easily be manipulated to follow a script or have a happy ending. Thus an exasperated Danny Glover, Martin Sheen and others recently ran an ad in the trade magazine Variety lamenting that Hollywood’s illegal alien nannies couldn’t obtain driver’s licenses to drive to their estates. How dare the voters of California not grant licenses to those who broke the law to nobly serve the exalted?
Fourth, Hollywood’s megaphones don’t have a very good track record of political persuasion. While Josef Stalin and later Mao Tse-tung slaughtered millions, many actors still preached that communism offered a socialist utopia. Jane Fonda went to enemy Hanoi to offer marquee appeal to the communist Vietnamese but was ignorant of their documented record of murder and autocracy.
If retired actors and entertainers wish to become politicians — an old tradition, from the Empress Theodora to Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger — let them run for office and endure a campaign and sustained cross-examination from voters. Otherwise their celebrity is used only as a gimmick to give credence to silly rants that if voiced by anyone else would never reach the light of day.
In this regard, we could learn again from the Greeks. They thought the playwrights Sophocles and Euripides were brilliant but not the mere mimics who performed their plays.
Victor Davis Hanson is a nationally syndicated columnist and a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.