Mar 2, 2011
This obsession—which is far from mine alone—must be understood against the backdrop of current events.
On the one hand, there is the spectacular political turmoil in the “Arab World,” whereby the successful regime change in Tunisia and Egypt has been followed by increasingly violent responses from the state in Algeria, Bahrain, Oman, and, of course, Libya.
On the other hand, here in the United States, we’re seeing exactly what Republican majorities and Republican executives are focused on: pressing their advantage to take on both the socio-economic programs of the Obama administration as well as organized labor (particularly in the form of public employee unions—the second to last bastion of unionism in the United States) and, apparently, women.
In other words, millions rising up against autocratic rulers in the face of mounting violence on the one hand, and “revolution from above” as the wealthy move to eviscerate the only real obstacles to their dominance here at home: unions and the democratic state apparatus.
So what does Charlie Sheen have to do with this and why, for example, would anyone compare him to Colonel Ghaddafi?
One possibility is that Sheen’s sudden ubiquity in the media is a psy-op maneuver intended to distract the American public from the aggressive moves of would-be plutocrats to assert an autocracy all their own (under the auspices of austerity).
Now, if you were to believe that you would have to believe that Sheen is a kind of Manchurian Candidate in reverse who was unleashed by his handlers as things were reaching a crescendo in North Africa and the Arab Peninsula. Indeed, you could base your belief on statements like, “I have one speed; I have one gear: GO!”— which clearly refers to the disinhibiting signal that set him off—or “I am on a drug; it’s called Charlie Sheen,” which highlights the “induced” nature of his personality.
And, as it turns out, you can find the media subtly reinforcing the idea that something related to mind control is going on here. Consider this comment by Ken Tucker, “Goddesses Kenly and Oberlin spoke like zombies who’d strayed from another Charlie — Manson. ‘We all love Charlie,’ said Kenly.”
Still, that would all be a lot of conspiracy theory crazy talk, of course, like suggesting that 9/11 was an inside job. Or like insisting Lady Gaga is an Illuminati puppet. In other words, totally absurd.
“Who’s got it better than me?”
The meaning of Sheen, however, is not that someone is pulling all the strings (though that would certainly be comforting in this world which has arisen from and will inevitably return to a state of utter chaos). No, Charlie Sheen is instead the living symbol of our freedom and thus, paradoxically, represents both that which the protesters in the Middle East are fighting for and fighting against.
What is the epitome of freedom? Is it walking into a polling place unhindered and casting your ballot in private for the candidate of your choice as part of a free and fair election? Is it worshipping, or not, according to your own chosen creed without harassment or persecution? Is it the ability to question and address representatives of the government as equals before the law?
Certainly there is freedom to be found in all of the above, and certainly if you do not enjoy such freedoms, as many in this world do not, then such freedoms will seem precious and worthy of ongoing and committed struggle, even a struggle that ends in death. However, I do not believe that these are the freedoms that Americans particularly cherish.
No, freedom in America means being able to do whatever you want—and can afford—to do without lasting consequence. Since actions without consequence are by definition frivolous, I put it more pointedly and say that the freedom we Americans hold in the highest regard is the freedom of frivolity.
When you live in a state in which your political rights are restricted and, even worse, your ability to work, earn money and spend it as you please is seriously curtailed, your frivolity is likewise drastically limited. Not being able to enjoy the fruits of your frivolity is bad enough, but what really pushes people over the edge is when they see that some—members of the ruling family, clique or caste, for example— can live as frivolously as they please. When you have a society in which people, thanks to education or travel abroad, for instance, believe that such frivolity should be their’s but simply is not, things heat up and can, as we have seen, boil over in well-nigh revolutionary ways.
And this is where the figure of Charlie Sheen becomes so complicated. Sheen is a classic “libertine,” a type that has accompanied revolution at least since the days of the French one. Is he an aristocrat? No, he is not. But he is someone whose wealth and fame has allowed him to indulge any and all whims and pursue, in a lordly manner, the first world’s many sensuous delights, such as the potent mixture of cocaine and porn stars.
At one point in his interview with 20/20 that aired last night, Sheen is compared to, and, flattered, accepts the comparison with, Hugh Hefner. By doing so, Sheen identifies not so much as a libertine but as a playboy and, in a classically American way, not one who inherited his leisure, but who built it “with his own two hands” via the mass media. In this way, Sheen, like Hef, can quite literally be said to be “living the American dream” – work hard and, with a little luck, you’ll harvest cash and be “free to be free” (as the other Charlie once put it).
But much like the Udays and Qusays of yesteryear, Sheen represents both a kind of ideal (“If only my life could be like his”) and a symbol of everything that’s wrong with a world in which the wealthy live “bitchin’ lives” while everyone else lives the lives of “losers.” Indeed, the resentment he produces finds its own indulgence and satisfaction in his downfall.
But there is another point that the Theater of Sheen makes in the society of the spectacle. Whereas the eccentric madman Gaddafi and his counterparts “over there” need to be brought low through mass demonstrations and force of arms, the American public is being reassured that it need not follow suit for at least two reasons.
First, we need not fear that wealthy and overindulged madmen—who have no real political agenda anyway—will ever ascend to the seat of true political power. Second, we don’t even need to do anything at all about the mad libertines dancing across the digital media of our choice because (and this is the long-standing American moral belief) these characters, repellent and amusing as they may be, will not only be held in check by the authorities, but, in the reckless pursuit of frivolous liberty, discover the seeds of their own undoing.
Which also means that the American Dream is both worth pursuing (“Who’s got it better than me,” says Sheen, arms draped over the shoulders of his blond goddesses) and disappointingly worthless (“If nobody has it better than you, bro, that’s actually kind of sad.”)
Or am I misreading this whole thing?