June 25th was the second anniversary of Michael Jackson's death and many radio and TV programs featured retrospectives of his work. His work seems almost inexhaustible, from his childhood days with the Jackson's and Motown in the 60's, through the glory days of "Thriller" in the 80's, to his creative wanderings during the first decade of the 21st century. His nearly half-century of creative output remains enormously popular.
Sadly, Jackson's legacy is tainted by claims of illicit sexual behavior. The media long presented his sexuality as idiosyncratic, the subject of much speculation, titillation and outright lies. It ranged from PR-sounding depictions of a passionate husband and father of two offspring to a sad tale of an asexual childlike introvert, a long-suffering and sexually stunted victim of childhood abuse.
Even though he was acquitted of pedophilia charges in 2005 after a much-publicized trial and his accusers, Evan Chandler and son Jordan Chandler, admitted (after Jackson's death) lying in order to extort money from him, Jackson is still tainted by public shame. As Chandler the younger declared, "Now for the first time I can't bare to lie anymore. Michael Jackson didn't do anything to me, all was my father lies to escape from being poor."
Public shaming is one of the most pernicious aspects of contemporary media culture and popular morality. It includes the ridicule heaped on a growing number of politicians for their inappropriate (but not illegal) sexual conduct. Anthony Weiner and Christopher Lee, two New York State Congressmen, are recent casualties of their own inappropriate online erotic displays. Such shame shadows Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, David Vitter and Eliot Spitzer. But it goes deeper.
Public shaming is the lingering bad-taste of patriarchal, puritanical values defining interpersonal sexual relations that persist in the post-modern, secular world. It persists against a background in which New York State legalized same sex marriage and the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects young people playing violent videogames.
Jackson joins a growing list of media personalities, including entertainers, politicians, athletes and other celebrities, who have suffered sex shaming. These individuals have been publicly ridiculed for appearing to be abnormal, for not conforming to contemporary sexual conventions. Woody Allen was shamed for his marriage to his adult adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Pee Wee Herman was busted for jerking-off' in a porn theatre. Even The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson (Fergie), was ostracized for a photo of a questionable sexual act. The practice of public shaming is not a new phenomenon. In the 1920's Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was tried for the murder of a woman who died days after attending a party he hosted. Charlie Chaplin for allegedly violating the Mann Act (a US anti-trafficking law) for paying the train fair of his former mistress. In the 1950's William "Big Bill" Tilden was arrested for soliciting an under-aged male prostitute. All occurred under a flurry of media hype and galvanized much public attention.
In these, and many other cases, individuals suffered a common fate. Jackson, Chaplin and Arbuckle were tried and acquitted during highly publicized trials. Herman and Tilden were arrested and convicted for relatively minor crimes. Allen and Fergie were hounded over unacceptable behavior. In such cases, the shaming persisted long after the individual incident occurred.
In each case, the victims suffered from what can only be called the "O.J. effect." O.J. Simpson was acquitted of dual murders following one of the most highly publicized murder trials of the second-half of the 20th century, a trial covered live on TV. Nevertheless, in the wake of the jury verdict, nearly everyone believed then ' and still believes today ' that he was guilty of the murders.
This lingering sense of guilt, the "O.J. effect," persists as a socially exploited sense of shame. It's time to let Michael Jackson rest in peace.