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If Stupidity Were a Crime, Sean Penn Would Be the Fugitive

If there was any crime committed in the making of Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview with Mexican druglord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — and rest assured, federal authorities are inquiring — it’s the murder by slow, excruciating torture of the reader’s patience. Before ever reaching Penn’s Q&A with the cartel chief-cum-international fugitive, one must endure 9,000 words — yes, Nine Thousand — of Penn’s sanctimonious, self-indulgent, violently purple, and generally grammatically dubious prose. Example: 

I’d offered myself to experiences beyond my control in numerous countries of war, terror, corruption and disaster. Places where what can go wrong will go wrong, had gone wrong, and yet in the end, had delivered me in one piece with a deepening situational awareness (though not a perfect science) of available cautions within the design in chaos.

Are we saying that what’s systemic in our culture, and out of our direct hands and view, shares no moral equivalency to those abominations that may rival narco assassinations in Juarez? Or, is that a distinction for the passive self-righteous? . . .

Wasn’t it soullessness that I must perceive in him for myself to be perceived here as other than a Pollyanna? . . .

And a personal favorite: “Espinoza is the owl who flies among falcons.” No, that sentence is not better in context.

It makes a whole lot more sense why Penn has made his living on other people’s words.

And in case you were wondering, what is the grand payoff for making this quest through the dense underbrush of quasi-illiteracy? An interview that is . . . boring. Yes, Sean Penn interviewed one of the world’s most notorious fugitives, and the result is as boring as the nap that one of Penn’s associate takes (and which is, of course, dutifully recorded). Choice excerpts include:

With respect to your activities [e.g., drug trafficking, mass murder, etc.], what do you think the impact on Mexico is? Do you think there is a substantial impact?

Not at all. Not at all. . . .

What is the difference in people now compared to back then?

Big difference, because now, day after day, villages are getting bigger, and there’s more of us, and lots of different ways of thinking. . . .

Do you have any dreams? Do you dream?

Whatever is normal. But dreaming daily? No.

We now know that the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel thinks drug trafficking is A-Okay, that the present is different from the past, and that he has dreams, but not too often.

Thanks, Sean.

Of course, this was in the cards from the beginning. Sean Penn has a particular penchant for glamorizing the seedier, more slaughterous side of Latin American life. He pals around with the Castro brothers, he was months away from exchanging BFF necklaces with Venezuelan president (read: “president”) Hugo Chavez before the latter keeled over, and inside his $7 million Malibu estate he kept a painting of Che Guevara in a place of honor (evidently oblivious to Che’s feelings about persons such as, you know, Harvey Milk). Thus that El Chapo comes in for the kid-glove treatment too is no surprise. (Sample: “Unlike many of his counterparts who engage in gratuitous kidnapping and murder, El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests.” Whew! He doesn’t murder gratuitously! What a load off!) This is Sean Penn being Sean Penn.

Which is really all that this interview amounts to at the end of the day. Rolling Stone, once the arbiter of cultural fashion, is in freefall after publishing a tale of gang rape at the University of Virginia that turned out to have been a complete fabrication, and, with no Chechen terrorists available to splash on its cover, it was desperately seeking something sensational enough to empty newsstands. It found an opportunist and gave him an opportunity, and the result is not journalism; it’s spectacle for its own sake. The closest Penn ever gets to explaining just what the hell he is doing in Mexico alongside one of the most murderous men in the country’s modern history is: “As an American citizen, I’m drawn to explore what may be inconsistent with the portrayals our government and media brand upon their declared enemies.”

Ten thousand words later, the most interesting thing about the interview is still the mere fact that it happened.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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