The left and the right have long accused each other of hypocrisy, disrespect and a lack of patriotism. And both sides are correct, according to their own ascribed values.
When Robert De Niro introduced Bruce Springsteen at the Tony Awards this week he could have used his fame for good. But instead he used a very public stage to throw a fit. He could have much more effectively spoken out against the unconscionable caging of immigrant children after being forcibly separated from their parents or the environmental injustice of the Dakota Access Pipeline. He could have spoken up for the validity and critical importance of the Black Lives Matter movement like Marlon Brando did when declining his Oscar to protest our government’s treatment of Native Americans.
But De Niro did none of those things. Instead of introducing a beloved musician with an eloquent call to action, he opted for a hotheaded outburst instead. He forfeited a high-profile opportunity to articulate a compassionate call for change and instead indulged the base anger so many of us are struggling with. But however justified his outrage is, when he huffed and puffed, “F@≤k Trump” and neglected to follow it up with specific reasons, let alone propose solutions, he sounded impulsive and inarticulate — two things Trump has been widely criticized for. This ad hominem expletive only stroked the righteous indignation of the left while lighting the torches of the mob-mentality right. It failed to excoriate the president and the administration with specifics.
What he should have said was Fuck any policy that separates traumatized children from their parents, the clandestine attempts to siphon Social Security surplus, the corporatizing of Congress that is getting worse instead of getting better, the privatization of prisons and the racial injustice of who gets imprisoned and for what.
At best, he assumed that everyone in the auditorium a.) already agreed with him, and b.) knew the myriad offenses that culminated in this “triumphant” declaration. But this was not a private dinner party among close friends who already know each other’s beliefs. I’ve been at those dinner parties. I saw a similar outburst when a friend, a retired professor with a sterling career behind him, bent over at the head of the table and yelled that Trump could kiss his immigrant/American ass. Everyone laughed and we continued to discuss what we were seeing as the free fall of our democracy. But we discussed that downward spiral with specifics from the campaign before he won the electoral college: mocking a disabled reporter, disrespecting a Gold Star Family, the pussy-grabbing, calling his opponent “such a nasty woman”, having multiple divorces and countless affairs while claiming to represent Christian Americans, marrying multiple immigrants while criticizing immigration — that list naturally gave way to the atrocities and affronts that began as soon as he took office.
If my friends and I in Oregon — none of whom are elected officials — can talk specifics in private, De Niro should in public.
If you’re going to swear at a room full of (presumably) well-educated strangers, many of whom have the capacity to endorse or donate to your cause — be specific. Benedict Cumberbatch did after every Hamlet performance in London on behalf of Syrian refugees. Cumberbatch criticized Great Britain for pledging to accept only 20,000 refugees over a five-year period. He too dropped an F-bomb. But he followed this with a soft-spoken and heartfelt account of his friend on the shores of Lesbos when 5,000 refugees were arriving every single day. He too introduced musicians with a political imperative. But he did it as part of a targeted fundraising initiative.
He quoted Somali poet Warsan Shire’s now famous “Home” and implored audience members to donate to Save The Children — to keep children from drowning when they flee political violence. His voice broke when quoting the poem, “No one puts children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” Because a humanitarian crisis of that magnitude is the responsibility of all humanity, not just whichever geopolitical entity is nearest the incoming and overflowing rafts.
Look. I know it’s madness. Never mind that celebrities are being held to higher public speaking standards than elected officials are. Never mind that what a sitting president says and does in public and private meetings is currently worse than what any actor has said at any awards ceremony ever, (see: “shithole countries”). Never mind that every week a new scandal breaks but nothing comes apart. Never mind that every month or so another cabinet member is fired or high-profile White House staff member quits. Anyone who sinks to the same standards they impugn their enemies for has lost their own argument. They forfeit their own credibility and dilute their own message.
Yes. We’re horrified. Yes. We feel hopeless. Yes. We are outraged by the proposed legislation, the hasty executive orders and the abandoning of international treaties. And it feels like a reality check when we see a very public persona affirm our outrage. It’s like when you witness something spectacularly bad or good or unexpected and your first reaction is to turn to the person nearest you and ask incredulously, Did you see that?? You saw that, right?!
It is human nature to try to validate our own reality.
But it doesn’t matter that De Niro was right. This is a classic case of failing to take the proverbial high road. The howling conservatives are also right. It was wildly inappropriate. What if Charlton Heston or any prominent celebrity had said that about Obama? Plenty of people thought Heston was enough of a wing-nut with his “from my cold dead hands” proclamation. De Niro could have condemned injustice and failing democracy instead of name-calling one man. Even if that man is likely the most unqualified man to ever hold the office of the presidency. (I’ll let the historians debate that one.)
This is not De Niro’s first counterproductive fit in the public realm. “I just have to see what he’s going to do and how he’s going to follow through on certain things,” he told eminent political theorist and international relations expert Jimmy effing Kimmel in an oh-so-useful interview. De Niro said he would he would “restrain himself from physical violence and said he would try to remain circumspect and supportive of the office of the presidency.”
Actually, Mr. De Niro, a system of checks and balances, however flawed, already exists. You are an actor. You are not singularly responsible for monitoring, let alone regulating, the office of the presidency nor anyone who holds that office. And to even mention physical violence is a deranged, hypocritical and dangerously counterproductive response to the dumpster fire that has exacerbated the way the rest of the world views our country. Christian liberal John Pavlovitz accurately criticized the white male Evangelical Christians for deputizing themselves as the sex police. And we need to remind De Niro not to deputize himself to police the presidency — even if he does it with “circumspect support.”
The sum total of De Niro’s ongoing commentary amounts to a temper tantrum. And it is most certainly a net negative. It might have felt good at the time to get that off his chest. But we need to think bigger than impulse indulgence. One high-profile liberal, perhaps in an attempt to self-identify as righteously indignant, might have just instead riled up more Trump supporters to vote for the upsurge of midterm white supremacy candidates that have seeped up from the dark sewers of our country.
De Niro could have used his platform to compel like-minded liberals who disagree with this administration’s policies to vote in midterm elections, to run for office, to donate to campaigns and nonprofits dedicated to work we believe in. Southern Poverty Law Center, Standing Rock, Catholic Charities, Amnesty International, Mercy Corps, the Parks Department — take that outrage and compel people to vote at the ballots and with their wallets.
He could have said, Our country is in crisis. It is incumbent upon those of us who wholeheartedly disagree with his policies and decisions to do everything in our own power to fight for what we believe in. Fight with your votes and your wallets and your hearts.
A close friend of mine is currently burning the candle at both ends. She is an immigration attorney working for Catholic Charities to represent immigrants seeking asylum, refugee status, residency or citizenship. Their circumstances are as diverse as their cases. And organizations like this would benefit tremendously from a celebrity endorsement. They are fighting the good fight. But De Niro didn’t praise the good work of organizations and people like my friend who are dedicating their careers and lives to preserving American values and human rights.
He failed to follow Michelle Obama’s lead — “When they go low, we go high.” And in so doing, he proved to outraged conservatives that the “coastal elites” are knee-jerk liberals — and made it that much easier to dismiss liberals and mission-driven organizations fighting for what (I assume) De Niro believes in. Instead of the beyond-reproach life and work of the Obamas De Niro just mouthed off because he can. How much more inspiring would it have been if he listed all the victories, however small, of organizations supporting refugees, veterans, police accountability, domestic violence survivors or environmental activists? How much money could he have raised if he spoke up for just one of them?
No matter how much the F Trump crowd viscerally agrees with him, this was not a vindication, it was one small step backward for a renowned actor. And one giant step backward for the liberal movement.
Originally published at heathermedwards.com.