Shut Up, Messengers, and Sing


The controversy in January over Meryl Streep’s remarks upon accepting an award at the Golden Globes seemed to have centered on whether an entertainment industry ceremony was the appropriate time and place for a famous actress to air her political concerns. Lost in all the hullabaloo were Ms. Streep’s actual remarks and how they concerned a humanitarian issue more than a political one, namely that we treat each other with respect and dignity, and that a good example should start with the president of the country.

Perhaps the most notable incident of humanitarian protest at a Hollywood awards ceremony occurred in March 1973, when Marlon Brando refused his Oscar for best actor in 1972’s The Godfather and asked Sacheen Littlefeather to speak for him at the podium. Brando was upset at the treatment of Native Americans in movies and television, and he also wanted to shine a light on the siege by federal agents of the Wounded Knee occupiers, which until then had drawn little media attention. Brando and Littlefeather succeeded in getting American news media to note what was happening at Wounded Knee. Their long term goal of turning around the portrayal of Native Americans in popular media is still a work in progress. The momentum of centuries of stereotyping by the dominant European culture is slowing but not stopped.

Meanwhile Ms. Littlefeather, more than Brando then and Streep now, took a tremendous amount of abuse in the press over her role in the incident. She was not a famous actress known for a lifetime of work in the public eye, she was female, and she was part Indian. Some in the press even intimated she was not Indian at all, implying she was a phony and therefore no one need pay attention to anything she said. In an interview on The Dick Cavett Show after the Oscar ceremony, starting at the 6:30 mark of the video clip included in this post, Mr. Brando expressed regret for having put her in such a vulnerable position. Beating up on the messenger is an old tactic, for some a gut reaction to unwelcome news, and for others a cynical ploy to distract from the message, and anyone who tells unpleasant truths has to prepare for it as much as possible. Still, withstanding the onslaught can be an ordeal.

The Dixie Chicks learned that unpleasant lesson in 2003 and beyond when, on account of humanitarian concerns, they made remarks critical of the rush to war in Iraq. It seems that calling out jingoism is the most unwelcome news of all for sunshine patriots, considering the level of vitriol they heaped on these singers. Fourteen years later, what has the uncritical pose of much of the major popular and news media toward the Bush administration’s justifications for war in Iraq brought to Iraqis and Americans that has proved worthwhile, that has proved anything but a destructive waste? And where do the jingoists stand on that now? They have not learned a thing, and instead have turned their attention elsewhere in the world, fanning embers into flames.
― Vita