Oliver Stone, Naomi Campbell, Danny Glover, Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Sean Penn: The return of the useful idiot

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Last month, Oliver Stone’s “South of the Border” made its American debut. The documentary’s focus is Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who Stone believes has been cruelly demonized in Western media.

In the “documentary,” Stone offers absolutely no criticism of Chavez or the other six left-wing Latin American presidents he interviews. While he takes nothing the U.S. governments says at face value, the left-wing Latin American leaders can tell no lie, most especially Chavez.

For proof of the Western media’s perfidy in covering the sometimes clownish Venezuelan leader, Stone shows some loose-lipped cable news commentators calling Chavez a dictator. To a certain extent Stone has a point. Chavez is not a dictator — yet. But Chavez surely aspires to that position and plenty of people seriously doubt, including myself, whether Chavez would ever peacefully give up power.

And I think Stone must agree, even though he doesn’t say this outright, because of all the praise he throws at the left-wing leaders he interviews in his movie, he seems to suggest that Cuba is the ideal model. He even asks Cuban President Raul Castro if he believes himself to be the “godfather” of Latin America’s left-wing alliance.

Cuba, of course, is hardly the paradigm of liberal values and democratic institutions. It has been a dictatorship for well over half a century. For most of that time, Fidel Castro ruled the roost. For the last several years since Fidel has taken ill, his brother Raul has been in charge. As for freedom in Cuba? Let’s just say there aren’t too many Cuban Oliver Stones living in Havana making antagonistic films about their government.

But Stone is on a mission to whitewash Chavez’s moves toward totalitarianism. His clamping down on the media and nationalizations of private companies are enthusiastically justified. Don’t you know that the media stations Chavez shut down said nasty things about Chavez? And the nationalizations were necessary because of the legacy of Western economic imperialism. Chavez, we are told, is simply a man who wants the best for his people and his country.

After all, Stone has “never seen such energy” in a person. The director is awed that after he interviewed Chavez late into the night, he learns that Chavez supposedly went back to work afterward. And he is stunned to discover that Chavez spends his reading time imbibing dense policy books. Ordinary mortals read for pleasure. Chavez is too busy furthering the Bolivarian Revolution for such luxury.

Stone doesn’t even attempt skepticism in this film. Everything he learns from Chavez he takes hook, line and sinker. Left-wing Latin American leaders never do anything wrong. America is at fault for all of Latin America’s problems that exist today and perhaps have ever existed. Yada, yada, yada.

For much of the 20th century, especially during the Cold War, American leftists greeted each new communist dictatorship or left-wing insurgency with glowing support. Despite the destructiveness of these regimes to both human life and economic productivity, left-wing American politicians and Hollywood celebrities lent their moral support. This often took the form of the political journey to a communist society where the fat, naïve, gullible American would be given a “special” tour of the country where they would inevitably conclude that they had found utopia.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the utter demystification of left-wing economics to even those true believers that remained by the end of the 1980s, these political journeys seemed to slow down. But Stone’s documentary is just the latest example of the American resurgence of the fabled useful idiot.

The origin of the term “useful idiot” is often ascribed to Vladimir Lenin, though it is not exactly clear whether the communist leader ever actually used it. Regardless, the term itself remains useful. It was applied during the Cold War in reference to Westerners who would travel to communist lands and praise them to Western audiences as the embodiment of all that is good. Of course, these supposed utopias were more anti-utopian, with dictatorial rulers who massacred their own people and created economic disaster. But the ideologically deluded and gullible reporters, celebrities and other fellow travelers were easily duped by their communist hosts and deployed as “useful idiots” to help spread their propaganda.

While Venezuela isn’t a full-fledged communist dictatorship yet, it is well on its way. There should be little question what Chavez’s intentions are at this point. After all, he idealizes Cuba, one of the last standing communist societies on the planet.

But Stone isn’t the only one who has traveled to Caracas to exalt in Chavez’s court in the last several years. Before Stone, there was American model Naomi Campbell and third-rate actor Danny Glover. And perhaps no dupe has been more enraptured with Chavez than American actor Sean Penn.

After traveling to Venezuela in late 2008, Penn wrote about his experience meeting with Chavez then as well as on his previous experience in 2006 in the Nation magazine and on the Huffington Post. One could be excused for thinking the articles were meant as satire.

About his journey to Venezuela in 2006, Penn wrote that while in Chavez’s outer office, he observed the impressionist paintings that decorated the walls. His eye soon “drifted to the artist’s signature on the paintings. One word: Chavez.”

To say the least, Penn was taken aback.

“I hadn’t known that he painted,” he fawned, “and would never have guessed a politician could paint so well. Men of reason are rarely men of romance. As men of religion (as Chavez is) are so rarely men of reason.”

This, he said, was a “a riddle of his personality that will be explored for years to come.” Oh yes. For sure.

Then the big moment came. Penn encountered the enigma himself.

“President Chavez entered the room,” he wrote. “He was a bear of a man … whose eyes squinted above his broad smile as he greeted me.” Penn continues by gushing how Chavez is a “highly engaging raconteur,” “a student of history,” and a “vociferous read[er].”
In another encounter, Penn finds himself alone with “Hugo” in the “backseat of the president’s town car.” Chavez tells Penn that he should bring his children next time. On that note, Penn opens his cell phone to show Chavez pictures of his children.

“He then looks at them lost in thought,” Penn describes, “his eyes nearly well, he kisses the screen. At this point, I was 45 years old, Chavez, 51. I felt a kinship in longing for my children. Chavez answers my question from minutes earlier. ‘I do not approve terrorism of any kind. I could never bomb or kidnap anyone.’”

That sounds sweet and no doubt Penn believed the words of the man he felt such kinship with. But it is likely that at the very moment Chavez was uttering those words to Penn, Chavez was supporting the FARC narco-terrorists in neighboring Colombia. Chavez has also supported — at least rhetorically, if not financially and logistically — the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah. But Penn obviously didn’t press Chavez on his anti-terrorism spiel. He had to soon part with Chavez anyways until the following day when Chavez was going to take him on a personal tour of “an organic pesticide laboratory.” Chavez sure knows how to excite a Hollywood environmentalist.

Whether it was Chavez’s “infections laugh” or the fact that he believes Chavez was able to predict the U.S. financial crisis, Penn found a lover during his 2006 trip and his second Chavez mancation in 2008. It just so happens his lover is tightening the grip of totalitarianism on Venezuela.

But it’s not just Chavez that Penn can’t stop fawning over. The Castro brothers are also objects of his undying affection.

During his 2008 trip to Venezuela, Penn also made a stop in Havana, where he had the opportunity to sit down with Raul Castro. Having had the pleasure of meeting with Fidel in the past, Penn looked forward to meeting with his brother. Penn was indeed impressed.

“Fidel has once again been underestimated by the North,” Penn wrote. “In the selection of his brother Raul, he has put the day-to-day policy-making of his country into formidable hands.”

Yes, after ruling for nearly 50 years, Fidel searched for the best replacement possible and — surprise! — it turned out his nearly 80-year-old brother was the best man for the job. One wonders if Penn would be as impressed if President George W. Bush canceled the 2008 presidential election and instead decided to appoint his brother Jeb as the new American leader.

But of course, Penn simply loves the Castro brothers in much the same way the Cuban people still idealize the Cuban Revolution. As Penn tells us, “even representatives of the State Department and prominent dissidents acknowledge that in free and open election in Cuba today, the ruling Communist Party would win 80 percent of the election.”

Penn never stops to think and ask himself why, if that were so, Cuban leaders don’t hold an election and prove their overwhelming support to the world?

On second thought, how could Penn think of such things on such an enchanted evening with Raul? As Penn, hard-nosed journalist that he is, walked with Raul on the  “green-house like terrace with tropical plants and birds … sip[ping] more wine,” he just didn’t have any time to consider the oppressed Cuban population who have been suffering under the rule of one family for more than 50 years and who have been systematically deprived of the most basic liberties that Penn takes for granted every day in the United States.

Yet, it isn’t clear that Penn, who has profited so much from the free society into which he was born, is himself a liberal democrat. Earlier this year on Bill Maher’s HBO show “Real Time,” Penn suggested that people should be thrown in jail for simply exercising free speech if it wasn’t to his liking.

“Because every day, this elected leader [Hugo Chavez] is called a dictator here, and we just accept it,” Penn said. “And this is mainstream media, who should – truly, there should be a bar by which one goes to prison for these kinds of lies.”

Reading those words, the love affair between Penn and Chavez and Penn and the Castro brothers seems much more understandable.

It’s not just some Hollywood elites that have been acting as propagandists for repressive left-wing leaders and regimes in recent years, however. So have some of our elected officials.

Last November, Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky traveled to Honduras where that country’s military had just removed its president, Manuel Zelaya, from power. Zelaya was reportedly seeking to extend his term beyond the one-term proscribed in the Honduran constitution. In so doing, he brazenly violated constitutional processes and his removal was authorized by the country’s Supreme Court and legislature. Though President Obama and the international community took Zelaya’s side, a report by the Law Library of Congress said that Zelaya’s removal was in line with Honduran law.

Despite the fact that Honduras has almost nothing to do with her Illinois district, Schakowsky made her way down to Central America in order to flak for the leftist leader. Upon her return, she declared that Zelaya was “a victim of serious human rights abuses.”

The charge that Zelaya’s removal was an extra-constitutional coup was strange considering that the man who replaced Zelaya, Vice President Roberto Micheletti, pledged to step down after a late November election to determine a replacement (which he ultimately did). When I asked the congresswoman to explain this in a conference call for reporters after she returned from Honduras, she blathered that elite business people in the country were upset that Zelaya was going to raise the minimum wage and institute anti-business regulation. But if these all-powerful business elites wanted to install a new leader more to their liking, why would their supposedly installed leader pledge to step down after a free and fair election just months later? The whole alleged conspiracy just didn’t make any sense.

It was obvious at the time that Zelaya was unstable, having told the Miami Herald that “Israeli mercenaries” were torturing him by pumping toxic gases and high-frequency radiation into the Brazilian Embassy in Honduras where he was then residing. Yet, Schakowsky felt compelled to fly all the way to Honduras to defend a leftist leader lawfully removed from power for violating his country’s constitution. Neither Zelaya’s crazed accusations nor the concern that Zelaya was moving into the ideological orbit of Hugo Chavez seemingly raised any red flags for the congresswoman. And anyways, she got to the bottom of the Chavez accusation and determined it was exaggerated—after Zelaya apparently told her so.

“I talked to President Zelaya about that and he felt those fears were way overstated,” she said to another reporter during the aforementioned conference call. Well, at least she settled that.

With leftist economic policies having been thoroughly discredited with the fall of the Soviet Union, one would have hoped that the Western useful idiot would have become a relic of the past. Stone, Penn, Schakowsky, and others show that the phenomenon hasn’t completely vanished. Useful idiots are back with a vengeance.

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