Coming to terms with Sean Penn (well, sort of…)

30 Dec

It’s hard to write these words, given my prior ranting, but I find myself softening a (tiny) bit on Sean Penn.

He had his early moments of idiocy, for sure. Dragging a contagious child from one Port-au-Prince hospital to the next, or opining on in favor of further blurring the already blurred lines between military and civilian aid actors, for example. There’s the whole issue of the fact that his time in Haiti counts as court-ordered community service, too. I mean, how many young, actually trained, aspiring aid workers would kill for a deployment to Haiti? And yet Sean Penn gets to go there and make it up as he goes… essentially as punishment. WTF?. Or what about the fact that he packs heat on the job? A Glock to be specific.

This all said, he is still in Haiti, something like 9 (or is it 10?) months now and making noise about committing decades there. I don’t know many real aid workers willing to commit up front to 10 years in Haiti, so good on him. And by some accounts he’s mostly getting it right. One of my colleagues based in Port-au-Prince sits next to him in the CCM cluster meetings on a somewhat regular basis, and from what she says it sounds like he’s a) willing to learn; b) saying and doing the right sorts of things.

On one hand this is encouraging. A famous, high-profile celebrity-cum-aid activist has seen the light. Outstanding. The world is now objectively a(n incrementally) better place.

But on the other hand, it’s incredibly annoying. Another high-profile celebrity and self-declared voice for “the poor” deposited himself in a disaster zone, full of strident statements about what’s working and what’s not, spouting the familiar cock-sure opinions about what needs to be done and how the INGOs are getting it wrong… And ten months later has come around to precisely the same learning that the rest of us (you know, actual professional aid workers) have know for decades:

  • Aid is harder, more complicated, and more expensive than you think.
  • It takes specific knowledge and skills to get it right.
  • There are no magik bullets, there are no fast solutions.
  • Many, many factors, utterly beyond the control of aid workers or aid agencies impinge on the success or failure of an overall aid effort.
  • Haiti (the disaster, not the country) will be a very long, hard slog.

But for some reason that I don’t quite grasp, Sean Penn seems oddly silent now.

Crap. He’s been humbled. Mystic River didn’t phase him. He rebounded from his failed marriage to Madonna with great aplomb. But Haiti seems to have silenced him. No more strident weighing in on CNN or CBS about how The Media tells a specific story of aid that is specifically inaccurate and misrepresentative. Hell, even Bono and Angelina use their celebrity to push big, structural issues at high levels.

But not Sean Penn.

Nope. He’s started his own NGO – the J/P Haitian Relief Organization, with it’s own sweet website where you can watch a slideshow of brown-eyed Haitian children, and then click to donate. Apparently there are just not enough NGOs in Haiti right now… He’s hunkered down, managing “his” tent camp. He’s doing all the things he railed against the NGOs for doing before: going to coordination meetings, fundraising, promoting his organization’s brand.

Back when he was clueless he had all the answers. But now that he actually has some knowledge, some actual understanding, something real to say, he’s piped totally down. For all of his desire to make the world better, he’s passing on what would possible be his best opportunity to do so. Thanks, bro.

I can’t decide whether I love Sean Penn or hate him. I’ll be happy to tell him so in person, too, next time I’m in Haiti. Over drinks at the Hotel Oloffsen.

15 Responses to “Coming to terms with Sean Penn (well, sort of…)”

  1. Mark Harris 30 December, 2010 at 1:41 pm #

    I am totally on board with the Penn-bivalence.
    We have much the same problem in the medical profession. A celebrity spouts ignorant, inactivate, misleading rubbish and everyone laps it up as gospel (looking at you Ms. Mcarthy).
    Mr. Penn, however, seems to have gone one better and rapidly transitioned through the (relatively) learned phase into that of raging hypocrite.
    However, he has shown that he is capable of learning. Perhaps he will do so again.

  2. Martha Cook 30 December, 2010 at 3:18 pm #

    What a drag. Does this mean I have to backpeddle on the Sean Penn-should-mind-his-own-business argument that I had with my ex-husband? I really thought I was right and he was full of crap, taking Sean Penn’s side, just to be oppositional. Could it be, truly, that I was being narrow-minded and unkind, in his words?

    BTW Macy’s is selling some rockin’ Haitian artwork. Haiti certainly has gone mainstream. Reminds me that 20 something years ago when I bought some Haitian woodcarvings my sister-in-law wouldn’t touch them for fear she’d get a certain viral illness.

    • J. 30 December, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

      Nah… No need to backpedal. On balance it would still be better had Penn simply minded his own business (done his court-ordered community service in, say, Ohio), IMO.

      Macy’s, huh? That’s beyond mainstream and into full-on hoity-toity. Not many mega-disaster afflicted countries achieve that… How lucky Haiti must feel!

  3. Mykel Jean 30 December, 2010 at 5:21 pm #

    Over drinks at Oloffsen, will you also ask how he feels about the Corail site he pushed so hard for? And how that backfired on the 1000+ vulnerable families that were moved there? Luckily, most of these people moved right back to the camp he manages when they realized it was all pie in the sky, leaving the place for 50,000 other desperate people.

    I wonder though if you’d get him to sit down with you in Haiti. I don’t know where you got the impression that he has been there non-stop, because he has not been in the country much for the last 5 months. That may also explain the media silence: it is harder being credible complaining about slow and inefficient NGOs when you yourself are “filming” or sipping lattes in California.

    But be careful how you bring or phrase your questions. You might get hit in the face. Or shot.

  4. David Week 31 December, 2010 at 2:30 am #

    I always liked what Penn was doing in Haiti, but that’s because I must have MISSED all the stupid stuff you cite at the beginning. Especially about carrying a Glock. Rule #1: if you don’t want to get shot, don’t carry a gun.

    Over the last month, I have decided that the vocal amateurs who can’t be bothered to google a few basic facts are a fundamental threat to aid and development. They worship at the temple of truthiness: pandering to common stereotypes and prejudices about aid, without the most basic fact-checking fact-checking FACT-CHECKING.

    At the same time, they worship at the temple of their own ego:

    “Hail fellows who have been working at this for 40 years! Lucky for you I am here, to tell you the obvious that you have failed to see. I come, Christ-like, to save you, and the poor, and of course the little children.

    “Last week, I was telling some physicists how to run CERN. And the week before that, I was instructing a few doctors over at Johns Hopkins on where they were going wrong. But your fortune is that both CERN and Johns Hopkins booted me out, so you may now be graced by my wisdom.”

    The trouble with these ninnies is that with every iota of disinformation they spread, they discourage people from contributing to legitimate aid efforts. SInce, thanks to Peter Singer and Oxfam, we now have a rough measure of how much it costs to save a life, we can accord each of these fruit loops a kill rate.

    So, for instance, if we think that some celebrity’s ill-informed statements cost INGOs $1m in donations, which would have saved about 5,000 people, we can accord him or her a “kill rate” of 5,000 dead. Without even unholstering a Glock!

    On the other hand, if that celebrity has made good his earlier errors by raising $2m, we can erase the 5,000 dead, and award him a further 5,000 saved instead. Maybe we could keep league tables on celebrities, using an expert pool to estimate their kill rates and their save rates.

    Maybe being identified as child-killers might instill a certain celebrity self-discipline, based on self-interest, since normal ethics don’t seem to be at work. On the other hand, “celebrity self-discipline”? Who am I kidding?

    I am heartened to hear that Sean Penn (a) has learned, and shut up, and (b) is not spending time in Haiti. I love this statement by the just departed OAS rep, Ricardo Seitenfus:

    “… they landed in Haiti without any experience. And Haiti, I can tell you, is not suitable for amateurs.”

    Sean Penn, who I admire as an intelligent and capable actor, has no role in Haiti. But he will get four gold stars from me if he does these things:

    * shuts up about matters about which he knows nothing
    * leaves the fieldwork to experienced or at least trained personnel (yeah: give young people who have invested in an aid or development education a go)
    * goes back to making moola from movies, and donating a portion of that moola
    * uses his star power to raise money, while sipping lattés in Hollywood.

    A fifth gold star if he confesses his errors, and uses that confession to launch a campaign aimed at educating the public, factually and truthfully.

    • J. 31 December, 2010 at 10:23 am #

      Ah, David… I think there’s a bottle of “Twisted Sister” out in my garage with your name on it…

  5. Joe Turner 31 December, 2010 at 1:47 pm #


  6. Katie 3 January, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    Penn is a featured speaker (!) at a Haiti Brookings event next Monday (

  7. Daniel O'Neil 14 January, 2011 at 5:19 am #

    I finally met Sean at a workshop earlier this week–one of the one year anniversary events. I found him to be humble, knowledgeable and well-spoken. Having Sean involved with Haiti brings more attention to Haiti and therefore the possibility of getting more money. Of course he made mistakes in the beginning. But I did too and I have far more experience. More importantly, he has learned from his mistakes and improved his operations. Thank God that I am not judged only by my mistakes. His organization is doing good work to remove the rubble from Delmas 32 and his camp is well run. I told him quite sincerely that I am impressed with his dedication.


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