The ‘Michael Jacksons’ and All Their Infuriating Complexity

by Meta Wagner

11 August 2009

Maybe it’s more fun to idolize or demonize public figures than to have more complex, mixed feelings about them.

This is not a piece about Michael Jackson.

Alright, I’ll admit that the entire premise of this column rests upon Michael Jackson’s “unusual” life, and that the article would probably not have been written had he not died, and that I tried to fool you into reading it by playing to your sick-of-all-things-Michael Jackson animus. But, I swear, it’s not really about him per se. 

This is also not a cautionary tale about the usual suspects when it comes to celebrities who die young: the dangers of drug abuse or the perils of fame or the consequences of being yessed to death (literally).

It’s about the complexity, the nuance, the paradox of human nature, and the difficulty people seem to have in seeing people for who they are: the good, the bad, and the ugly all rolled into one being, in this case Michael Jackson who by nature and by design, embodied dualities like no other celebrity in the history of celebrityhood.  He was a:

  • brilliant entertainer but a troubled person

  • vital performer and a depleted drug addict

  • child advocate and an alleged pedophile

  • husband two times but a man who presumably was not sexually interested in women

  • breaker of racial barriers but a cosmetic surgery addict who strove to look less black

  • cute child but a freakish-looking adult

  • man who displayed a large number of feminine traits

  • a friend of Paul McCartney’s who outbid McCartney for the rights to his own songs

  • person who preached love for all people yet used anti-Semitic song lyrics (“Jew me”, “kike me”)

  • publicity seeker who pleaded with the media to leave him alone

  • So, who was the real Michael Jackson? All of the above of course! But you’d never know it from the way people, generally, and the media in particular have been talking about him for the past couple of decades. And you’d certainly never know it from the tributes to him at his memorial.

    Now, granted, it’s common practice for people to speak well of the dead. But the Reverend Al Sharpton didn’t just engage in omission, he purposely presented Michael Jackson as someone other than who he was.  In remarks addressed directly to Jackson’s three children (for which he received a standing ovation), he said, “There weren’t nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with but he dealt with it. ”

    Sure, that was a gesture of kindness toward the children on Sharpton’s part, but why is it so difficult for public figures to acknowledge that Michael Jackson was both strange and treated strangely?  Aren’t both 100 percent true?

    This need—it almost seems like a compulsion—to treat people as one thing or another (but never both) was on proud display even more recently at the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. From the moment President Obama announced her as his choice, the labeling game began, with Rush Limbaugh and others immediately denouncing her as a “racist” and then a “reverse racist”.  These charges stemmed in part from a speech she gave at University California, Berkeley, School of Law that included the following passage:

    Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences… our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O’Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases… I am [also] not so sure that I agree with the statement. First… there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.

    The speech, by the way, was entitled “A Latina Judge’s Voice”, and was meant to explore the positive impact diversity could have on the courts and to inspire Latina law students to become judges one day.

    During the three days of publicized hearings, I turned to MSNBC or NPR at random intervals and every single time I heard Judge Sotomayor being questioned about the “wise Latina woman” comment.  After repeated attempts to explain the comment and place it in context, she finally resorted to doing some labeling of her own, calling the remark “bad”. 

    Naturally, this was politics, and politics sometimes plays to our basest instincts. But that’s the point.  Politicians understand that one of our “base instincts” is to judge people and issues on a black-or-white, this-or-that basis, and so they attempted to paint Judge Sotomayor as someone who might not be able to apply the law with impartiality.  Add to that the media’s reliance on sound bites and, despite the fact that she was confirmed as the next Supreme Court Justice, Sotomayor’s name will forever be linked with one phrase, as if that one phrase represents the sum total of who she is as a person or a jurist.

    Maybe we’re just lazy, and it’s easier to judge people on an either-or basis.  Maybe it’s more fun to idolize or demonize public figures than to have more complex, mixed feelings about them. Or maybe we never outgrew the childish desire to have the world presented to us in simple terms, so that it seems more predictable and less frightening: he is this / she is that, I love him / I hate her—end of discussion.

    Michael Jackson likened himself to Peter Pan, even naming his estate Neverland Ranch, because he didn’t want to grow up.  Maybe it’s time the rest of us did – grow up, that is—and learn to truly see and, imagine, understand people for who they are, in all their infuriating complexity.

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