A Friend Like Penn

I read the news today, oh boy…

Seems Sean Penn went all Sean Penn at the Oscars last night. Before announcing Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman as this year’s Best Picture, Penn asked, “Who gave this sonofabitch his green card?”

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Iñárritu had already won for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.

The joke wasn’t particularly funny. And it was the kind of joke guys share with each other when there are no ladies in the room, which makes the stage at the Oscars probably the last place to say something like that.

Facebook, the Twittersphere and the blogosphere all simultaneously lost their shit, as expected. Penn, a confirmed white guy, had uttered something insensitive about green cards when referring to a Mexican, so people were quick to call him a racist. By 11 this morning, the antisocials on social media were nearly unanimous in their condemnation of Mr. Penn as a raging nativist and racist who is part of the reason Congress has yet to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Never mind that the poor and oppressed peoples of the world —including Latin America— likely have never had a more staunch ally than Sean Penn.

He was a critic of the war in Iraq before there was a war in Iraq. He’s stood beside anti-imperialist leaders like the Castro brothers in Cuba and the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, who cut his nation’s poverty rate in half. Penn was actively involved with pulling people from the water when Katrina hit New Orleans—unlike a certain respected member of the American media.

When an earthquake struck the already impoverished island nation of Haiti, Penn not only flew to Port-au-Prince to do what he could, the “sonofabitch” even moved there and built a camp which continues to house over 50,000 refugees. It was damn inspiring to see this rich Hollywood white guy living in mud and human excrement alongside a population that even their fellow Latinos tend to discount. The people of Haiti were so impressed with his commitment to their cause, they made him the first non-Haitian to be named ambassador-at-large.

Penn left Haiti in 2012 to help flood victims in Pakistan. What white American do you know actually cares about Pakistan? What American do you know wants do anything in Pakistan besides leave one giant, smoking crater?

Yet, most people are willing to forget all of Penn’s work over a single joke—one apparently between friends.

In fact the more I think about the joke, the more I can appreciate it. It’s like a Jewish comedian saying things an anti-Semite would (as Sacha Baron Cohen does when he plays Borat). It’s tongue-in-cheek. It’s Iñárritu telling the Oscar crowd how he wonders if the Academy will impose immigration restrictions next year, seeing as Mexicans have won Best Director two years in a row.

This, for the uninitiated, is called “irony.”

It’s ironic that Sean Penn would make a joke about green cards at the Oscars, because the “poor, huddled masses” of the world have never had such an outspoken champion, a real friend, like Penn.

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Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.

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