Ganging Up on Jacko(Reprinted from the issue of December 4, 2003)
The latest uproar about Michael Jackson, which has upstaged far weightier news, recalls a Harvard Lampoon parody of a New York tabloid some years ago. The front page featured a mushroom cloud with the headline NUCLEAR WAR ERUPTS, with the subhead Michael Jackson, 90 Million Others Perish.
Seldom has a celebrity devastated his own superstar status as Jackson has. By comparison he makes O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson seem like a pair of regular guys. After winning fame as a child star in a performing family, he achieved sensational popularity on his own as a versatile entertainer during the 80s; even Fred Astaire admired his dancing.
Then came the kid stuff. He advertised his love of children, building a peculiar entertainment complex (complete with a zoo) for them at his California mansion, and held eyebrow-raising sleepovers for them. But he insisted it was all innocent. It was the innocence of children that he professed to love and foster. But even if you gave him every benefit of doubt, you had to wonder.
Along the way Jackson enjoyed famous friendships with Elizabeth Taylor (who still defends him loyally) and Liza Minnelli and a brief, childless marriage to Elvis Presleys daughter. Another marriage has resulted in two children, and he has adopted a third.
Jacksons arrest for child molestation saddens me more than it shocks me. No doubt he is a seriously weird fellow in more ways than one, and the suspicion of pedophilia has dogged him for many years. In one highly publicized case, he was believed to have escaped criminal charges by paying off a boys parents.
This time hes accused of drugging and sodomizing a boy of 12 a cancer patient yet. By now it would be surprising if he were innocent.
Without in the least condoning the ugly act hes accused of, I cant help feeling pity for Jackson and disgust at the gloating media coverage of the case. Even his harmless eccentricities have made him a figure of cruel derision for most of what I guess we must call his adult life. Its as if hes already been read out of the human race. And after years of cosmetic surgery, he hardly even looks human.
If you compare pictures of him as a little boy, black, round-faced, cheerful, and above all normal, Jackson today appears unrecognizable. His reinvention, to use the fashionable word, seems eerily complete. Even if you subscribe to the maxim Nothing human is alien to me, Michael Jackson is a bit of a test case.
In one notorious incident last year, he was photographed dangling his toddler son (by adoption) upside-down from a balcony. Not exactly the sort of thing weve all done in our weaker moments. At least not for the cameras. Is it the very presence of cameras that provokes Jackson to bizarre behavior?
I cant think of any other explanation. Im not trying to defend him; Im only trying to understand him, and I just cant.
But his enemies arent people whom he has hurt in any way; they are like children taunting an odd child on the playground, making his life miserable for the sheer nasty pleasure of it. If they can find an ostensibly moral pretext for it, they enjoy it all the more. And pedophilia is the perfect excuse.
As it happens, I have an acquaintance who served a prison term for child molestation. He was lucky to survive, because other criminals are notoriously merciless to child molesters and, as the fate of the defrocked priest John Geoghan has recently reminded us, are apt to kill them. I suppose even murderers find it exhilarating to find someone they can feel morally superior to.
The Woman Taken in Adultery
Most of us commit common sins. They may cut us off from God, but they dont cut us off from the human race; they may even strengthen our solidarity with our fellow sinners, either teaching us compassion for weakness or confirming us in the deeper sin of pride.
When we hear of a really egregious sinner, it may be tempting to regard him as a being of a lower order than ourselves. The seductive temptation is to feel that he is worse than we are because he is differently tempted. Mass murderers and child molesters are especially apt to bring out this feeling.
Its a special affliction to face temptations that most people not only never have to feel, but which they look upon as monstrous. Even in the modern media, which celebrate lust far more than they censure it, pedophilia stands in a class by itself. An accused rapist can expect more sympathy than a suspected child molester.
Jacksons case reminds me of my favorite story in the Gospels, the familiar one of the woman taken in adultery. Here was a woman who was caught in what her society considered a really disgraceful and shameful sin (at least for a woman), one that under the law deserved death by stoning. And we all know what our Lord said to her tormentors.
What makes the story so moving to reflect on is that she was caught dead to rights. She was trapped; there was apparently no way out. She was doomed to a death that was not only agonizing, but humiliating.
Her tormentors thought they had our Lord trapped too. He was known for His strict morality; He condemned not only divorce and adultery, but even mere lustful thoughts. At the same time, He (paradoxically) enjoined mercy. So what could He say now?
His answer, though all too familiar to us, must have astounded even His disciples. As much as any of His miracles, it bespoke His divine nature. He gave the mob permission to kill her! With one stipulation: The first stone must be thrown by a sinless man.
This answer was as quick-witted as it was profound. In her shame, the woman saw the tables turned on her would-be executioners. They were shamed into showing mercy. In a flash their own sinful self-righteousness was exposed to them.
As the mob dispersed, Jesus turned tenderly to the woman herself and gave her forgiveness. At that moment she didnt need to be reminded that she had done wrong; she only needed to be told gently that she must try to lead a good life from then on.
Apart from its sublime spiritual truth, the story also offers us the ultimate lesson in tact and good manners. Its easy to forget that our Lord faced what was simply a very awkward situation, which He handled so perfectly that, knowing the upshot, we can hardly imagine any other outcome.
If Michael Jackson is guilty as charged, he deserves severe punishment. All the same, the mob spirit of his detractors is one of the most repulsive parts of the story. They seem to hate the sinner worse than the sin itself.
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