A few days ago I was walking north on State Street and saw two names on the Chicago Theatre marquee:
CHARLIE SHEEN APRIL 1
GLENN BECK APRIL 14
And I realized how Obi-Wan Kenobi must have felt when Alderaan blew up.
The reviews for the cloyingly ironically named My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat Is Not An Option tour are in, from the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune (both shows!). When I checked in on Twitter this weekend, it was unavoidable, whether it was people admitting a morbid curiosity or decrying press attention as pandering. Around the water cooler this morning, there was much lamenting of popular culture.
I try to take a historical perspective on these things, or more accurately, “informed cynicism.”
It’s a freak show, and I mean that literally: a human outlier self-exploiting for money by preying on cultural fears and obsessions. A hundred years ago the freaks were Siamese twins and wolf children and so forth, and the anxieties had to do with science, medicine, and race. Today, we can’t be too surprised that a freak show about wealth, celebrity, and narcissism would arouse interest.
None of which America deals with very well, by the way. Only this time it’s not mediated: Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer (and their soft-focus cameras) aren’t there to protect us, so it’s a bit scarier. And the profit isn’t laundered through advertising, so it’s scarier still.
So I can’t get too worried. Freak shows were bad, but we got over it, and now you can draw a line from the seamy exploitation of turn-of-the-century freak shows to our considerably more humane contemporary cultural treatment of disabilities. Which isn’t to say that the Violent Torpedo of Truth represents hope, just that in the long view things get more interesting and complicated.
We like narratives of decline, especially in the media. But they’re not always true, or at least you have to make sure you’re not confusing the data points. The last time I went to the Chicago Theatre, Louis C.K. sold it out, or at least came close from what I saw. He’s a genius, and it was a great show, but it wasn’t saluted as an encouraging moment in Western culture. And that’s about my reaction to Charlie Sheen: for me, it’s not an important failure.