Empty Times in the West

The only thing more vile than Charlie Sheen's character is the media that profits from parading his antics and his illness on the airwaves, says Rex

The only thing more vile than Charlie Sheen's character is the media that profits from parading his antics and his illness on the airwaves, says Rex.

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Rex Murphy - Empty Times in the West

March 3, 2011

It might be said that the one purpose of the tart-infested, doxy-ripe, trollop-thick tenure of Italy's Prime Minister Berlusconi may be to give the prowling Charlie Sheen someone to look down on.  In the long-running whose-life-is-more-like-spring-break competition between the Italian leader and the highest paid American TV "actor", it's hard to call a clear winner. 

Behaviour that so short a time ago would have been showered with contempt and derision, now lands Sheen two million dollars an episode - two million a hit for portraying a depraved wastrel - himself:  a compulsive, reckless sex-obsessive.

And then the Italian Prime Minister, something of a pudgy, well-tailored Caligula he, the Nero of Cialis and hot tubs, like Sheen, apparently rents his living toys and frolics with whom he rents as if the honour of his country is somehow not entangled with its Prime Minister's taste in expensive, talkative, underage horizontals. Berlusconi makes Bill Clinton's tenure a model of chaste restraint.

The observation is as trite as it is true:  It's the times we live in.  When Paris Hilton is an icon, Lady Gaga an "artist", and, dear Lord, Snooki on the cover of once serious magazines, Western civilization is, as Gandhi hinted, something still waiting to happen...and we might want to duck and hold our nose when it eventually passes by. 

Sheen is almost certainly sick and out of control, so in his case the continuous news and tabloid coverage contains another, larger element – an element even more contemptible than the behaviour as such: that is, popular entertainment's bottomless appetite for any display – however vulgar, embarrassing, mean or degrading – as long as it drags eyeballs to the screen and rakes in ad dollars.

Sheen's show, which is "reality TV" disguised as a sitcom, makes millions and millions out of his sad sick persona.  Now that he's whirling into some sort of mental or physical collapse, the machine piously runs him through the talk shows and morning interviews to mine every sad outrage, and essentially telecast his imminent decline.  It's for all the profit that cheap voyeurism and smug sermonizing can generate.

The entertainment machine – and that includes Hollywood and the fashion world - talk big about their damn "causes", but no cause will haul them away from a human train wreck if the money is big enough, and the publicity marches on.  Sheen is their cash machine.

Then on another scale of abuse, we heard recently of 'superstar' fashion designer Galliano, with some of the ugliest, cheapest, vile, anti-Jewish venom ever heard.  How did Galliano get a pass from his fellow super-sophisticates for his vile and rancid attitudes?  The genius designer with the mouth of a sewer. 

We live in an empty time in the West.  Sheen has his own problems, but he's as much a symptom of ours.  Galliano is just vile, and his fellow decadents, and their reporter groupies could have called him out on it and made it public long ago.  Money held them back.  And bad taste, in every conceivable sense of that phrase.

It's mildly curious, or gently ironic, that on a day I moan a little here about the messy sideroads and absence of dignity in journalism, that James Travers of The Star should have passed away.  Jim was mature, classy, clever, rich in dignity, and cared for the things that count.  And decent on top of all that – which is more than most of us can hope.  We will miss Jim. He launched Cross-Country Checkup many a week with an opening interview.  We couldn't have had a more complete and cheerful guide

For The National, I’m Rex Murphy.