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Friday, January 15, 2016

Naivety and the Devil: Sean Penn and the El Chapo Story


“Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.” 
Mark Twain 

I was really mad when I read that Rolling Stone had agreed to publish an article of Sean Penn’s interview with Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán or El Chapo, the notorious Sinaloa cartel leader, one day after his recapture by Mexican marines.

At this point, I had not read the article but was incensed by the simple fact that Mr. Penn and Rolling Stone thought it was perfectly okay to give a mass murderer, a man directly responsible for at least 100,000 murders (not including those related to the consumption of drugs), a global platform where he could freely express himself and likely further his own celebrity.

I was angry before I found out that not only did Rolling Stone provide a global platform to this murderous psychopath, but they also gave him editorial control. The magazine agreed to let El Chapo, a convicted drug dealer and murder, edit or make changes to the story before they published it.

Rolling Stone claims that El Chapo never made any changes but there is a fundamental problem with agreeing to this stipulation in the first place, and good reasons why no respectable media outlet ever agrees to it. This practice creates an unconscious but inherent bias in the mind of the interviewer/storyteller because they are concerned that if the subject feels like they are portrayed in a negative light or in an unflattering way, they will reject the piece.

Reading the article, it feels like Sean Penn actually harbours some admiration for this monster; and Mr. Penn seems naive enough to believe that El Chapo is a victim of circumstance and poverty. I encourage you to read it for yourself but below are some of the things Penn says about El Chapo:

It's paradoxical because today's Mexico has, in effect, two presidents.” “It was this president of Mexico who had agreed to see us.”

“…El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests.”

“This simple man from a simple place, surrounded by the simple affections of his sons to their father, and his toward them, does not initially strike me as the big bad wolf of lore.”

“…conjuring the vision of a wide-eyed schoolboy unsure of his teacher's summons.”

Later in the article Mr. Penn poses a series of questions that sound like they come from a 10 year old child conducting a homework assignment, to find out more about his father. Here are some excerpts (questions in bold followed by El Chapo’s response): 

Do you consider yourself a violent person? No, sir. 
Are you prone to violence, or do you use it as a last resort? Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more. But do I start trouble? Never. 
What is your opinion about who is to blame here, those who sell drugs, or the people who use drugs and create a demand for them? What is the relationship between production, sale and consumption? If there was no consumption, there would be no sales. It is true that consumption, day after day, becomes bigger and bigger. So it sells and sells. 
The two times you escaped, it is worth mentioning, there was no violence. With me, it did not come to that. In other situations, what's been seen, things occur differently, but here, we did not use any violence.

I have no issue with interviewing men or women whom we deem evil, as long as there is some purpose or value to society in doing it. But it must never be done to allow them to aggrandise or as a pedestal to gain sympathy and further their lore. Frankly, I did not have any problem with Mr. Penn talking with Hugo Chavez or the Castro brothers; whether you like them or not, they are the elected leaders of their respective countries. While we might disagree with their worldview and governing styles, I do not see them as evil, even if our government chooses to vilify them. This is the justification Mr. Penn seems to give us for this interview. But in this case I simply do not agree because it is not the same thing.

Also, there is nothing wrong in telling the story of a drug lord, like Narcos (the Netflix series about Pablo Escobar), but it must be done through our eyes, not through the voice and eyes of the criminal. The Narcos creators have gone to great lengths to be factual but also to never glorify Pablo or the blood soaked world he created. They have been careful not to demean the bravery of the people who stood up to him or insult the memories of all the people whose lives he destroyed. It is very clear to anyone watching that Pablo Escobar is not the hero or the victim but the monster that he was.

El Chapo’s motives are personal financial gain and absolute power through fear and unchecked bloodlust. El Chapo does not simply kill rival cartel members or people involved the drug trade; he has mercilessly wiped out the families of politicians, policemen, journalists and all those who dared to oppose him.

Unlike prison guards in America who got greedy and took a bribe to help some prisoner escape, the choice for the Mexican prison guard is either to take El Chapo’s money, or to watch your entire family being murdered in front of your eyes. Not much of a choice.

In the article El Chapo tries to paint himself as a simple and poor farm boy, one who was driven into the drug trade because the Mexican economy offered him no other life choices. By the same yardstick, if Mr. Penn had interviewed Adolf Hitler, right before the fall of Berlin, he too might have talked about his troubled and poor childhood. How the death of four of his five siblings at a very young age deeply affected him. Hitler might have discussed wanting to join the priesthood or say how his father tried to force him to join the customs bureau, when all he wanted was to be was an artist. He too might have convinced Mr. Penn that it was the world and circumstances that conspired to push him down a path that was not of his own choosing and making.

We humans have the ability to paint a sympathetic picture of even the devil (and that is a good thing), but this is precisely why we must not with people like Hitler and El Chapo. Most times I believe it is worth reserving judgement about a person, or at the very least hearing their side of their story and justifications for their actions, but there are a few times when the matter is black and white. There is no moral ambivalence with Hitler, nor is there any justification for his actions. People like El Chapo must never be given the opportunity to gain our sympathy to try and somehow justify their madness and cold blooded murder

Sometimes men are simply monsters and there is no benefit to society in trying to understand them or their motivations. In fact, it is better not to try. In these instances, as a society, we have to draw a line. Mr. Penn and Rolling Stone magazine just crossed that line.