The Charlie Sheen reality show

The actor and the media have fed each other so much frenzied attention lately, it has gone from circus to train wreck fast. The gawkers and gapers are growing into a captive audience at everyone’s expense. Someone has got to inject some humanity and reason into this sad drama.

Even on the top-tier television network news shows, even with some of the big opinion news show personalities, coverage and discussion of Charlie Sheen have descended into the depths of the dishonorable. They continually replay the video rantings and ravings of this man’s very public self-destruction. These media are all turning more and more tabloid, reaching for all the extremes, even in their own language about the whole terrible and ugly affair and the names they’re willing to call a celebrity hell-bent on destruction and desperately in need of help. Starting with not being enabled by all the media.

I tuned into a major television news network to hear the latest national and international news that affects our lives and got a few minutes of Libya and whole segments, multiple segments, on Charlie Sheen’s very bizarre performances. Turning the channel quickly to another major news network, I found they only devoted more time to more video rantings and even the live streaming of his antics from some online webcast the troubled actor arranged and promoted so the growing crowd of gawkers would keep following him down the dark rabbit hole, or wherever he is going.

Trouble is, they’re going there eagerly.

When the next hour produced an in-depth special on Sheen’s unraveling world, complete with a very young porn actress who ‘partied with him’, I decided to engage. Okay, I’ll hear the interviews and the account, watch the coverage. And be a voice of concern for the human dignity of everyone involved, including those of us in the reluctant audience.

Why are we so fascinated by Charlie Sheen?’ the media keep asking us, breathlessly, unaware that it is they who are riveted and becoming co-dependent with Sheen in this feeding frenzy.

Thinking this over, watching what was unfolding in this show, I suddenly thought of St. Augustine’s account of the dreadful fascination Romans of his time had with the bloody and soul-killing spectator sport of the gladiators. I looked it up, bookmarked it to write about, and then found this piece in the Guardian, aptly calling the whole affair an ‘orgy of coverage.’

Of course, no one has to do anything in this epic celebrity mess. But Sheen is putting his sex- and drug-addled lifestyle on display, the media can’t stop covering it, and the public can’t help but read all about it.

Forget Lindsay Lohan’s skirmishes with the Los Angeles court system. Put Britney Spears’s public head-shaving in the history books. Sheen’s epic displays of temper, sexual freakiness, marital woes and drug problems beat them all…

He seems manic, out of control and to be loving every minute of it.

And this is where it really dovetails exactly with my recall of Augustine on the lure of inhuman acts on display as entertainment.

Sheen not only decided to call radio shows himself to lambast his enemies but also last week took to Twitter. Within 24 hours he had more than 1 million followers: a record for the powerful microblogging website. He happily blasted out tweet after tweet, announcing a hitherto unknown plan to write a book. “The title of my book has finally been delivered thru vast and extensive Lunar channels. ‘Apocalypse Me’ Warlock Latin for WINNING,” he wrote. By yesterday he had 1.6 million followers and had signed a deal for sponsored tweets that could net him $1m a year.

It’s probably a good sign when you can’t begin to get your mind around that. Because it’s scarily incomprehensible.

Kristina Wandzilak, a Californian drug intervention specialist, complained to ABC: “This is more than a sensational story. This is a tragedy unfolding on a national stage.”

Others went further. Los Angeles Times columnist James Rainey attacked the media as “enablers” of Sheen’s problems, looking to profit from them without caring for their subject. He mused on what would happen if Sheen suddenly started to self-harm. “At the rate they’re going, a platoon of television producers would rush to bring us every bloody self-mutilating moment,” he wrote.

Which gets us back to Augustine. His friend Alypius went to Rome ahead of Augustine, “and there he was carried off in an unbelievable way by the unbelievable passion for gladiatorial shows.” (The Confessions of St. Augusutine, version translated by John K. Ryan)

Although he would have opposed such shows and detested them, certain of his friends and fellow students…in spite of the fact that he strongly objected and resisted them, dragged him with friendly force into the amphitheater on a day for these cruel and deadly games. All the while he was saying “Even if you drag my body into this place, can you fasten my mind and my eyes on such shows? I will be absent, though present, and thus I will overcome both you and them.”

When they heard this, they nevertheless brought him in with them, perhaps wanting to find out if he would be able to carry it off. When they had entered and taken whatever places they could, the whole scene was ablaze with the most savage passions. He closed his eyes and forbade his mind to have any part in such evil sights. Would that he had been able to close his ears as well!

How familiar. As the bloody sport advanced and the bloodthirsty crowd roared in passion, Alypius found it more difficult to resist, and “he was overcome by curiosity.”

As though he were well prepared to despise the sight and to overcome it, whatever it might be, he opened his eyes and was wounded more deeply in his soul than the man whom he desired to look at was in his body. He fell more miserably than did that gladiator…

He did not turn away, but fixed his sight on it, and drank in madness without knowing it. He took delight in that evil struggle, and he became drunk on blood and pleasure. He was no longer the man who entered there, but only one of the crowd that he had joined…

How easily people of our time and culture fall into the same madness of the amphitheater.

Augustine’s friend was eventually rescued by the grace of God. Charlie Sheen’s father Martin, and uncle Joe Estevez, are hoping (and by invoking their Catholic faith, praying) that he will eventually be open to that grace as well.


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