I cannot turn away from Michael Jackson
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 January 2004)

The self-scripted drama of Michael Jackson, the 45-year-old black singer who tries to look and act like a white 15-year-old, recently entered a new phase in a courtroom in Santa Maria, a small city in a broccoli-farming belt of southwestern California. Usually the biggest events in Santa Maria are the strawberry festival and the Elks rodeo, but this winter Jackson made the place famous. Police claim that on Neverland, his estate nearby, he committed nine sex crimes with a boy under 14, crimes that could carry a long prison sentence.

The courtroom has become the great arena of our time, the place where society and the individual reveal themselves. In courtrooms, sadness and anxiety build up until they become the air everyone breathes. An unremarkable man learns that his community takes drunk drinking seriously and his life is ruined; or learns instead that he's got away with it once more. People discover that they are to be known forever as the villains in their marriage break-up, or the losers in a long-running property dispute, or perhaps winners in some wildly imaginative suit against a corporation that did them wrong. A casual visitor may imagine that nothing significant is happening in any given courtroom (the lawyers try their best to bore; their favourite word is "uh") but someone considers the case a matter of resounding significance.

In such a place, Michael Jackson's life will, all going as the prosecution intends, be displayed and examined. Self-display has been Jackson's habit for decades, first as a child star manipulated by his father and then on his own calculated terms. He's become such a bundle of affectations that we can easily make the mistake of thinking he's unique, therefore unrelated to humanity at large, therefore unimportant. In fact, he's a parody of contemporary desires, a parody that illuminates harsh truth.

His way of life demonstrates that he absorbs common obsessions and exaggerates them. Others may see him as a caricature, but he apparently imagines he's simply extending what's normal.

If millions of people consider cosmetic nose surgery acceptable, Jackson embarks on a long-term program of self-renovation that all but obliterates his nose. If society is obsessed with white and black skin, Jackson bleaches his so thoroughly that it must be protected from the sun with the utmost care. If much of humanity strives desperately to appear young, Jackson makes it his lifelong project to look and talk as much like a child as possible; though well into middle age, he seems never to have imagined that growing up is inevitable and even pleasurable.

Moreover, when everyone agrees that standard sex roles are weakening, he moves a major step further by becoming an androgyne, wearing his hair in the manner of an old movie actress and talking like a teenaged girl of two generations ago.

Exuberant star egos are excused and celebrated everywhere, so Jackson carries self-intoxication to new levels. At Santa Maria he became possibly the first accused felon in history to celebrate his charges. He blew kisses to a crowd he had recruited, danced on top of his SUV, and invited his fans to a post-arraignment party at his ranch. (The fans sang his songs and chanted "We love you, Michael.") In the past, celebrities accused of sex crimes tried to stay out of sight. Fatty Arbuckle (1887-1933), the first such star, set the pattern. A major figure in silent films, he moved quietly through his trial for manslaughter in the death of a woman he allegedly raped. Though declared innocent, he became a pariah who seldom worked again.

An accusation of this kind has traditionally been considered a permanent curse, but Jackson treats it as an enhancement of his fame. He obviously has a fragile grip on reality, or knows something about public opinion that the rest of us don't. Can he imagine that being charged with abusing a child makes him more exciting?

These elements add a heavy crust of meaning to his trial, but Jackson has imported even more themes into his story. Though he's tried to make himself white he now claims the police treat him badly because he's black, and his brother Jermaine calls his arrest a "lynching." Jackson is thus establishing himself as a victim, with only a little more overstatement than many others making that claim. And Islam has not been left out of the narrative. The Nation of Islam, the black separatist movement, has been brought in to provide security and management services. Their sinister presence adds yet another dimension to the trial.

It's been said that Jackson's story has attracted too much news coverage. But when you consider how many subjects of genuine importance rise to the surface in the events at Santa Maria, it's hard to imagine journalists expressing anything short of deep interest. How could they not cover it in detail? For my part, I've found the story riveting as well as appalling and expect to follow much more of it. How, in fact, could anyone not be fascinated by such a revealing glimpse of human life at the beginning of the 21st century?

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