Somewhere, a joke is about to be born. This joke will use the deaths of Farah Fawcett and Michael Jackson, both June 25, 2009, as the set up to deliver a punch line that has something to do with “the reason for millions of boys’ first ejaculations” or “America mourns the loss of two who shepherded so many young men to sexual maturity.” Now that you read it, it seems obvious.
What was, however, less obvious (that is, before yesterday, June 25, 2009) was the outpouring of grief at Jackson’s passing, at the event’s utter domination of the news cycle on multiple channels. Watching the coverage—the sanctimonious news anchors, the grieving fans who gathered outside Jackson’s home (a few) and the UCLA Medical Center (a few thousand)—one could easily forget that the just-deceased “Icon” was every late-night talk show host’s comedic piñata for decades, was a man recently acquitted of child sexual abuse. As America mourned Jackson’s passing, he was again “The King of Pop,” and we let ourselves off the hook for how we treated and thought about him for decades.
Watching Jackson’s body being airlifted from the hospital to the coroner’s office, watching Larry King Live broadcast a photo of Jackson, gurneyed and intubated, being taken from his home to an ambulance (which King called, inexplicably, “good reporting” not “tasteless exploitation”1), and watching these scenes interrupted by portions of his music videos and concert footage, one wonders why we made such a big deal about Bubbles the Chimp in the first place.
At this point, it is probably important to clarify that this is not an apology for Jackson. This essay is not some recuperative measure meant to erase whatever short comings he had or crimes he might have committed. But: He was acquitted. We can’t forget that, even though with Michael Jackson, America forgets it all the time. Which brings us to the thesis: For all the microscoping, all the fine-tooth-combing we (as a culture) have done to Michael Jackson, have we ever asked the right question: What do our reactions to Michael Jackson say about us?
Although he was acquitted, American culture always considered Jackson guilty, and this discrepancy speaks to more than one man’s alleged nefariousness, but to an unspoken but collective belief that the American criminal justice system does not work. That the system is broken, that a celebrity or an exorbitantly wealthy person can manipulate this system to his or her advantage is a commonplace(Consider Donte Stallworth’s 30-day sentence for killing someone while DUI, and at 7 in the morning! Consider Chris Brown’s confession about beating Rihana, and consider his jail-time-less sentence.) What is surprising is that we can’t seem to talk about it (the flawed system). And in this man’s opinion, we accept it because we want it to be flawed. Why? Because, in America if we work hard and keep our nose to the grindstone, one day we too will be wealthy and powerful and outside the limits of jurisprudence. In short, we publicly ridicule Jackson because we envy him, wish that we could (perhaps even in a small way) be him.
While you or I spend most of our time sublimating or transferring desires—you want to experience the carefree feelings of childhood again, so you belt down some cocktails after dinner and “relax,” or I study intensely so that I know that in any social situation I am likely smarter than everybody present about something (or maybe I sling the drinks and you do the studying, does it really matter?)—Jackson seemed to live beyond the edge of wish-fulfillment. He loved Elvis, so he bought the rights to his catalog. (And married Elvis’s daughter.) He wanted a monkey, like just about everyone I know has wanted at some point, so he bought Bubbles. And when he wanted to feel childlike, he bought Neverland Ranch. On CNN, Jeffrey Toobin suggested these decisions were signs of poor mental health, but (and maybe just for a moment) could they not be signs of excellent mental health, of one man’s ability to identify his desires and, because of wealth and a general disregard for cultural norms, act on them? Is that somehow less healthy than our system of id-repression, sublimation, transference, and so on? I don’t know the answer; I’m honestly asking you to consider this. And is marrying Lisa Marie Presley the example of sublimation that wrecks this whole line of questioning? Maybe. But maybe not.
The fallback position, the Alamo of Jackson Vitriol, though, is his alleged abuse of children. As I watched coverage of his death, CNN again and again showed footage from Martin Bashir’s documentary about Jackson, in which Jackson says he sometimes sleeps beside children who are not his own. He does this, he says, to show those children love. (No matter your opinion of the facts about Jackson, you have to think Bashir is a bit of a prig for his moral grandstanding during this scene.) What is your reaction to this statement? Disgust? Outrage? If so, why? Have you never fallen asleep on a couch beside a niece or nephew? Have you never been sneak-attacked in bed by your child and his or her friends at a sleepover? I think it’s important that we know the answer to these questions, and not for Jackson’s memory. Have you ever felt love and compassion when a non-family member or non-lover physically touched you, and do you think of that touch as an assault now? Honestly, it’s a question, not a coded way of saying we should all feel free to run around touching children. We shouldn’t. But consider this: As an educator, my job sometimes becomes crisis management—a student walks into my office having just lost a parent in an accident, having been dumped by a significant other, by catching a serious illness or whatever. As I look at that student (and these students are college-aged), with tears running down his face or her words going staccato as she chokes while trying to talk and simultaneously manage her grief, I know that as a human I should put a hand on a shoulder, touch an elbow, offer a hug to the boy whose father just passed unexpectedly. But I don’t, because I know that (or at least I assume that I know ) some other time, the same situation has occurred in someone else’s office and he has hugged that student but followed it up with something like, “and I know how you can protect your grade through this difficult time.” And in the great American way, because “one apple spoils the whole bunch,” I sit with an “appropriate distance” as the student basically writhes in the chair, suffering.
Isn’t that the same situation with Jacko and the whole sleeping-beside-children thing? Because some people lie down beside children and then bad touch them, we assume that the first step, the lying down, necessarily results in that second step? And what about Bashir’s vehement denial that he does not lie down beside children? Is he so concerned that he’ll lie down next to a child and accidentally assault him or her? That he, as a presumably decent and law-abiding person, might not be able to resist the temptation to sexually assault a child who he happens to lie next to? And what does it mean that we don’t trust a fellow human to be decent anymore, to actually operate based on love and compassion, but instead assume that if the possibility of acting out some depravity could occur, than it will likely occur? Kind of makes you feel like a jerk for laughing at that inevitable ejaculation joke earlier, huh?
Ten or eleven years ago, a friend of mine had front-row tickets to a concert. Sitting beside him, Courtney Cox. When my friend went to the bathroom, he brought back two beers from the bar, one for him and one for (then) Ms. Cox. As he offered one to her, she recoiled slightly (he told me) as though it could be drugged, so he immediately offered the other. He said that he told her, “There are still good people in this world,” so she took the beer and drank it. When the Rohypnol wore off…(Do you see what I did just there, feeding the part of you that still said, Courtney Cox is an idiot for taking a beer from a stranger!) The point is, nothing was in the drink, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t trying to pick her up at the time, either (she was, quite famously, dating the lead singer of the band). He was being nice, using a beer to say “I enjoy your show, thanks for making it.”
I don’t have a grand conclusion about any of this. I just think it would be worth our while to consider why we feel such impassioned hate or anger toward people, how if we might see in that hatred a seed of envy or desire, we might come closer to knowing ourselves and that such self-knowledge might actually make this world a better place. And, well, if it gets just too scary to consider why we immediately assume that any male who lies down beside someone else’s child will probably put his hands where those hands don’t belong, we can always buy ourselves a monkey.
So long, Michael Jackson—we hardly knew you, but if it’s any consolation, we know even less about ourselves.
1Larry King Live had already been scooped, though, as my friend David had posted the same picture to Facebook about an hour earlier.