The recent visit to Iraq by actor and director Sean Penn has added fuel to a public debate about whether celebrities should venture from the art of make-believe to the flash-point realities of politics.
But when the stakes are large in the real world, there's no value in trying to maintain the illusion that celebrities inhabit a different world from the rest of us.
Often overlooked is the simple and illuminating fact that celebrities rarely get into public relations trouble for aligning themselves with popular views. Surface arguments about proper celebrity behavior are usually markers for sharp underlying disagreements about the views expressed.
During the late 1960s, with the establishment still solidly lined up behind the Vietnam War, actor John Wayne rarely faced charges of overstepping when he voiced enthusiasm for the war. But when singer Eartha Kitt, attending a White House event about young people in 1968, told President Johnson to his face that the war was wrong, the resulting furor was so intense that it hurt her career.
If Penn had gone to a U.S. military base in the Persian Gulf region to support the anticipated war against Iraq, it's hard to imagine that America's cable news channels would be filled with the kind of fierce arguments that have raged about his peace-oriented trip to Baghdad.
These days, there is far more than a whiff of pro-war correctness in the media air. A big problem with wanting celebrities to stay in line is that it's usually part of a larger pattern -- the assumption that going along with war preparations is a sign of patriotism and civic virtue.
It's not difficult to find rationales for writing off just about any opponents of current war plans. Paul Rogat Loeb, author of "Soul of a Citizen, " has pointed out the predictable result is an insidious cynicism that short- circuits genuine debate: "Ordinary citizens can't speak up because they don't know enough; young people are dismissed as naive; older people we're told are trying to relive the '60s; academics are just eggheads; religious people are unrealistic; immigrants are suspects; celebrities are airheads and so on."
Penn has emphasized that matters of war and peace are much too important to be left to the authorities to manage and that all of us should seek out a wide array of facts and perspectives.
"I would hope that all Americans will embrace information available to them outside conventional channels," he said. And he spoke of his own desire -- "both as an American and as a human being" -- to fulfill "the obligation to accept some level of personal accountability for the policies of my government, both those I support and any that I may not." Such responsibilities can be seen as potentially resting on the shoulders of every U.S. citizen, whether famous or obscure.
On the record as publicly and categorically condemning the tyranny of Saddam Hussein's regime, Penn avoided the kind of behavior that Jane Fonda engaged in 30 years ago when she traveled to North Vietnam. Penn went to Iraq not to posture or to serve any propaganda interests but "to find my own voice on matters of conscience."
For people in all walks of life, any such authentic search must withstand the pressures for conformity and popularity. As Kitt commented long after speaking her mind about the Vietnam War: "If you walk through life needing everybody to love you, you will never do anything."
That goes for all of us -- including celebrities.