On March 19, CNN hosted a coronavirus town hall featuring insights from Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Mike Ryan, an executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, and, for some reason, Sean Penn, who was there under the guise of having disaster expertise because of his charitable efforts in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.
Although the global Coronavirus outbreak and the Haitian earthquake are not at all similar situations and require different resources and actions, Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta looked on as Penn sputtered incoherent nonsense about the U.S. military and emergency response preparation, clearly out of his depth but too self-important to stop and say “I don’t know.”
“What I have been feeling out of that experience for the last month is that this was a certain time where the command control probably, or most logically, out of Northern Command, Colorado Springs, that if that was the center control, where they have direct coordination, with FEMA with CDC, and with the governors of the state and with the state’s own emergency coordination, offices, many of which are already activated but without the United States military’s forced intervention we have been left to this kind of chaos,” Penn stammered, frantically rustling pages off-screen like a college student attempting to deliver a speech he’d forgotten to prepare the night before an introduction to public speaking course. Instead of interrupting Penn, who clearly had no vital information to share or advice to give, Cooper allowed him plod on, lending importance to this uninformed yammering, simply because Penn is a celebrity.
Penn isn’t the only one confusing simply having a giant platform with having something meaningful to say. Last week, a video circulated of celebrities including Gal Gadot, Kristen Wiig, and Amy Adams singing John Lennon’s Imagine from their mansions, where they are social distancing, yes, but most likely with access to home gyms, swimming pools, and myriad other luxuries that viewers worried about keeping their jobs are generally without. For most celebrities posting notes of encouragement to fans, the overarching message seems to be “We’re all in this together,” but we’re really, really not. As covid-19 shuts down businesses, schools, and most other “non-essential” activities, the majority of Americans are left wondering how they’re going to pay rent, educate their children, and put food on the table for the foreseeable future, and singing “Imagine no possessions” at them from a mansion reads awfully cruel at a time like this.
But apart from plain old hubris, what would cause celebrities to think that what we need most right now is their reassurance? Perhaps the fact that, for most of the 20th and 21st centuries, Americans have, in fact, relied on celebrities for reassurance during times of crisis. During WWII, public sentiment was swayed by Hollywood’s pro-war propaganda machine, which churned out hundreds of films from slapstick comedies to tear-jerkers glorifying the American war effort. It’s a Wonderful Life director Frank Capra was even hand-selected by FDR himself to direct a series called Why We Fight that served as both training and recruitment videos for the U.S. military. Following the war, actor and entertainer Danny Kaye became the first celebrity goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, paving the way for other celebrities like Angelina Jolie to work with the U.N. on their own passion projects. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with celebrities wanting to use their fame for a good cause—for example, Jennifer Aniston raising money for St. Jude’s or Bob Hope entertaining the troops—the problem arises when celebrities come to see themselves as experts on subjects completely out of their wheelhouses.
One example of a well-intentioned celebrity hurting more than helping a vulnerable population is Brad Pitt’s poorly-executed attempt to “rebuild” New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Pitt’s “Make It Right” foundation began with a worthwhile concept—building 150 affordable green energy homes to replace those destroyed by flooding following Katrina. However, owners of those homes sued Pitt and the foundation in 2019, claiming the cheaply built Make It Right houses were rotting and that poorly-installed gas meters were in danger of exploding. Pitt, in turn, asked to have his name removed from the lawsuit because, despite being widely lionized as a co-founder of Make It Right, he’d walked away from the project years before. The problem is, of course, the fact that Pitt is simply a rich person with a passing interest in architecture who can walk away from a project when it gets too difficult, not a person with any real skin in the game when it comes to rebuilding a vulnerable community after all the attention fades.
Sean Penn, who was also photographed in New Orleans following Katrina, is well-known for his relief efforts following the Haitian earthquake of 2010. But while he has been lauded for raising money and awareness, as well as making real and significant efforts to rebuild, Rolling Stone also reported that Penn may have mishandled some of those efforts, perhaps simply by virtue of not understanding when he was being manipulated by other wealthy people. He responded to that criticism with criticism of the journalist who researched the story, and his response was also published by Rolling Stone, giving Penn’s reaction to criticism every bit as much weight as the researched, documented criticism itself. Additionally, in 2016, Rolling Stone published Penn’s irresponsible interview with Joaquín Guzmán Loera, or El Chapo, positioning Penn as an investigative journalist, when in fact he put lives at risk to do little more than give a convicted murderer a platform to explain away his crimes with no pushback on Penn’s part. Penn would later battle Netflix over a documentary about the bizarre interview, indicating a pattern in which Sean Penn gets to talk, but would rather his word be the end of discussion. The publishing industry is also happy to let Penn play novelist, acting as vanity press for his, by most accounts unreadable, stream-of-consciousness novels.
But perhaps the difference between letting Sean Penn publish a novel and having him on CNN as some sort of pandemic expert is the fact that we actually have real novelists leading the industry with good novels. However, we do not currently have enough real pandemic experts leading the country in efforts to reduce coronavirus casualties. What we have instead is a Surgeon General begging reality TV star Kylie Jenner to tell her Instagram followers to stay home. And while that PR strategy may have worked when the Andrews Sisters championed the war effort with “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” it feels a little distressing amid suspicions that begging help from celebrities seems to be a main, rather than supplemental, plan to combat covid-19. Especially when Americans have a reality TV star for a president who is currently using the virus as an excuse to try out new forms of racism and a governing body quibbling over whether or not poor people really deserve $1,000 in rent money while making trillion-dollar promises to help bail out the billion-dollar corporations firing employees left and right. The fear of many working people is that they will soon be without homes, not whimsical celebrity boredom at being trapped within them. The very real fears of regular working people versus the conceits of celebrity put into grim focus that Americans don’t need their encouragement or advice—they simply need their money. Workers are already imagining “no possessions,” and having a celebrity singing the reminder at them from beside a swimming pool does not provide assurance that the world will soon live as one. But it does make a stark picture of how very divided it already is.