Politics

Jane Fonda Arrested in Latest Political Stunt

Her brand of activism—used most infamously back in the Vietnam years—helps no one but her publicist.
October 18, 2019
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Jane Fonda was arrested outside the U.S. Capitol last Friday. The octogenarian was charged with a misdemeanor for blocking the entrance to a public building. In addition to a $500 fine, Fonda could face up to 90 days in jail. She was released on her own recognizance—and plans to repeat her offense.

Fonda says she intends to participate in “Fire Drill Fridays,” a series of weekly protests about climate change for which she has moved from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. for four months. According to Fonda, that’s the most time off from filming her show Grace and Frankie she could negotiate from Netflix.

The actress-activist has not clarified exactly how much of those four months she plans to spend in jail, or what concrete results she expects to achieve during that span.

A cynic might wonder whether Fonda cares more about raising awareness about the environment or for herself. For one thing, she claims to have been inspired to pursue her climate activism by reading the book On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal by Naomi Klein. Over Labor Day. Which was not that long ago. And very few people are convinced to break the law, or to work out a long stay in another city in the midst of an ongoing Hollywood project, within a matter of weeks just because they have read one book.

Fonda also speaks of Greta Thunberg—the teenaged Norwegian climate activist—in almost messianic terms:

I mean, I knew about Greta, I didn’t know she was on the spectrum. And I didn’t really understand what Asperger’s meant. And when Naomi described it, I realized that here is this young person who . . . she’s not influenced by what other people think. . . . On the spectrum, if they are interested in something, they have a laser focus on that and whatever the denials and rationalizations the rest of us indulge in, that doesn’t come into play with her. And she read the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report and she realized that the crisis was barreling straight at us, like a train, and looked around and people weren’t behaving appropriately. It so traumatized her that she stopped eating. I hadn’t realized that she stopped eating and speaking for almost a year. And that really hit me.

Thunberg has been the biggest climate-change story since the Green New Deal, thanks to her speech to the United Nations in September. But only a true grump would dare suggest that Fonda was riding a teenager’s publicity coattails.

A more charitable explanation is that Fonda has long had a penchant for headline-grabbing political stunts. Aside from her acting, she is best known for her opposition to the Vietnam war—or, to be more precise, her opposition to Americans winning the war. She infamously posed in 1972 with North Vietnamese soldiers manning an anti-aircraft gun. The North Vietnamese must have been too embarrassed to tell her that anti-aircraft guns are not environmentally friendly.

Fonda later apologized, calling it a “lapse” and admitting it was a “betrayal.” (Maybe a teenaged girl explained to her that “adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort” might appear untoward.) In 2015, she expressed regrets that posing with the enemy “made a lot of people think I was against the soldiers.”

To put the timing of her Hanoi visit in context, John McCain had been enduring torture in a Vietnamese prison for nearly five years by the time Fonda’s notorious Hanoi photo was taken, and he wouldn’t be released for another eight months.

The Vietnam war was and remains a tricky subject. So is climate change. When the nature of a theoretical threat is ambiguous—be it Domino Theory or the findings of computerized climate models—achieving consensus on a policy response can be very difficult. The Green New Deal is unwise and untenable for any number of reasons, but at least it’s a policy proposal that can be debated—a lot better than a polarizing-but-empty gesture from a headline-hungry celebrity.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.