If you are right-of-center (or is it really the center?), it's easy to think of Sean Penn as a buffoonish dabbler in world politics.
Reading these articles (here and here) a picture emerges of Sean as "damaged," who feels alienated from people and angry at the world, who feels he has never been truly loved. This is a sad composite portrait.
His father, Leo, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants to the US, was an actor and director, who supported the Hollywood unions and was blacklisted after refusing to co-operate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. The influence of his hard-drinking father, who won the Distinguished Flying Cross as a bombardier, was immense.One article recounts how Penn preferred staying in the Haitian shelters with the disaster refugees to comfortable hotel accommodations, showing a man driven by dedication and humanity. This gives me an ambivalence toward Penn as he seems to be a person fueled by deep griefs. His passion for activism, on the one hand, it could be treated with all the respect due to the well-meaning intentions of an extreme religious fervor; on the other, a man whose liberalism was partly born (it would seem) out of the alleged repression of McCarthyism should have a deeper appreciation of the Bill of Rights than to laud and embrace the oppressive and repressive tactics of Chavez--going so far as to call for the arrest of those who dare blaspheme the name of Chavez. It's hard to know just how seriously to take this guy or how much respect to give him.
One of these accounts presents Penn's Haiti involvement as a direct natural consequence of his concern over the Katrina disaster. Another presents it as a direct consequence of desperately needing something on which to focus his attention in the wake of a bitter, lonely divorce. It is perhaps too much of ad hominem argument to presume that most of Penn's activism is a way of dealing with his alienation and disappointment; of itself it doesn't make him right or wrong.
Penn's brother Chris says that his idealism is a "kind of innocence," which suggests that he thinks Sean is often motivated by a well-meaning naivete. It is possible that the dissonance felt by Penn as a liberal who has made it big off the capitalist money machine only adds to this need to save the world. But a lot of people in dire circumstances have been helped by Penn working out his issues. In this sense he has joined a long list of Americans who have demonstrated that individuals (particularly those with accumulated wealth) succeed in solving problems where governments largely fail.
I keep thinking about Penn's letter to Trey Parker and Matt Stone shortly before Team America was released. While Penn was predictably apoplectic over them making light of the war against terrorism, he seemed unusually bothered by Parker and Stone's advice to not vote if you don't know what your doing. To me this highlights how much Democrats (Republicans too this last election--fearing conservative apathy--but mostly Democrats) promote voter turnout as the key metric of political participation. It's as though the whole crew of Gilligan's Island is at the helm hands on the wheel, and Ginger takes her hand off the wheel because "I don't know which way to turn it." "Ginger, don't you dare not participate." Penn has a point that it would certainly be better if people did try to educate themselves on the issues, but people also tend to feel educated by reading one article or by watching Jon Stewart.
Watch this short video, notice where these people report getting their information, and consider who benefits most from large numbers of "low information" voters going to the polls who if not prompted to vote might just stay home watching reality tv.
Finally, here's an amusing video (warning: has a lot of profanity) where Penn and Kid Rock trade leftwing and rightwing political insults. Is Penn a "Granolacrat"? I don't know, but the word is pretty funny. Something about this puts Penn's far-leftism into a richer context. Maybe.