Oct 20, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The star of “Pearl Harbor” came to accept an award last week in Beverly Hills, Calif., and to sound an alarm. The hero of “Armageddon” had a warning about another kind of danger-a danger to our freedom, free press and way of life.
In doing so, during his acceptance speech at People For the American Way’s 2003 Spirit of Liberty Awards, Ben Affleck uttered what has become a dirty word in American politics.
That word is “liberal.”
Only days after Arnold Schwarzenegger swept to a landslide victory, with two-thirds of the California electorate voting Republican, Mr. Affleck had come to accept an award from one of Hollywood’s most Democratic and liberal advocacy groups.
People For the American Way was founded more than 20 years ago by “All In The Family” producer Norman Lear, former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and other business, civic, religious and civil right leaders as a counter to the religious right. Today, its mandate expanded, more than 600,000 “grass-roots” members promote controversial things such as education, fair elections and an independent judiciary.
Making reference to the media feeding frenzy around his own recent nuptials interruptus, as actress and singer Jennifer Lopez sat nearby, Mr. Affleck said: “I accept [the `Champion of the American Way’ Award] in the hopes the absurd amount of publicity I have received lately-which as far as I can tell is because I have a pretty girlfriend-might be directed at something more significant, more positive, more productive and more meaningful.”
Mr. Affleck talked about his own upbringing in Boston. “I grew up in a single-parent household and know what that means, and I know what it means to be of means in America,” he explained. “My mother, who still teaches sixth grade at a public elementary school, ever since I had more than two nickels to rub together has stressed the importance of `noblesse oblige.’ That those of us who have benefited from the opportunities this country provided us have an obligation to repay that debt by continuing to work toward a better America and one which leaves behind none of its citizens.”
You would think such values would be popular, but they are not, which Mr. Affleck well knows. Today it can actually be dangerous for a celebrity to speak out, as his fellow honorees at the event last week, the Dixie Chicks, have discovered.
You would expect Mr. Affleck to be against the press, but instead he rose to an impassioned defense. “While the phrase `liberal media’ has been an old standby for the right, we are seeing something quite unlike that in actual fact,” Mr. Affleck said.
“The fastest-growing media today is avowedly right-wing,” he declared. “While many in the `liberal media’ and even the Democratic party have been cowed into silence for fear of being branded `unpatriotic,’ the right-wing media, from Fox News to Bill O’Reilly to Rush Limbaugh-who is now, I suspect, learning to appreciate the virtue in forgiveness and understanding and whom I am quite sure is hoping the next judge he sees is a liberal appointee-have kept up a sustained, strident, one-sided cry in defense of policies which are damaging and dangerous.”
He said he wished the press would be as outspoken about the future of the nation as it was about “Gigli,” his flop movie with Ms. Lopez.
“Even at the dawn of the Schwarzenegger era in American politics,” he said, tossing off a quick aside: “By the way, is it just me, or does that seem eerily like the fall of the Roman Empire?”
“We must still ask of the press,” he continued, “that they ask the hard questions, that they challenge the powers that be. Alas, often the voice of dissent has had to come from politically active groups like this one.”
He was referring, in part, to a concern Mr. Lear cited, paraphrasing the late Adlai Stevenson: “Criticism has become an ugly word. … It suggests nonconformity, which suggests disloyalty, which suggests treason, and before we know where we are, this process has identified the critic with the saboteur and turned political criticism into an un-American activity instead of America’s greatest safeguard.”
Mr. Affleck was blunt in his appraisal of the current president, declaring “the failings of the Bush administration are many-unemployment and a flagging economy, an unfair tax burden, the lack of affordable health care, the criminal outing of a CIA operative as political payback, the rolling back of hard-fought civil rights legislation and the deliberate seeking out of conservative justices in a concerted effort to make a woman’s right to chose more difficult, if not outright illegal.”
As the son of a schoolteacher, he said, it was not right that the Bush tax cut saved him a million dollars at a time “teachers go with insufficient resources to educate the future leaders of our country. I save a million bucks and the [federal] budget deficit grows like William Bennett’s credit line on a one-armed bandit at Bally’s.”
Mr. Affleck closed with a back-handed slap at the same media he praised, as if to flaunt his own independence. Noting he had taken “flack” from his friends for appearing in a photo holding a rifle, he declared equal love for the Second Amendment, which protects the right to bear arms.
“Allow me to share with you my own personal theory regarding constitutional history,” Mr. Affleck told the crowd, which included Harrison Ford, Rob Reiner and Bill Maher. “While it may separate me ideologically from some of you, I think you may agree [it] makes good sense. You see, I now believe that the Second Amendment was written as the only remedy to abuses of the First [Amendment] by the Fourth Estate.”
In his case, that could give new meaning to the term shotgun wedding.