The Lynching of Charlie Sheen

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Conventional wisdom tells us that the rich and famous have it easy, that they get away with murder, that they can buy and charm their way out of all the social traps the rest of us face. But in fact, people love to see a fall from grace, and they love to kick the fallen when they're down. When the mass media target a celebrity for character destruction, the ostracism and witch-hunts are typically more relentless than when a commoner is in the crosshairs. There is no privacy. There is no escape. The entire media class, from Hollywood to Manhattan, lines up to cannibalize one of their own with gratuitous relish.

That Charlie Sheen has been the biggest national story, while the Arab world is aflame with revolution and the U.S. marches toward ever more war and economic disaster, is not the most remarkable thing. What is most striking is how easily so many line up behind a consensus that someone ought to be the butt of all jokes and the focus of everyone's mockery and outrage. Why is the public so obsessed? Does the public's obsession fuel the media's, or is it the other way around?

Indeed, the main mystery is why so many entertainers have jumped on the bandwagon to belittle the actor. Why are so many glitterati pointing their fingers and laughing, judging, and psychoanalyzing Sheen from afar? And even if it was kind of funny the first time to compare his eccentric quips to the ranting of the dictator Qadafi, isn't it a bit unseemly for so many to be piling on with such insults?

A look at the supposed reasons why Sheen has deserved such ridicule and voyeuristic attention can help dispel a number of myths about the media, the press and the dominant national culture. Specifically, we now see the "socially liberal" media is not quite how it's normally understood.

If we lived in a reasonable society, the most serious accusation would be that Sheen has assaulted women, which he denies. But this has not been the focus of the attacks on Sheen. It should probably be the only charge that comes close to rising to the level of news. But according to today's zeitgeist, his other alleged sins are far more severe.

Consider the endless fascination with Sheen's drug use. The media are in many ways pro-drug. Rock music and most popular music, going back to jazz, has been shameless in the glorification of narcotics, stimulants and hallucinogens. Comedies on networks and cable give a wink to casual drug use, or even outright encourage it. We've had three presidents in a row who admitted to having used marijuana, and almost no one in even the "serious" press condemns this outright.

Yet Sheen's alleged abuse of drugs is now everybody's business. Not only do the new-born Puritans in his profession point to these supposedly unique personal failings; TV quacks diagnose his "addiction" from a distance, just so the whole nation can prove their allegiance to the therapeutic state by shaking their heads at the shame of it all.

In his interview with Piers Morgan, Sheen addresses the drug use. He questions the very concept, as commonly understood, of "addiction." His response is almost Szaszian:

As long as I subscribe to the beliefs of others that build these models that don’t really leave any room for individuality or creativity or anything that like, you know, they say you’ve got to surrender and you’ve got to get rid of your resentments, sit in a room and like be all lame, you know.

He says he never missed "a money day" of work — meaning, he never was a drain on his show's production budget. He claims he always kept that part of his life away from his kids. He points out that cigarettes were perhaps his most regrettable habit. And in what might be one of his greatest offenses, he expresses relief not to be "held hostage by AA anymore." His dissent from the Alcoholics Anonymous model of addiction is a verboten blow against the psychiatric establishment for which there is no excuse.

Whether or not his defense is sound, he has given one, and yet most everyone has rushed to judgment on this matter as though they know a true addict when they see one — on television. The drinkers in our community, the pill-poppers in our neighborhoods, the druggies throughout the rest of the liberal media — we are all to believe that these people's problems pale in comparison to poor Charlie's.

The hypocrisy is even more shameless on the question of Sheen's sex life. Everyone in the media believes in sexual tolerance, surely. Marriage need not be between a man and a woman. It can be between two men, or two women. Yet the fact that Sheen wants to "marry" two consenting women — a practice common in many societies for millennia — means there must be something wrong with him, something that makes him especially freakish. People should be allowed to do what they want in their own homes — that is unless we are talking about a weirdo, a megalomaniac, a man who has fallen out of favor with the mainstream.

Sheen notes that he was hired for an off-color role in large part because of his off-color lifestyle, and he has suffered a bait and switch. Indeed, the whole profession is off-color, and everyone knows it. Whether Charlie's personal life should be hailed or condemned, there is something awfully peculiar in seeing him attacked for his deviancy by the same liberal establishment that has for decades essentially argued that deviancy doesn't exist.

Of course, Sheen's superlative success as an entertainer has something to do with the smears and ridicule. The rich and famous always love to cannibalize those even richer and more famous. Sheen was the most financially successful of TV actors, so the envy we usually see dripping off the silver screen — from the Oscars to the press corps — most likely played a role here. On the other hand, some have attacked him over his personal finances and contractual issues, yet it is hard to imagine that within his industry he is very unusual in any of this.

To add to the perfect storm, the TV star has violated one of the greatest doctrines of political incorrectness. Although Sheen himself is Jewish, he has committed the grave sin of involuntary anti-Semitism. This piece in the Telegraph, drawing a bizarre link between Sheen, the Pope and Julian Assange, describes the key allegation as "Charlie Sheen's renaming of the producer of his former sitcom Chuck Lorre as u2018Chaim Levine', carrying with it as it does two suggestions: one, that Jews are the controlling forces behind the US media, and two, that they have disguised this fact about themselves and need to be outed."

Lorre himself has referred to his own Hebrew name in a "vanity card," aired in front of millions at the end of one of his television shows:

How did Chaim become Chuck? How did Levine become Lorre? The only answer I come up with is this: When I was a little boy in Hebrew school the rabbis regularly told us that we were the chosen people. That we were God’s favorites. Which is all well and good except that I went home, observed my family and, despite my tender age, thought to myself, “bull$#*!.”

Sheen elaborates that Lorre used to call him Carlos Estevez. If true, both men called each other the names they were born with. Without knowing whether Sheen is telling the truth about this, we can still get some perspective here. Would it be scandalously wrong to call Sheen "Carlos Estevez"? Does it carry with it suggestions about Spaniards being embarrassed of their origins? Even if so, would we expect this kind of mild anti-Spanish slur to rise to the level of a small international controversy? Would people presume not only to pass judgment on a man's state of mind, but to identify a general societal trend toward bigotry, all because someone called someone else by his given name? That is what has happened here.

Political correctness is probably the mass media's most tangled web of double standards. Making fun of some groups is always more OK than other groups. Hollywood has always jumped on board with ugly nationalist racism when directed against an enemy of war; it has always been willing to make fun of helpless and harmless religious minorities, unprotected ethnic and immigrant groups and people with some disabilities and diseases (but not others); and the old, the ugly and the fat are generally fair game. Hollywood will even make fun of blacks, Jews, gays and other official victim groups, but only in certain contexts, and the rules always shift and are somewhat unpredictable. And if the wrong entertainer slips up in an interview or even off camera, there will be hell to pay, even if what was said was objectively no more demonstrably hateful or mean-spirited than prime time TV during sweeps week.

Moreover, as much as the liberal media love to claim openness toward questioning authority, some political positions are just considered too beyond the pale to tolerate. Sheen has wandered too far into embracing "conspiracy theories" and so the guy is not defensible. His views are not within the respectable range of opinion, like the belief that it's fine for the U.S. government to invade and occupy foreign countries, detain suspects without trial, and run up trillions of dollars of debt like it was nothing.

Some will protest that Sheen does not deserve a rigorous defense. He faces no real persecution — except, arguably, the civil affair concerning child custody. And, perhaps, he has acted immorally. And, anyway, he has his millions and his women and claims to be happy.

But the confluence of factors in the media's sacrifice of Charlie Sheen tells us more about the media than about the man. There is something rotten in our mass culture. It is the stench of an establishment that pushes a flavor of social progressivism upon the country while reserving the right to burn social heretics at the stake on even the most hypocritical of pretenses.

And it is against this establishment's witchhunt and all its nefarious social consequences that a defense must be waged. Most certainly, it can be argued that Sheen has not acted virtuously. But the attacks on him have clearly been more distasteful, more pathetic, more indicative of a society in decline, than his own behavior. For the crimes of drug use, sexual deviance, and political incorrectness, a great talent has been thrown under the bus by a drug addled, sexually deviant, socially insensitive, politically clueless mass media and liberal culture. They have eaten one of their own. It has happened many times before, to Robert Downey, Jr., Britney Spears, Tiger Woods, and now Christina Aguilera. And it will happen again. And if even the most handsomely paid actor on TV is helpless against the official pop culture's hypocritical lynch mob, what hope do any of us little people have should the mob decide we too deserve to be lynched?

Thanks to my friend Eric Garris for his help on this piece.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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