Sean Penn is a fascinating study in human contradiction. He’s a fine filmmaker whose films — the one he writes and directs — suggest a man with a subtle understanding of human nature and the human condition. Yet the same Sean Penn is a useful idiot for dictators such as Castro, Hugo Chavez and the Iranian mullahs.

So much so that he’s even too much for the gay Advocate:

It’s not surprising that Sean Penn, thanks to his star turn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s biopic Milk, is becoming a hero to gays. His performance is moving and, judging by the archival film footage, flawless; Penn simultaneously renders Milk as a figure of historic importance and a vulnerable individual with a sparkling sense of humor. Aside from the acting prizes he will surely win (and deservingly), Penn is likely to earn himself the iconic status of “straight ally,” a heterosexual who goes out of his way to take a stand for gay rights and is thus showered with praise from gays. A GLAAD Media Award, honors from the Human Rights Campaign, and a slew of prizes from other prominent gay rights organizations are only a matter of time.

Which is a shame, because Penn’s political activism, irrespective of his views on gay rights, negates the values for which a movement based upon individual freedom must stand.

The same week that Milk premiered in theaters, The Nation published a cover story by Penn based on interviews he conducted recently with Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro, the dictators of Venezuela and Cuba respectively. The article is a love letter to the two men, defending them against all manner of Western “propaganda.” It hearkens back to the notorious dispatches penned by Westerners fresh from the Soviet Union who reported on the amazing progress of the workers’ paradise. These worshipful epistles, often published in The Nation, neglected to mention anything about the gulag, the “disappearance” of political dissidents, the Ukrainian famine, or any other such inconvenient truths about communism. Lenin termed the individuals who delivered these apologetics “useful idiots,” and Penn and his enablers are nothing if not that.

Penn traveled to the region with the polemicist Christopher Hitchens, and while the loquacious Chavez was happy to entertain both men, the reclusive Castro was a harder get. Penn’s long-standing defense of the communist regime in Cuba, however, must have endeared him to the Castro brothers, as Raul decided to grant an interview only with the actor. The import of a communist dictator purposely deciding to sit for an interview with Penn and not Hitchens, who would have been less — how to put it? — deferential in his line of questioning, was apparently lost on the movie star and his readers. Reporting on his dinnertime conversation, Penn dutifully made all the standard arguments in defense of the Cuban regime, from pointing out that the Communist Party would win 80% of the vote in an open election to morally equating the United States’ Guantanamo Bay prison to Cuban jails that house the Castro brothers’ political enemies.