Sean Penn and Globalization

Last week at the Oscars actor Sean Penn’s ‘green card’ remark, that was otherwise meant to be a shaft of witticism, ended up as part of a raucous debate. The person at the receiving end, Mexican-American director Alejandro González Iñárritu played it down, however. He saw it as a hilarious joke from an old pal. Yet Penn’s quip triggered a media frenzy. Many people labeled it as “xenophobic,” “racist,” and “insensitive.” Fairly understandable. Mr. Penn himself would have acknowledged that the sudden outburst of bemusement in a truly globalized show was untimely. But the question remains is this sense of bemusement exclusive to Mr. Penn? To be honest, the answer is “no.”

Just imagine a hypothetical scenario in a Mexican context. If Mr. Penn was honored with Mexico’s highest accolade in art, the same jibe might have come out of Mr. Iñárritu’s mouth. This is not surprising- and, in fact, comprehensible- if viewed from the lens of globalization.

Although having been used earlier, the term “globalization” gained ubiquity in the 1990s to characterize an increasingly interconnected world. Today, the study of globalization is no less important than any other social science topics although theorists in this arena have yet to unanimously agree on a definition. That being said, globalization scholars have come to a consensus on several issues. In his book Global Mélange, author Jan Nederveen Pieterse describes the “reconfiguration of nation states” as one. In short, globalization is a somewhat inevitable culmination of technological and financial interconnectivity that marks the onset of a “borderless” world.

Yet that does not mean the end of the nationalistic attitude that is inculcated in the citizenry of a given nation state- whether large or small. The sweeping trend of globalization has yet to subdue the “us” vs. “them” notion. Consider last year’s Oscar winning film Gravity. Distributed by the American film giant Warner Bros. Pictures, the film was directed by a Mexican director, Alfonso Cuarón, who resides in London. It was filmed in a London studio. Gravity’s groundbreaking visual effects, therefore, were made in Britain. Not to mention, the film starred Hollywood megastars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. What happened next? Gravity was nominated the best in its respective categories as a U.S. film in an American award ceremony as well as a British film in the BAFTAs.

The British media did not spare any effort to remind the world that Gravity is a marvelous product of some of the finest British masterminds in the visual effects industry. Yet, the Mexicans took their just pride in Cuarón’s Oscar win as he was the first “Mexican” to win for film direction.

Fair enough!

Globalization demonstrates that talents cannot be bound by borders. The same Cuarón and Iñárritu may have excelled in any country given that they have acquired people, tools and equipment essential for materializing their creative works. Thanks to globalization, this, in fact, makes their creative work appear as a collection of works- done by other people- which they piece together to get the final product, a global product. But this does not prevent those people associated with the project from boasting about their own creativity. Thus derives from their cultural and geographical connections that globalization cannot delineate.

In fact, this is not what globalization is about. Globalization theory often amounts to the notion of a utopian global village where people coexist in a way that they keep track of events happening in the far-flung corners of the world as if they happened next door and it is regarded as ‘next door.’ Similarly, when Sean Penn uttered his bewildering remark in front of billions of people, this shouldn’t be seen as disapproval of Señor Iñárritu’s achievement. Rather it is an expression of that nativity, no matter how infinitesimal it is, which will continue to differentiate “us” from “them.” After all, Mr. Iñárritu had bagged the highest honor that Mr. Penn’s ‘native’ country can offer.

Such subjectivity is not alien to human beings. Even it can exist in a cosmopolitan person. People– from an eclectic mix of backgrounds, races, colors, professions, sexual orientations, and etc. — are coming together at a dizzying pace, without fully giving up their nativity. It is totally objective how these subjective notions, like that of Mr. Penn’s, will be manifested and judged.