From The New Criterion.
April 30, 2011.
As winter turned to spring and the promise of something not too remote from democracy in Egypt and Tunisia remained as yet mostly unsullied by intimations of brutality, misogyny, Islamic fanaticism and a renewal of tyranny, the two predominant matters of media interest were the popular rebellion against the Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi and the public pronouncements of the actor Charlie Sheen. I am not the first to notice certain similarities between the two central figures in these stories. Tina Brown’s new, slicker, up-market, Vanity Fair-like Newsweek — the cover of whose first issue, like that of her ill-fated Talk magazine, featured the perfectly made-up physiognomy of Hillary Clinton ("How she’s shattering glass ceilings everywhere") — kindly offered to instruct readers in "What Charlie Sheen’s Meltdown Means for. . ." those who will be affected by it. These include the gentleman himself ("This pileup is only the latest detour on Sheen’s lifetime of adventures"), the rest of the Sheens, CBS, the rest of television, the women in his life and — the Libyan strongman.
Few people should be as thankful for Sheen’s theatrics as Gaddafi, who promises to fight to the end to keep his stranglehold over Libya. Just as Michael Jackson’s death crowded out coverage of Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009, so too has Sheen’s spiral pushed Gaddafi off U.S. television screens. Sheen, for all his distance from reality, didn’t miss the oddness here. "It’s a little bizarre turning on the news and I’m the lead story," he said. "I’m thinking, ‘The world is upside down.’ But I guess that shows the power of the business I’m in."
Actually, I think he did miss the oddness. As did Newsweek. For the oddness is that there is no oddness. It is a mere affectation on both their parts to treat the idea that historic, world-transforming events might turn on the media’s fascination with the dissolute behavior of a drug-besotted celebrity half a world away as unprecedented or even remarkable. Mr Sheen’s pretense of surprise at finding himself associated with or even involved in epoch-making revolutionary happenings is just an oblique reflection of his quasi-clinical delusions of grandeur.
These delusions, by the way, are only the most obvious things that he shares with Colonel Gaddafi. In The Guardian, Richard Adams offered a brain-teasing quiz, inviting readers to try to distinguish between various public pronouncements of the two men. If you happened not to have heard them in their original contexts, the attribution of these sayings to one or the other might have caused some little difficulty, although comically mixed metaphors ("These resentments, they are the rocket fuel that lives in the tip of my sabre" ) were more likely to be the work of the chief impresario and star of the forthcoming (to Detroit and Chicago at the time of writing) "My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not An Option Show" while extravagantly inapt comparisons ("I am like the Queen of England") were more likely to be a product of the Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.
Back when media coverage of the death of Michael Jackson was crowding out coverage of Iran’s Green Revolution, according to Newsweek, Andrew Calcutt wrote in Spiked Online that the overwhelming public interest in the late King of Pop’s demise was owing to the fact that his childishness and obsession with making and re-making his public image were emblematic of our culture. "In the West we really do live in a world of representation, where making a spectacle of ourselves is considered the greatest achievement. This makes Michael Jackson one of the highest achievers in the Western way of life, and it would be perverse not to comment on the relation between this high flier and the under-achieving society which gave him his wings." The same is of course true of Charlie Sheen who, though he is not yet dead, owes at least some of the fascination he exerts over his ever-growing public to the likelihood, given the apparently gargantuan scale of his self-indulgences, that he soon will be. I wonder if there could be any connection to the likelihood, at the time of writing, that the Iranian and Libyan revolutions will also turn out the same way — once again, while the world superpower is busying itself with other matters?
The only obvious match among the ten sentences on Mr Adams’s Guardian quiz was the last, which was the contention that "9/11 was ‘an absolute fairytale, a complete work of fiction’." That had to be Mr Sheen (as, indeed, it was), since the Brotherly Leader early on had committed himself to the view that al-Qaeda was also behind the rebellion against his own brotherly leadership. Though he may have been as mad as Charlie Sheen, there was no shortage of experts advising against American involvement in what swiftly became a Libyan civil war who thought he was on to something there. Ross Douthat of The New York Times, for example, pointed to a study of the Center for a New American Security showing that "Eastern Libya, the locus of the rebellion, sent more foreign fighters per capita to join the Iraqi insurgency than any other region in the Arab world." At any rate, the dictator seemed to have been successful in deprecating any serious American or allied involvement on behalf of the militarily unprepared rebels he and his Russian-trained and equipped army and air force were in the process of slaughtering in their hundreds thanks to the one glass ceiling that Hillary Clinton thought not worth shattering: that which protected the Libyan Air Force from interference with its task of suppressing the rebellion.
Boastfulness and a florid rhetorical style were not all that Mr Sheen and Colonel Gaddafi had in common. If each had (like Michael Jackson) a quasi-psychotic attachment to his own fantasy world, the two fantasies were also weirdly similar, as was their reason for holding on to them so tightly. Both, that is, offered a certain protection from unpleasant realities and both were based upon a founding narrative of the culture that each man shared with his less addlepated fellow countrymen. That word, "narrative," is much overused these days, I know, but it is sometimes vital because it reminds us that certain kinds of realities have to be manufactured. This is not in itself a bad thing and does not mean that these manufactured realities are less real than the raw or unmediated kind. Scientific narratives, for example, are necessary in order to put into order and make sense of what would otherwise be the incomprehensible welter of discrete measurements that are the scientist’s raw materials. But the process of manufacture — or, to be more precise, cerebrofacture — is highly susceptible to corruption by those who engage in it with the kind of pre-conceived agenda and set of expectations that are associated with ideology, including the progressive ideology.
And it is different versions of the progressive ideology that both Charlie Sheen and Colonel Gaddafi were depending upon for their self-justification. The founding narrative of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya was anti-colonialism. Robert Fisk of The Independent of London wrote of how the Colonel, even in the midst of the rebellion that threatened his dictatorship, represented himself as the protector of his people from outsiders and invoked the spirit of the Libyan hero Omar Mukhtar, hanged by Mussolini’s Italian occupiers 80 years ago, against the outsiders of al’Qaeda who, he imagined, were seducing his otherwise contented people away from him. Colonel Gaddafi needs the bare shadow of Libya’s imperial history in order to counter the rebels by portraying himself as rebel — even though, ironically enough, the Italy of today under Signore Berlusconi is his régime’s staunchest European friend. Karima el-Mahroug, the Moroccan teenage prostitute also known as Ruby the Heartbreaker from the Italian Prime Minister’s notorious bunga bunga parties is said to have testified that "Silvio told me that he’d copied that formula from [Gaddafi]. . . It’s a ritual of his African harem." Now who is colonizing whom?
Just as the Colonel depends on the bogeyman of European colonialism, so does Charlie Sheen depend on that of the equally remote — both were casualties of the revolutionary 1960s — official culture in America. For the founding narrative of today’s popular culture also involves a noble rebellion of the oppressed. Without the success of the free, egalitarian, life-affirming unofficial culture of yesteryear against the "uptight" and "repressive" official culture, Charlie Sheen would be unimaginable, and he depends as much on the pretense of this long-defunct cultural regime’s continued existence as Colonel Gaddafi does. It’s what makes him an interesting, rebellious, "transgressive" pop culture hero and not just a poor, self-destructive, strung-out nutbag. In this sense, his claim to be a "total rock star from Mars" with "tiger blood" had a certain truth to it, since rock stars who come from nearer to home and whose blood is anthropoid have been waving the same bloody shirt for almost half a century, ever since the official culture pronounced its dying benediction upon the noble cause of removing the stigma of hypocrisy from youthful self-indulgence and quietly gave up the ghost.
The paradox of the triumphant succession to officialdom itself of what was formerly and for centuries suppressed as unofficial and disreputable is that the latter requires a kind of zombified spectre of its long-dead official predecessor to remain ever before the public as the guarantor of its own legitimacy, just as the Guide of the First of September Great Revolution depends upon the spectre of Mussolini’s now laughable conceit of the Mediterranean as Mare Nostrum. The frequent identification of the forces of reaction with "fascism" by both sorts of soi-disant revolutionaries is therefore an essential part of their rhetorical strategy and not just the sort of "incivility" of which I have written perhaps too much in this space recently (see "Rise of the Trolls" and "Madness & the Media Mind in The New Criterion of January and February, 2011, respectively). "Trolls," by the way, are what Charlie Sheen calls his critics and enemies and therefore, presumably, no longer (as I said two months ago) refers to the anonymous devotees of what used to be called "flaming" on the Internet. It will be interesting to see which of these two usages has the greater staying-power.
Another example of the extent to which our culture depends on validation by at least the pretense of rebellion turned up in the scandal which overtook National Public Radio when James O’Keefe, the prankster who had earlier played similar tricks on Planned Parenthood and ACORN, revealed that the network’s chief fund-raiser, Ron Schiller, held Tea Party members in contempt. "The Tea Party is fanatically involved in people’s personal lives and very fundamental Christian — I wouldn’t even call it Christian. It’s this weird evangelical kind of movement," he told two of Mr O’Keefe’s associates posing as wealthy Muslim would-be donors, adding that the Tea Partiers weren’t "just Islamophobic, but really xenophobic, I mean basically they are, they believe in sort of white, middle-America gun-toting. I mean, it’s scary. They’re seriously racist, racist people."
Now none of this is anything that hasn’t routinely been said by others in the media ever since the Tea Party emerged two years ago, nor is it possible that anyone could have been surprised to learn of Mr Schiller’s fashionably lefty opinions. The surprise would have been if someone associated with NPR held any other view of the Tea Party. But Mr Schiller was seen as speaking for the network itself and therefore not only lost his own job but brought down with him his boss and (unrelated) namesake, Vivian Schiller, who had already been weakened by her role in the firing of Juan Williams last autumn. The official media protocol requires that the pretense of NPR’s objective and unbiased view of contemporary politics should be upheld at all times and even more fervently than the same pretense is upheld with respect to the other broadcast networks — except for Fox, of course, whose conservative bias is equally well established by the media consensus of today.
The reason must have to do with the founding narrative of NPR which also dates from the 1960s and has to do with "public" broadcasting’s liberation from the corporate bondage imposed upon its commercial brethren. Nobody minds that the government-sponsored broadcasters rattle their tin cups before the same corporate behemoths which their own advertising — that which is not itself directly corporate-sponsored — brags of their independence from. Such high-class commercials — "made possible by a grant from" sounds so much better than "brought to you by" — have never been allowed to interfere with the public broadcasters’ stirring story of their freedom from commercial pressures any more than their news operations’ membership in good standing of the same media culture as that which prevails at other "mainstream" news outlets has been taken by anyone — or anyone who is not merely sniping from the right-wing media ghetto — to compromise their claim to the sort of special status presupposed by their government subsidy.
Thus Andrea Mitchell took the opportunity of an NBC interview with the House minority whip Steny Hoyer to decry the presumptive renewal and redoubling of the House Republicans’ already mooted determination to defund NPR in the wake of the scandal by saying that "nobody is suggesting that their journalism has been at all biased." The sad thing is that she probably thinks this is true — "nobody" being for her, as for Ron Schiller, only those right-wing bigots that she (therefore) pays no attention to. Certainly nobody she reads or watches is suggesting it — not because it isn’t true but because she finds it as natural as NPR does to identify its critics with those "xenophobic" and "racist" Tea Partiers whose alleged bigotry, based on no visible evidence, is a rationale for ignoring their views on other subjects. Mr Schiller’s portrayal of them in such terms was therefore not just a personal opinion of his own or even an opinion shared by the majority of those who work at NPR or in the media generally. In this sense he might even have been right when he issued an apology on his resignation claiming that "I made statements [that are] not reflective of my own beliefs." Whether or not the statements were reflective of his own beliefs, they were as necessary and foundational a fiction for NPR as that of its freedom from corporate sponsorship, as they established that those most likely to deprive it of its government subsidy were self-discrediting.
That’s also why, among the other embarrassing things that he said on Mr O’Keefe’s tape was that he was "proud" of the firing of Mr Williams, because it showed that "what NPR stood for is non- racist, non-bigoted, straightforward telling of the news. Our feeling is that if a person expresses his or her opinion, which anyone is entitled to do in a free society, they are compromised as a journalist, they can no longer fairly report. [Mr Williams] lost all credibility and that breaks your basic ethics as a journalist." This identification of the unbiased with the unbigoted is a neat elision which also helps to preserve the progressive conceit that bias is only of one sort. If resistance to the progressive agenda amounts to xenophobia and bigotry, then a passionate commitment to the same amounts to a "non-racist, non-bigoted, straightforward telling of the news." Colonel Gaddafi attempts to discredit those who say what he doesn’t want to hear by identifying them with Islamicist terrorists; NPR, like others of the progressive persuasion, attempts to discredit those who say what it doesn’t want to hear by identifying them with racists and bigots. Either way it’s a useful technique for dodging unwelcome realities.
The other criticism Mr Schiller made of the Tea Party, also a familiar one on the left against the right, was that it was "anti-intellectual." I have always considered myself proudly anti-intellectual on account of the historical association between those who describe themselves as "intellectuals" and the sort of utopian projectors whose intellects have been devoted to designing for me a better way to live my life than I could come up with on my own. But "anti-intellectual" is another characteristically progressive elision meant to suggest anti-intellect, anti-intelligence, anti-educational even anti-rational. Thus Mr Schiller told his supposedly Muslim interlocutors that what he was "most disappointed by in this country" was "that the educated, so-called elite in this country is too small a percentage of the population, so that you have this very large uneducated part of the population that carries these ideas" — meaning the ideas of the Tea Party bigots.
There are certain problems that arise when you identify education and intelligence with virtue and good sense, and one of them is that you begin to think yourself immune from stupidity. Among the casualties of the Libyan revolution was Howard Davies, Director of the London School of Economics, whose prestigious institution was revealed to have the kind of close ties with the Gaddafi régime that Ron Schiller could only dream of forming with Mr O’Keefe’s fake Islamicist philanthropists. It was widely supposed, in the one case as in the other, that the motive behind the serious institutional "mistakes" which cost the top people their jobs was money. But I think that Daniel Finkelstein of The Times of London was closer to the mark when he wrote that the LSE scandal was one where it didn’t make sense to "follow the money" as the intrepid Watergate sleuths in All the President’s Men were advised but rather to "follow the stupid ideas." Now there’s a job for an intellectual.