Keli Goff: Damon attacks on Obama hypocritical?

August 18, 2013 

South Korea Movie Elysium

Actor Matt Damon, right, poses with a fan taking a souvenir photo together during the premiere event for his new film "Elysium" in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. The movie is to be released in South Korea on Aug. 29. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)

LEE JIN-MAN — AP

Like a number of celebrities, Matt Damon has used his role in the public eye to draw attention to various social and political issues. But while some celebrities are dismissed as not particularly knowledgeable about the causes they claim to care about, Damon is not one of them. He is known for both writing and speaking passionately about many issues close to his heart.

But recently his activism has begun to overshadow his work as an entertainer. His recent film "Promised Land," which weighed in on the controversial practice of fracking, did poorly, and his attacks on President Obama have drawn more coverage than his latest projects. But perhaps more troubling for Damon is that his authenticity as a progressive activist is being called into question, with critics alleging that his rhetoric doesn't match reality.

The son of an education activist, Damon has been one of the most prominent Hollywood supporters of teachers unions, and public schools in general. As the keynote speaker at a Washington rally, Damon said, "I attended public schools, and I would not trade that education and experience for anything."

This is a familiar talking point of Damon's, particularly when he is criticizing the Obama administration's education policies and charter school proponents, many of whom argue that charter schools are the only viable educational alternative for children in poor neighborhoods.

But last week Damon begrudgingly admitted that he sends his own children to private schools, a fact that he had not publicly acknowledged before.

Damon said of the seeming contradiction between what he says and what his family actually does: "Ultimately we don't have a choice. I mean, I pay for a private education and I'm trying to get the one that most matches the public education that I had, but that kind of progressive education no longer exists in the public system. It's unfair."

Like many celebrities insulated by the bubble known as privilege, he seems oblivious to the fact that life is really unfair for people who genuinely don't have a choice regarding where to send their kids to school because writing a big check to a private school is not an option for those people. But maybe if they win a lottery, a high-caliber charter school might be.

Damon is far from the first progressive caught being more progressive in words than in deeds. Former President Bill Clinton faced similar criticism for being a champion of public schools on the campaign trail and sending his daughter, Chelsea, to one of Washington's most elite private schools, Sidwell Friends, where Malia and Sasha Obama are students now.

But making Damon's hypocrisy even more interesting is the fact that he has escalated his attacks on President Obama in recent years for alleged ideological hypocrisy, the same thing Damon is being accused of now. He reiterated his disappointment in the Obama presidency in the same interview in which he acknowledged that his children attend private school.

Damon's criticism of the president has become so well-known, the president joked about it in his speech at the 2012 White House Correspondents' Dinner. "I've even let down my key core constituency: movie stars," the president said. "Just the other day, Matt Damon — I love Matt Damon, love the guy — Matt Damon said he was disappointed in my performance. Well, Matt, I just saw 'The Adjustment Bureau,' so right back atcha, buddy." The comment drew great laughter.

Now that Damon has been shown not to be the progressive purist on one issue that he pretended to be, perhaps he will cut the president some slack for not living up to Damon's high expectations on the host of issues the president is responsible for. Damon did say, however, in that interview last week, "As disturbed as I am by a lot of the things that Obama has done and is doing, I would not have preferred a Romney presidency, that's for sure. The alternative is even more frightening."

Goff is The Root's special correspondent.

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