Posted by Brian Connor
Not in recent history has an episode of celebrity sensationalism struck so deeply at the underpinnings of the American cultural psyche. Charlie Sheen's wild drug and prostitute-riddled escapades are the latest product of our culture's celebrity mania. He went off the deep-end, TMZ and major news agencies tell us. And now he must pay. Our capitalist overlords who created him now demand that he submit himself to a public shaming, that he shrink into rehab and await exoneration.
Our culture builds up celebrities and destroys them, in an endless cycle of exploitation. Sheen, however, is attempting to break that cycle and reclaim his life from the capitalist puppet-masters of our society who are determined to dictate his destiny. And he's winning.
Charlie Sheen, after several news-making incidents of debauchery involving prostitutes and cocaine binges, has for the past few days been making the rounds on television shows preaching his newfound gospel of freedom. He has spoken erratically, at great length, about "waging a war" and "winning," bizarrely asserting his identity as a "Vatican assassin" with "tiger blood and Adonis DNA," as an "F-18, bro." But throughout his strange rants a theme emerges. Beneath his meandering wordplay is an indictment of our society and its judgments and a reclamation of his right to self-determine his own image and life.
Chris Hedges, known for his war correspondence in the Middle East, gave a lecture this past fall as a part of Rick Chrisman's "Theater of War in a House of Peace" lecture series. Hedges delivered an exposé of our current cultural and political predicament, in which celebrity worship serves as a glamorous façade for our twisted moral and economic ambitions, defining and justifying our "Empire of Illusion."
Michael Jackson, he argued, was the personification of our warped cultural values and priorities. "In celebrity culture we destroy what we worship. The commercial exploitation of Michael Jackson's death was orchestrated by the corporate forces that rendered Jackson insane," Hedges said. Sheen appears to be the next victim, a discredited celebrity whose fall from stardom is being exploited with equal attention and relish as his rise.
Sheen's "insanity," his incoherent declarations of selfdom, are ridiculed, endlessly parodied and mocked. Internet memes, celebrity gossip blogs and major news agencies are all given purpose in destroying him. His outlandish behavior is treated as equally important as foundation-shattering democratic uprisings in Northern Africa.
All the gears of our merciless media are fused into an unstoppable cultural monster that aspires to dictate his behavior, to judge and mock his every word, to reclaim control of his life, to rehabilitate him and reeducate him to the rules of celebrity and remind him that he belongs to us, that we created him and we can destroy him, that he is ours to judge and embrace and ridicule.
His highly personal rants are dismissed as insane by "authoritative and professional" media personalities. His oddly employed baseball analogies, bizarre proclamations of war and instantaneous recovery from drug addiction are detached from reality, we are told. Yet when seen in the broader context of this gross media carnival of human commoditization that is our consumer culture, Sheen's proclamations of war and assertions that he is "winning" appear utterly sane, utterly truthful.
Who are we, Sheen is brutally, confrontationally asking, who are the media, who are the celebrity rehab doctors, who are the "news" anchors on major networks, who are the producers of his films and television shows, who are the puppet-masters of our corporate society, to dictate how he should live his life?
Sheen is refusing to submit to the cycle of use and abuse, the commoditization of his humanity, which his corporate bosses are imposing upon him. There is something inspirational about his resistance to his detractors, his "winning" attitude.
Sheen's outspokenness in the face of imminent and imposed cultural humiliation and exploitation is reminiscent of Howard Beale's, the prophetic news anchor in Sidney Lumet's 1976 film Network. A low-level newscaster, Beale begins to "lose his mind." He goes on a rant on live TV and decries the dehumanizing consumerism of modern life epitomized and perpetuated by network television, in which products and wealth are made the balm for existential fear and the executors of happiness. He ends his rant with the words "I'm a human being, goddammit! My life has value!" and urges his viewers to declare that "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" His mantra of resistance ultimately becomes a meaningless commercial jingle, a parody of its former meaning, as the powers he means to confront ultimately commoditize his radicalism and then destroy him.
In the climactic scene of the film, Beale is confronted by Arthur Jensen, the uppermost corporate executive, who speaks with a divine aura of authority an omniscience, telling Beale, "you get up on your little 21 inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon … The world is a college of corporations … one vast and ecumenical holding company in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused." Beale, realizing the futility of combating such a pernicious and entrenched capitalist system, abandons his radicalism and complies with the corporate will.
If the powers-that-be have their way, Sheen's story will be turned into a faux-moralistic one. They will ruin him, destroy him and essentially present his life as a model of what not to do. In a culture that has been hijacked to worship celebrities, to believe that celebrity is the one true trophy of success, Sheen's story will be presented as a case of a fallen star, a washed up celebrity. What he really did was challenge the corporately sponsored rule of law that we are all instructed to abide by.
His "winning" mantra, what commentators would have us believe is the pathetic delusions of an over the hill Hollywood actor, actually makes sense in the vicious system of oppressive delusion in which we all exist. He is "winning" the war over his soul, resisting submission to the forces that shape
Hedges writes that, "the fame of celebrities masks the identities of those who possess true power — corporations and the oligarchic elite … The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain. It is designed to drain us emotionally, confuse us about our identity, make us blame ourselves for our predicament, condition us to chase illusions of fame and happiness and keep us from fighting back."
Politicians inspire us with fear and hatred for one another to advance corporate agendas. Giant corporations seek to encroach upon and determine our lives, keep us entertained as our natural environment is pillaged and our working class is economically raped. Their news organs instill us with fear, and their advertising teaches us that buying their products and living according to their rules is the only way to avoid public shame and ensure wealth, celebrity and happiness. Facebook launches us into cyber-reality in which we can determine our appearance down to the slightest minutiae, meticulously calculate how we are presented to the people around us, and thereby shirk meaningful social interaction. The battle for our souls is taking place each and everyday. Charlie Sheen is winning. What are you doing about it?