They’re All Lying to You: Sylvester Stallone, Demi Moore, Photoshop, PEDs, and the Paranoid Style in American Journalism

Want the truth about breaking news stories like Lance Armstrong’s PED confession and the Manti Te’o affair?  Oliver Lee Bateman argues that there isn’t any to be discovered. 

 

Watching the trailer for the latest (almost) straight-to-DVD Sylvester Stallone vehicle Bullet to the Head, one cannot help but be struck by the curious state of the 66-year-old star actor’s body.

In a review of the film, always-excellent Grantland critic Wesley Morris described the actor’s condition as follows:

Stallone is 66 now, but it isn’t age you see in his hulking, fatless physique, with its Partonesque chest and its clammy, veiny skin (inked here with body art). What you see is unnatural. It’s the action hero as melting candle.

Others have expressed similar sentiments regarding the age-defying efforts (and antics) of noted “cougar” Demi Moore. Much as when B. Bonds slugged his 73* home runs, we sense that there is something fraudulent about these individuals’ quests to remain eternally youthful.  And yet many of us are running, jogging, CrossFitting, paleo dieting, and popping various flour-filled placebos marketed as dietary supplements while pursuing, albeit with far less success, the very course that they have travelled.

More bizarrely still, Stallone and Moore refuse to attribute their chiseled, fatless bodies to these ostensibly “artificial” (artificial as opposed to what? what sort of fitness is “natural?”  flipping hay bales to develop the shoulders and tugging on cow udders to strengthen the forearms?) methods, even in tell-all cover pieces in glossy muscle mags and women’s journals–and even with indisputable photographic evidence and, in one case, an actual arrest to the contrary.  This is, mind you, little different than Rafael Palmeiro wagging his finger at a bunch of clueless politicians and claiming to have never taken steroids or Bill Clinton asserting that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.”

Here is what it amounts to:  in the eyes of the media, all of these people are suspects.  Whether high or petty, their every accomplishment is the result of some underhanded tactic.  The mainstream press and its blogger allies are in hot pursuit of these deceptions.  Scandal, of course, has always sold papers, but now we are being fed a diet consisting almost exclusively of scandal-sans-substance.  Beyoncé sporting a meretricious baby bump?  How could she, the tramp!  Joe Biden’s teeth are counterfeit?  Oh, that political hack has no shame!  Arnold Schwarzenegger cheated on his long-suffering wife with almost every other woman he knew?  My god, won’t somebody please think of the children?

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By virtue of their ability to break any story at any time, today’s yellow journalists have co-opted the paranoid style to generate cheap and easy pageviews.  When practiced by by marginal figures such as Glenn Beck and Jerome Corsi, that approach amounts to little more than a harmless diversion–comic relief to pad the waning minutes of various late-night chat shows and news round-ups (quick note:  The Daily Show ought to start paying royalties to Beck, given how much they’ve showcased his antics).  Sure, these blowhards might earn millions of dollars and have thousands of listeners, but their essential message is so ridiculous that it couldn’t conceivably “move the needle” in any particular direction.

When CNN is moved to report on yet another rakish Congressman’s sexual peccadilloes, however, viewers are left with the implication that his fellow public figures are hiding equally lurid secrets.  Every sports accomplishment, which is not long thereafter swaddled in a thick blanket of sports mythology, is eventually revealed as the product of better exercising through chemicals.  In such a world, we are all temporarily heroic until inevitably proven villainous.  But does this sort of investigative work, intrepid though it may be, have anything to do with uncovering “truth?”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”

In the face of the utterly ludicrous, such as when Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was obliged to justify whatever it was that he had been doing with Manti Te’o to beloved Oprah disciple Dr. Phil McGraw, Pilate’s response is especially noteworthy.  Truth, it seems, is irrelevant to this form of discourse.  Tuiasosopo has a secret, one that involves a famous football hero, and as a consequence we must know the workings of his soul.  The whys and wherefores of this “need to know” are unclear.  It would have made more sense for Phil McGraw to explain to his viewers the reasons for conducting such an interview in the first place, but  the good doctor just adjusts his glasses while lecturing Tuiasosopo as if the latter were an incorrigible delinquent instead of the lonely twentysomething he actually is.


Although always eager to catch a glimpse of the inner workings of Oz, ours is not an generation that has shown itself able to handle the truth.  We see conspiracies everywhere, but they’re most often just trifling and mildly titillating ones that put a lie to any notion of “tolerance” (never mind how bankrupt that particular term is) regarding various minority groups.  This African-American/Latino baseballer is a drug-abusing cheater; he could never live up to George Herman Ruth’s godlike example.  That politician was–shame of shames!–secretly having sex with other men or women.  Those actors’ haute bodies are nothing more than Photoshop, liposuction, steroids, and trainer-cultivated muscle.  It’s all a bunch of crap, malarkey, humbug…bullshit!  The fatalism that such a mindset breeds was evident when a relative of mine, faced with the prospect of once again voting for a hated incumbent in a hotly-contested congressional race, said to me, “Of course I’ll vote for him–what the hell else can I do?”  The historian Richard Hofstadter explains how prolonged exposure to paranoid musings can lead to social alienation:

The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop.

We find ourselves caught in a web of disclosures, revelations, scandals.  In spite of this endless muckraking–this “getting to the bottom of things”–the factitious bodies, seamy affairs, and bogus athletic achievements we deplore are also the ones that we crave.  Aren’t we “real men” secretly enthralled (perhaps in every sense of that term, if we’re honest with ourselves) by the Dianabol-puffed bodies touting the benefits of flour-stuffed supplement capsules?  Isn’t the author of this piece, his tedious moralizing aside, no exception to this rule?  On this point Hofstadter writes

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, he is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations.  It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him.

Meanwhile, the struggle for economic justice, once the cynosure of social activists, has fallen by the wayside.  Even our leaders cannot resist the lure of less consequential matters, as with Barack Obama squandering whatever political capital he has left on a potentially fruitless quest for additional gun regulations that, even if enacted, will probably have little chance of affecting the underlying pathologies responsible for incidents such as what transpired in Connecticut.  Walter Benn Michaels has argued that this turn away from matters of distributive equality is due in principal part to the fact that we have focused our efforts on resolving issues of identity and recognition rather than redistribution.  While I agree with Michaels, I would add that our national obsession with and immersion in what quite literally amounts to nothing–the murky details of an online affair between two young males, the flawless abdominals of a 66-year-old man, a Craigslist sex advert posted by a confused married person–is just as troubling, and every bit as disabling.  

 Photo–Flickr/ScottDWelch

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About Oliver Lee Bateman

Good Men Project contributing editor Oliver Lee Bateman is a columnist for Al-Jazeera America and Made Man Magazine. His writing has been featured in Salon, The Atlantic, Johnny America, Stymie: A Journal of Sport and Literature, the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, STIR Journal, Mic.com, and NAP Magazine. He is also one of the founders of the Moustache Club of America and Penny & Farthing, two blogzines specializing in flash fiction and creative nonfiction that he co-curates with web developer Erik Hinton, medical consultant Nathan Zimmerman, and freelance writers Christie Chapman and J. R. Powell. Oliver is a lawyer as well as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. Follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS or on Google+.

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