The ongoing, breaking story of Kevin Spacey’s conduct (2017), reminds me of the old legend of Count Belisarius : After commanding the Byzantine Army for 35 years, subduing insurrections at home, defeating barbarian incursions and delivering stunning victories against the Sassanids, the Ostrogoths and the Vandals, even re-conquering Rome for the emperor Justinian, he was eventually indicted for corruption, his estate confiscated and condemned to be blinded by his own imperial patron. Belisarius was reduced to a blind beggar, often depicted seeking alms from passers by, using a bowl once gifted to him by the very emperor who betrayed and destroyed him in the end.
The story’s ending is considered a medieval legend and is probably a myth, but this doesn’t detract from the fact that Belisarius, for all his majesty as a general was probably also another corrupt man in a corrupt Byzantine court, where courtiers fell in and out of favor in the blink of an eye and on the whim of the omnipotent Emperor.
Same for Kevin Spacey : for most of us, he was the middle aged guy who has sex with his daughter’s teen friend in American Beauty, the serial killer who put a pregnant woman’s head in a box and delivered to her husband in Se7en, the unassuming alter ego of the legendary criminal mastermind Keyser Soze in Usual Suspects, and more recently the ruthless, politically climbing megalomaniac Frank Underwood in the House of Cards : the person who will not hesitate to push people under a train or piss on his father’s grave – because he can, and obviously because we’d love him to do so for our entertainment.
So all of a sudden, everybody now hates Kevin Spacey : his reputation is being destroyed, his fans abandon him, his agent and studio contracts are torn to pieces – same as with other people like him, apparently. But let’s ponder for a moment, how come we adored and glorified Kevin Spacey or people like him, before the allegations emerged? Why did we revere him, got excited and aroused when he played the disgusting, heinous villain, gave him an Oscar and a standing ovation? Why did we accept the exaggerated fiction as entertaining and titillating, but now finding it so hard to accept some actual realities about his character?
This is because in the dawn of the 21st century, we are less liberal when applying the moral standards we expect from others to ourselves, and one of the ways we reflect this moral ambiguity is the fiction we consume every day. We are, for example, entertained by visions of rotting cannibals, maniacal murderers, ruthless gangsters and crazy-ass heads of state – without realising we are often holding a mirror to those around us, sometimes even to ourselves. We are so hypnotised by fiction, where we have ended up swallowing any alternative reality offered to us in the form of fake news. We are ready to believe any and every story as long as it has collected enough awards, reviews or accolades, or sometimes just enough hearts on Twitter. We create and then believe in these larger than life characters, legends, or fiction, so we can deal with actual reality – in the same way people in Medieval societies created dragons, monsters and vampires : as a macabre coping mechanism that justified the poverty, the pestilence, the indentured service, the prevailing triviality of human existence, all those grim everyday truths of medieval world.
Those lies and fiction are supposed to help us defer and escape the known horrors that surround us, which we all secretly know to be true : Maybe there are no flesh eating zombies, but there certainly are 14 year old kids in Hollywood parties that will be groped, or starlets performing on casting couches, and it’s all happening over the promise of a few seconds of fame in a major production. We all secretly knew that, when we stayed up all night to watch the Oscars ceremony or when we took our own kids to the cinema, to watch and consume Hollywood – which we now know to be an openly dark galaxy of debauched movie stars, the same way we also now know that Kevin Spacey is openly gay – as if there has ever been a question.
Obviously, the source of the problem here is not the Kevin Spaceys of this world – not at all. The problem is our own indifference with moral flexibility, and our hypocrisy in perpetuating this loss of innocence we now cry Wolf ! about. Again, I will reflect back to the popular accounts of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire around AD100, quoting the satirical chronicler Juvenal. He scathingly criticised the moral decline of the Romans, who once upon a time occupied themselves with all the things that mattered, such as achieving moral excellence through art, oratory and military performance – aiming for completing the Cursus Honorum , ie reaching the highest levels of civic duty as a means to attain pure pleasure and happiness.
According to Juvenal, writing around the time when Rome had reached its apex, the populace now only looked forward to the more immediate, shallow diversions of panem et circenses – bread and circuses, the exciting scraps of entertainment their governors threw at them, to keep them subjugated and secure their vote : Dangerous chariot races, gladiatorial combat to the death, and feeding people to the lions. Today, we accept and identify with the same cheap scraps of entertainment. We consume the most exaggerated post-truths to carry on snoozing for our instant gratification, while in return we surrender our willing participation as morally flexible spectators in this media Circus, crying for blood, frenzied in anticipation of the Imperator’s decision about who lives and who dies.
In this dawn of a new Dark Age, we are the spectators, willing participants and instigators of this unavoidable decline we inflict upon ourselves. No-one else to blame.
Update 18 July 2019 : All criminal charges against Kevin Spacey with regard to this case have now been dropped
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