SEAN PENN received the 2006 Christopher Reeve First Amendment Award from the Creative Coalition on December 18, 2006, in New York City, where he delivered the following speech.
The Christopher Reeve First Amendment Award. For the purposes of tonight and my own personal enjoyment, I’m going to yield to the notion that I deserve this.
And in the spirit of that, tell you that I am very honored to receive it. And for this I thank the Creative Coalition and my friend Charlie Rose. It does seem appropriate to take this opportunity to exercise the right that honors us all–freedom of speech.
Note for later:
The original title for the Louis XVI comedy called “Start The Revolution Without Me” was one of my favorites. That original title was “Louis, There’s a Crowd Downstairs.” But I’ll come back to that…
Words may be our most civil weapons of change, when they connect to actions of sacrifice, or good will, but they have no grace or power without bold clarity. So, if you’ll bear with me, borrowing a line from Bob Dylan, “Let us not talk falsely now–the hour is getting late.”
Non-stop U.S. war in Iraq
Attacks on civil liberties under the banner of war on terror
You and I, U.S. taxpayers, spend 1 1/2 billion dollars on an Iraq-war-‘focused’ military everyday, while social needs cry out.
And, levy building.
We depend largely for information on these issues from media industries, driven by the bottom line to such an extent that the public interest becomes uninteresting.
And should we speak truth, we stand against government efforts to intimidate or legislate in the service of censorship. Whether under the guise of a Patriot Act or any other benevolent-sounding rationale for the age-old game of shutting down dissent by discouraging independent thinking and preventing progressive social change.
The most effective forms of de facto censorship are pre-emptive. Systemically, we are encouraged to keep our heads down, out of the line of fire–to avoid the danger, god forbid, that someone in the White House, on Capitol Hill, or a media blow-hard might take a shot at us.
But, as a practical matter, most of the limits on creative expression and other forms of free speech come from self-censorship, where the mechanism of corporate clout offers carrots and brandishes sticks. We avoid a conflict before the conflict materializes. We reach for the carrots and stay out of range of sticks.
Decades ago, Fred Friendly called it a “positive veto”–corporations putting big money behind shows that they want to establish and perpetuate. Whether in journalism or drama, creative efforts that don’t gain a financial “positive veto” are dismissible, then dismissed. We may not call that “censorship.” But whatever we call it, the effects of a “positive veto” system are severe. They impose practical limits on efforts to bring the most important realities to public attention sooner rather than later…
We’re beginning to see more revealing images of this war. But it’s later now, isn’t it? What we have to pay attention to are the results of these “practical limits.” One, is that wars become much easier to launch than to halt.
I’ve got a feeling about how we can begin to change this process and I want to pass it by you. Children grow up in our country — many by the way, under conditions of extreme poverty — and are told from a very early age “You will be accountable!” “With freedom, comes responsibility!” And so the lecture goes…Democratic and Republican alike. Lie-cheat-steal, and there will be consequences! Theft will be punished. Actions that cause the deaths of others will be severely punished. The message, from leaders in Washington, news media, mom, dad, and church is clear. Criminals MUST be held accountable.
Now, there’s been a lot of talk lately on Capitol Hill about how impeachment should be “off the table.” We’re told that it’s time to look ahead–not back…
Can you imagine how far that argument would go for the defense at an arraignment on charges of grand larceny, or large-scale distribution of methamphetamines? How about the arranging of a contract killing on a pregnant mother? “Indictment should be off the table.” Or “Let’s look forward, not backward.” Or “We can’t afford another failed defendant.”
Our country has a legal system, not of men and women, but of laws. Why then are we so willing to put inconvenient provisions of the U.S. constitution and federal law “off the table?” Our greatest concern right now should be what to put ON the table. Unless we’re going to have one set of laws for the powerful and another set for those who can’t afford fancy lawyers, then truth matters to everyone. And accountability is a matter of human and legal principle. If we’re going to continue wagging our fingers at the disadvantaged transgressors, then I suggest we be consistent. If truth and accountability can be stretched into sham concepts, we may as well open the gates of all our jails and prisons, where, by the way, there are more people behind bars than any other country in the world. One in every 32 American adults is behind bars, on probation, or on parole as we stand here tonight.
Which is to say that, globally, the United States is number one at demanding accountability and backing up that demand with imprisonment. But, when it comes to our president, vice president, secretary of state, former secretary of defense…this insistence on accountability vanishes. All of a sudden, what’s past is prologue. And we’re just “forward-looking.” But some people can’t just look forward. Men and women stationed in Iraq at this moment, under orders of a Commander-in-Chief so sufficiently practiced in the art of deception, that he got vast numbers of American journalists and the most esteemed media outlets of this country, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, and PBS to eagerly serve his agenda-building for war. And the process also induced vast numbers of artists and performers (probably even some in this room tonight) to keep quiet and facilitate the push for an invasion in Iraq.
I’m sure many people who I met in Baghdad, both in my trips prior to and during the occupation, now similarly cannot just look forward. With lives so entirely shattered by a violence of occupation–an ongoing U.S. war effort and the civil war that it has catalyzed. All on the back of a crumbled infrastructure, following eleven years of devastating U.N. sanctions.
And, where is the accountability on behalf of the American dead and wounded, their families, their friends, and the people of the United States who have seen their country become a world pariah. These events have been enabled by people named Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, and Rice, as they continue to perpetuate a massive fraud on American democracy and decency.
On January 11, 2003, I made an appearance on Larry King’s show following my first trip to Iraq. I suggested that every American mother and father sit down with a scrap of paper and pencil and scribble the following words: Dear Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so — We regret to inform you that your son or daughter so-and-so, was killed in action in Iraq. I then asked that those mothers and fathers complete that letter in whatever way might comfort them should they receive it. When one considers what a bewildered continuation of those words a parent might attempt to write today, it seems inconceivable that this country could’ve ever bought into this war. Who were those mothers and fathers believing in?! We know it’s not the administration alone, but a culture at large, cloaking itself in self-righteousness, religion, and adolescent hero-dreaming machismo. Would they have believed Rush Limbaugh if they’d known he was high as a kite on OxyContin? Would they have believed the factually impaired Bill O’Reilly if they knew he was massaging his rectum with a loofah while telephonically harassing a staffer? Hannity, had they known he was simply a whore to the cause of his pimps–Murdoch and Ailes? Or the little bow-tie putz, if they knew all he was seeking was a good laugh from Jon Stewart? Maybe our countrymen and women were listening to Ted Haggert while he was whiffing meth and boning a muscle-headed gigolo? Or Mark Foley seeking junior weenis? Joe Lieberman, sitting Shiva? And Toby Keith, singing about how big his boots are?
“Oh, there goes Sean…he had to go and name-call. They say he can’t help himself.” Or, did I name-call? Maybe I just quickly summed up 7 or 8 little truths. Oh, no, you’re right–I name-called. I said, “putz”. I take it back. Or, do I? Did I say “whore?” Pimp? These are questions. But, the real and great questions of conscience and accountability would not loom so ominously — unanswered or evaded at such tremendous cost — without our day-to-day failure to insist on genuine accountability. Of course we’d prefer some easy ways to get there. But no easy ways exist. Not a new Congress. Not Barack Obama. And, not John McCain. His courage in North Vietnamese prison makes him a heroic man. His voting record in Congress makes him a damaging public servant. We have gotta stand the fuck up and show the world how powerful are the people in a democracy. That’s how we regain our position of example, rather than pariah, to the world at large. And that is how we can begin to put up our chins and allow pride and unification to raise our own quality of life and security.
They tell us we lost 3,000 Americans on 9/11. Is that enough? We’re about to match it. We’re within weeks, if not less, of killing 3,000 Americans in Iraq. I ask Speaker Pelosi, can we put impeachment on the table then? Without former FEMA chief Mike Brown being held accountable, post Katrina (scapegoat though he may have been) we’d have had the same chaos and neglect when Rita hit Houston. Think about it. And, the same people who trumpet deterrence as a justification for punishment when we speak of “crime and punishment,” will boast their positive thinking when dismissing the deterrent qualities of an impeachment proceeding.
What is impeachment? It’s not a Democratic versus Republican event. Not if used responsibly. If the House of Representatives votes to impeach this president, is he thrown out of office? No, he is not thrown out of office. That is not what impeachment is. Impeachment is the opportunity to proceed with accountability and give our elected senators, democratic and republican, the power to pursue a thorough investigation. The power to put the truth on the table. Mothers and fathers are losing their kids to horrifying deaths in this war every single day. Horrible deaths. Horrible maimings. Were crimes committed in enlisting the support of our country in this decision to go to war? For the moment we’re living the most spineless of scenarios; where the hawks abused impeachment eight years ago, now, the rest of us politely refuse to use it today. Let’s give the whistle-blowers cover, let’s get the subpoenas out there, and then, one by one, put this administration under oath. And then, if the crimes of “Treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” are proven, do as Article 2, Section 4 of the United States Constitution provides, and remove “the President, Vice President and…civil officers of the United States” from office. If the Justice Department then sees fit to bunk them up with Jeff Skilling, so be it.
So…look, if we attempt to impeach for lying about a blowjob, yet accept these almost certain abuses without challenge, we become a cum-stain on the flag we wave. You know, I was listening to Frank Rich this morning, speaking on a book tour. He said he thought impeachment proceedings would amount to a “decadent” sidetrack, while our soldiers were still being killed. I admire Frank Rich. And of course he would be right if impeachment is all we do. But we’re Americans. We can do two things at the same time. Yes, let’s move forward and swiftly get out of this war in Iraq AND impeach these bastards.
Christopher Reeve promised to get out of that chair. Well, I don’t know about you, but it feels like he’s up now and I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t on his shoulders. Let it be for something.
Georgie, there’s a crowd downstairs.
Thank you and good night.