Wednesday, July 8, 2009

(No.38) Mindless celebrity worship

In a previous post (No.36) to RickardsRead.com I shared a few critical comments about the immediate media reaction to  the death of Michael Jackson, comments which were published by The Globe and Mail in my letter to the editor (June 29).

I write this column on the evening of a day (July 7) on which I tried to focus on consequential news instead of the 'tributes' which have been part of the countless 'celebrations of the life' of Michael Jackson dominating the media. The biggest act of this multi-day obsession has been the 'memorial' staged in the Staples Arena in Los Angeles and broadcast by at least 16 television channels in the US. The events of the last few days have combined to make the public excess on display in the days following the death of Princess Diana look almost rational.

My screed is not about the waste of news space, resources, energy and time on something so ephemeral as the drug-induced death of an American pop star. Rather it is about the unworthiness of the object of all this attention, the elevation of an alleged child molester to the supposed 'iconic' status invoked by so many commentators on Jackson's life. 

In the US it seems that someone who points to this contradiction as did U.S. congressman Peter King, a Republican from Long Island NY who posted his blunt assessment of Jackson on YouTube, had better duck. I watched one of CNN's 'talking heads' defend Jackson and respond to King's critical comments by accusing him of having been a supporter of the IRA.  Non sequitur anyone? Then he and another pro-Jackson panelist, while  still seeking to elevate him to some sort of secular sainthood, admitted they would not have left their children in the same room with him!  I kid you not.

For those appearing on American and Canadian television who could be diverted from their Jacksonian hagiography long enough to actually contemplate what they are doing, their defence is essentially this: 'we are celebrating Michael's important legacy as a cultural figure'. They can do this apparently without any ethical hesitation -- praise the man but ignore the fact that his life was offensive on several levels. Fine but one wonders if some or all of these same people would be as prepared to accept the making of the same distinction between the literary stature of, say, Ezra Pound or Louis-Ferdinand Celine and their unsavoury politics. 

The most incisive analysis I have heard or read about Jackson since his death on June 24 came from Bob Herbert, a liberal columnist for the New York Times and (lest I be accused of merely quoting another white man) I note that he is a black American. Such relatively rare critical comments in the days following Jackson's death have been swamped by the flood of mindless celebrity worship and have been all but ignored by the US media in this latest, nauseating manifestation of our celebrity culture.

"Jackson was the perfect star for the era, the embodiment of fantasy gone wild," wrote Herbert (NYT, July 4, 2009). Jackson was "talented but psychologically disabled to the point where he was a danger to himself and others. Reality is unforgiving. There is no escape. Behind the Jackson facade was the horror of child abuse. Court records and reams of well-documented media accounts contain a stream of serious allegations of child sex abuse and other inappropriate behavior with very young boys. Jackson ... was excused as an eccentric. Small children were delivered into his company, to spend the night in his bed, often by their parents.

"One case of alleged pedophilia against Jackson, the details of which would make your hair stand on end, was settled for $25 million. He beat another case in court. The Michael-mania that has erupted since Jackson's death -- not just an appreciation of his music, but a giddy celebration of his life -- is yet another spasm of the culture opting for fantasy over reality. We don't want to look under the rock that was Jackson's real life."

To which I say "amen". 

Alastair Rickard

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca