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Americans sneer at Hollywood peaceniks

Los Angeles, Feb. 22 (Reuters): Sheryl Crow was ridiculed for wearing a “War is not the answer” T-shirt to an awards show, Sean Penn was castigated for visiting Baghdad and Martin Sheen was slammed for exploiting his TV role as a fictional US president by fronting an anti-war television spot.

Millions around the world have marched in protest against any war with Iraq, Nobel peace laureates have spoken out, and popes and poets have urged restraint.

But when Hollywood — or some of it — started using its media muscle to further the anti-war rhetoric, it prompted a storm of controversy that reflects America’s love-hate relationship toward its pervasive celebrity culture.

“The media created us, puts us on the air, and then says ‘How dare you use your rights as a celebrity'’” said television producer Robert Greenwald, founder of the fledgling Artists United to Win Without War.

“I have been surprised at the vehemence. We got a whole bunch of hate mail after our news conferences. Some of these talk radio shows go for days trying to viciously demean and demonise and marginalise these very eloquent and committed pat-riots among our group,” Greenwald said.

Derided as “limousine liberals”, or for being unpatriotic, the actors and musicians who have spoken out are now forced to spend as much time defending their free speech rights as detailing their opposition to a war.

“We are not experts. What we are is citizens in a democracy. We are using our patriotic rights and our ability to get the attention of the media,” Greenwald said.

Yet many Americans seem more comfortable, or more accustomed, to hearing their stars gushing about gowns on the red carpet than expressing political opinions with a passion not seen since Jane Fonda visited Hanoi during the Vietnam War.

A CNN talk show this week called Star Wars carried the tag “What does Hollywood know about politics'” and “Are their views anti-American”.

A columnist in Utah’s conservative Deseret News asked if it was wise “to take advice from people who generally don’t begin to grow up until their late 40s or early 50s”.

Actress and comedian Janeane Garofalo, one of the leading lights of Artists United to Win Without War, says the word celebrity “makes my skin crawl”.

“Regrettably, the majority does not hold the opinions of actors in high esteem. I don’t know why it persists. Then there is this perceived wealth issue — the ‘limousine liberals’. I don’t see any reason why there should be a salary cap of $30,000 a year before you wade in on a political issue,” Garofalo said.

Artists United was launched in December with a simple statement urging President George W. Bush to let UN weapons inspections work and not to rush to war against Iraq.

The group counts some 130 supporters — only a tiny proportion of Hollywood’s elite — including Kim Basinger, Robin Williams, Gillian Anderson, Matt Damon, Susan Sarandon, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kirsten Dunst.

It is part of an anti-war coalition of some 30 groups that includes Greenpeace, the National Council of Churches and Oxfam America.

None however have enjoyed or endured the kind of publicity given the celebrities, including the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Woody Harrelson and Richard Gere whose anti-war views have made world headlines but who have not signed up to Artists United.

Actor Martin Sheen is rapidly emerging as the public face of the coalition and will front a nationwide TV spot that urges Americans to write, fax and e-mail Washington to protest an invasion of Iraq.

It is an irony lost on no one that Sheen also happens to play the popular fictional Democratic President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet on the Emmy-winning series The West Wing.

Greenwald says Sheen, however, has had “a consistent life-long commitment to these issues. He has marched. He has supported civil rights. The fact he is on a hit show now, only means he gets more attention. He has not changed one iota”.

“On the one hand, celebrities don’t know anything more about political and social life than the rest of us. On the other hand, I’ve never seen any reason why they shouldn’t speak out. They are human beings, they are voters, they have feelings,” said Time magazine movie reviewer Richard Schickel.

“My sense is that movie stars and other media figures are listened to with a considerable grain of salt by the rest of society. I think there is an instinct that says, ‘These people pull their pants on one leg at a time the same as we all do, so their opinion on this matter is no more consequential than my opinion or yours,’” he said.

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