Saturday, October 22, 2011

America's Most Wanted

"I learned I had to stand for something so I could stand to be me."

Some Americans seem to have an unshakable belief that a degree of resistance to authority is OK, but vocal, active resistance is not OK. In the 1960s, the historic protest movements against race segregation and the war in Vietnam seemed to divide America along strong political lines. The protesters saw something that was seriously wrong with their country and their government and wanted to do something to change it, taking part in marches, sit-ins, and civil disobedience, even if it resulted in their arrest and a momentary loss of their liberty.

But other Americans saw the protesters as traitors, criminals, anarchists, or communists who threatened the American way of life. They mistook the outcries against injustice as cries of anti-American hate. They came up with the slogan, addressed to the protesters, "America - love it or leave it." This slogan was based on the assumption that anyone who thinks something is wrong with America - and says so - must hate America as well, and wants America to be more like Canada or France or maybe even communist China. All they really want, I think, is for America to be what it so often only seems, to live up to its lofty ideals, and to stop saying one thing and doing another.

For most Americans there is probably nothing worse than having a police record, than being arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted and photographed and placed inside a jail cell. But to some Americans, it is almost an occupational hazard for citizenship. For one American, named Ramón Gerardo Antonio Estévez by his parents but known to everyone else as Martin Sheen, being arrested would seem to be a habit. With sixty-six arrests on his rap sheet, in forty-six years of social activism, Sheen is a tireless advocate for many causes, including peace, immigrant rights, and the environment. He claims that he never tries to get arrested, but that it just seems to happen very often. "I don't look forward to being arrested and I don't go anywhere to get arrested," he told Robert Lipton. "I really don't. I never know what's gonna happen at the time and sometimes . . . you have to do it because you cannot not do it and be honest with yourself."

He is often overshadowed these days by the antics of his bad boy son, Charlie. But Martin Sheen takes his nationality seriously, despite the fact that his Irish mother qualifies him to be president of the Irish Republic. He is a devout Catholic, and an advocate against abortion, since he regards taking a stand against the death penalty and for abortion to be "inconsistent". He has played the president on TV, which has given some people the idea that he would make a good president, and have asked him to run. His response was typically forthright and self-effacing: "I'm just not qualified. You're mistaking celebrity for credibility." Unlike them, Sheen is able to distinguish between appearances and reality.

Sheen can't be accused of using his celebrity as a shield in his activism, to protect him from doing serious time for his minor offenses. His first taste of activism was in 1965, long before he became a successful screen actor, taking part in Cesar Chavez's migrant workers' protests.

In 2003, at that horrible moment in American history when odious men questioned the loyalty of Americans who opposed the invasion Iraq, Sheen was resolute in his opposition. He even wrote a poem for the occasion.

There Can Be No Victory

In order to prepare for war,
You must not be sensitive or poetic or humorous.
You must not be self effacing,
Or reflective, or forgiving.

You must not be sentimental or compassionate or lighthearted.
On the contrary, to prepare for war,
You must be clear, uncompromising, and confident.

You must look life square in the eye...

And choose death.

Sheen aggressively opposed the war - so much so that large numbers of people were calling for him to be fired from his NBC show The West Wing in which he played the president. Sheen's pacifism was, for once, perfectly timed in 2003. The war was nothing but a horrific boondoggle, an historic blunder. The intellectuals who were suckered into it, like John Keegan and Christopher Hitchens, should've known better, but they still refuse to eat crow. Sheen's arguments against the war may have sounded simplistic and unsophisticated beside theirs. But that, I think, is the point: finding an argument for an unprovoked war led too many bright people to mistake power for righteousness. Having the power to do some things is never a proper justification for doing them.

One of my first encounters of Sheen in a movie role was in The Execution of Private Slovik (1974) that I saw on television. It was the story of Eddie Slovik, a soldier in the Second World War who was the only American soldier sentenced to death and executed for desertion since the American Civil War.(1) I will never forget Sheen's performance, nominated for an Emmy, as the hapless victim of circumstance. His actions, which were confused with cowardice, were presented in the film with utmost simplicity and honesty. His execution in the snow was graphic - the soldiers in the firing squad were so unnerved by their thankless job that none of their bullets pierced Slovik's heart. His death was therefore neither painless nor quick. The film was a perfect illustration of the ultimate ugliness of war, and one that perfectly suited Sheen's convictions.

(1) Dwight Eisenhower, who authorized the execution, tried to stop the publication of the nonfiction account of the execution, written by William Bradford Huie, in 1954 when he was president. The rights to the book were bought by Frank Sinatra, who tried to get backing for a film adaptation in 1960. He was accused of being a communist sympathizer and had to cancel the project because of his ties to the campaign of JFK.

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