"Without getting melodramatic," Janeane Garofalo tells me, "it's been a really bad day. I'm upset with watching the cities burn, and it's increasingly difficult to have conversations with my father it bothers me the most when I argue with my dad or friends about the war."
The actor-comic is speaking by phone from New York as her dog barks in the background. In less than half a year the petite Garofalo has become an unlikely lightning rod for dissent. She is now one of America's leading anti-war figures at rallies, press conferences and on talk shows, partly because today's protester can identify with her far more easily than with some grimly rational policy wonk or grizzled pacifist. Hers is the outraged but never shrill voice we want big media and government to hear, for, in fact, she is our alter ego a passionate, bespectacled figure shaking somnambulant America out of its obedient torpor.
"I personally don't like shutting down traffic and making people's commutes difficult," she says. "But an American-led war into the heart of Arabian culture is not rigorously looked at by the press and we just can't function as a democracy if the press shirks its responsibility as the custodians of fact. Biased reporting is pitting Americans against Americans."
To those on the malarial right, of course, Garofalo is merely a piñata to be thwacked or cut off in midsentence. She belongs to Artists United To Win Without War (AUWWW), a group of entertainment-industry peace activists that has been ferociously attacked by everyone from Fox TV's Bill O'Reilly to L.A. Times house goon Michael Ramirez both of whom have singled out AUWWW for special invective for being, to their thinking, dilettantes or worse. Such animosity has forced Garofalo to become a quick study in abuse absorption.
"Celebrities have become straw men to bash," she says. "News stations all take polls to see if people dislike celebrities."
Last February, when she joined Martin Sheen, Anjelica Huston, Mike Farrell and other AUWWW members at a West Hollywood news conference, Garofalo became particularly incensed about mainstream media's glib dismissal of "Hollywood" activists and the violent celebrity bashing this fostered on Web sites. She wasn't whining: The abuse Garofalo comes in for online can be downright psychotic. One enterprising misanthrope called a TV station, lied about his identity and obtained her home phone number which then got posted online and brought in a flood of threatening calls.
"Hate mail bothers me less than what happens to the Dixie Chicks," she says nevertheless. "There are boycotts and guys driving tractors over their CDs that's Nazi stuff. If you are a woman with the temerity to speak out, then it's 'Burn the witch!' 'How dare you!' The C word comes up a lot in my hate mail. But that's more misogyny than politics. There's a lot of men who come out and yell at the women because they just love the idea of yelling at women they hate women in general and will attack your looks and sexuality."
Every day celebrities are paid to endorse pharmaceuticals, sodas and gyms they themselves never use, and no one complains. It's only when one promotes a cause she believes in for free that the foam begins to gather on the lips of pundits and op-ed writers, and the boycott e-mails fly. This is what irks Garofalo not, necessarily, that Hollywood isn't listened to, but that it somehow has no right to speak outside of industry chatter. That, and the prevalent notion that entertainers are too spoiled to be sincere.
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"I keep hearing, 'You Hollywood types are out of touch!' But I don't live in Hollywood or own a car," says Garofalo. "Don't these morons realize how wealthy their politicians and beloved anchors are?"
It hasn't always been this way. Political activism in Hollywood dates back to the 1930s, when many entertainers and writers threw themselves into studio-unionization drives and celebrity-signatured fund-raisers for Republican Spain. The moviegoing public paid little attention to these enthusiasms, but such activities offended some powerful conservatives in government and media men who quietly bided their time until, after WWII, they had enough clout to lash out with witch-hunts and blacklists. Suddenly people in Hollywood were seen if not as sinister ideologues then as starry-eyed, susceptible dupes whose politics could never be taken seriously.
Now that the "war" is tapering off, talk has already shifted to retributions against America's party-pooping allies who did not go along on the turkey shoot. Perhaps inevitably there has also been talk of graylisting of artists and entertainers who spoke out against the invasion.
"If my career suffers and people want to boycott me, that's absolutely fine," says Garofalo. "I will always be able to work in the theater, do standup and write. I can always work for my sister who owns an alarm-installing company. The anti-war movement has nothing to feel sorry for time will bear that out."