One of the truest sentences spoken on national television in the past ten years was Charlie Sheen’s warning, “You can’t process Charlie Sheen with a normal brain.” The “normal” brain in contemporary American culture is shaped by social convention that demonizes any form of vice but celebrates greed, is distorted by media sensationalism that defines people’s entire lives with eight word headlines while granting real criminals immunity from the court of public opinion, and is limited by a narrow, childish, and petty middle-class morality that demands outrage over harmless people’s personal foibles, but never pauses to consider the mechanisms of society that create poverty, sickness, and death.
The most important and profound lesson of Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which the devil emerges as a hero, is that what, by all accounts, seems evil may actually be good and that what, by all accounts, seems good may actually be evil.
There isn’t one person willing to jump to Charlie Sheen’s defense. Commentators either condemn him with phony words of sympathy or amuse themselves with the silliness of the scandal. No one has the courage to recognize, at least publicly, the postmodern heroism of the troubled actor. In a culture built on and sustained by lies, Sheen is one of the only truth tellers. He doesn’t offer insincere apologies or teary confessions for his Hollywood hell raising. He embraces those elements of his life, and demands that the media and audience judge him on his merits. He is honest, and for that reason alone, he is heroic. Part of his appeal to the gawking public is his candor. Everyone is so desensitized to lying—from politicians, business leaders, other celebrities caught in controversy—that someone telling the truth feels like a bolt of lighting.
It’s not just that he is telling the truth. It’s what he’s telling the truth about. He seems like the devil. He’s an easy villain, and an easy subject to static and simple categorization by the moral gatekeepers in the press who label him “lunatic”, and imply that he is a threat to civil society.
Sheen is, however, as Milton would remind everyone, actually on the side of good. He is fighting a worthy battle that has stakes far higher than the career of one rich actor who made his bones as a fortunate son.
First, he is fighting against the ethic of media sensationalism that, with God-like powers, is able to define lives simply by the slant of coverage. Sheen refuses to allow mediocre members of the media to determine his value as an actor and his worth as a human being. That is what his emphasis on “winning” and “declaring victory” is all about. He isn’t going to lose his identity and lose his humanity to NBC, ABC, MTV, CNN, and the rest of the closely concentrated cabals of persuasive power. There is an absurdist element to his battle technique—theorizing that his brain may come from “another terrestrial realm” for example—but that is simply fighting fire with fire, because there is nothing more absurd than what passes for news and opinion on cable television.
Second, he is waging war against the morality of the media and the middle-class that judges any pursuit of pleasure, especially via vice, as instantly damnable. Then they turn around, and almost in the same breath, treat the parties of greed that empty the coffers of the country as kings and queens who enjoy heavenly mandate. In Sheen’s 20/20 interview, Andrea Canning—his visibly flummoxed interviewer—asked with eyes wider than a four lane highway, “You don’t regret that party moment?” when Sheen said he is proud of what he created in the laboratory of nightlife. He went on to explain that he “made magic” for ordinary people—people he may forget, but who will always remember the party they had with Charlie Sheen. Any honest and reasonable person cannot question the veracity of that conclusion. The memorability of a night with Sheen, especially for an average person, must be impossible to overstate.
Drugs and casual sex are signs of poor character to the media and much of their audience. Canning’s eyes communicated absolute shock and horror at Sheen’s defense of his “radical” and “epic” party streak. Canning and her ilk are also the same people who interview political and business leadership without so much as a disapproving tone. The people who start wars, which kill thousands, game the economic system, which bankrupts thousands, and maintain control of the representative system of politics, which represents no one but the rich and mutes the voice of millions, are seen as entirely sane, and even upstanding in the eyes of Canning and the eyes of her employers.
The people who own the news networks are the real lunatics. They are the ones who enable the cancer of poverty to metastasize throughout the country, and the virus of war to poison the homes of thousands of average Americans. They are the ones who refuse to question the ethic of greed that dominates the dealings of the United States: the ethic that places the short term pecuniary gain of the few over the long term solvency of American institutions and families.
The third element of Sheen’s effort of “winning” is striking a blow against the self-serving moralizing of the elite. If he can declare victory over the media and win an appellate case in the court of public opinion on behalf of his “bitchin’, rock star lifestyle from Mars”, he will make viewers vomit the flavorless, soul killing food that the media has force fed them since birth. Without that toxicity running through their system they may gain the intellectual energy to see that if the media can be wrong about what it judges insane, it may be wrong about what it celebrates as sane. If Charlie Sheen is sane then John Boehner is insane. If Charlie Sheen is sane then Rahm Emanuel is insane. If Sheen is sane then Andrea Canning and her bosses are insane.
Canning said that she “was in a fog” when she interviewed Charlie Sheen. That makes sense. She couldn’t process Sheen, because she has a normal brain.
It’s clear that Sheen needs some help, but it’s also clear that he can help countless Americans. He can de-normalize their brains and free them from the prison of distortion that social convention, petty conservatism, and the media mans and guards.
Fifty years ago Norman Mailer wrote about the “hip psychopath” as an “existential hero”. Sheen is the new psychic outlaw. He is a psychopathic prophet warning of the dangers, lunacy, and criminality of the mainline media and everything they stand for. No wonder he looks so crazy.
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