Monday, July 6, 2009

Polarization and Michael Jackson

So I’ve tried to stay silent on the whole Michael Jackson issue, but I simply can’t any longer. It’s not so much the death or associated drama, rather, it’s the posturing of celebrities and media that I simply can’t shake.

Take for instance the recent article by Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and the response to his article by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement. Texts can be found here and here. Short summations:
Rabbi Boteach: Was a friend of Jackson’s and believed he was a good person, one who was partially a victim of circumstances, but none-the-less someone Rabbi Boteach writes, whose death is an “American tragedy.”
Rabbi Yoffie: He’s a child molester, what more do you need to know?!?

Yes, these are over simplified summations so I encourage you to read the text for yourself. What I want to focus on is the black and white nature, the absolutism that is going on here. I’ve complained about this for years now and we only seem to be entrenching it further in our lives. We make absolutist statements declaring something either this or that, black or white, good or evil, without ever accepting the notion that most of the world and our lives are lived in the gray part that lies between. Being a self avowed Bush hater (W, not Sr.), I do blame much of this rhetoric on him and his neo-con cohorts. His decree to other nations from November, 2001 of “you’re either with us or against us” carried over to the domestic agenda. The clever play inserted only two options into American media and culture: Either you’re for the war and support our troops or you support terrorism, period. There are no other choices. Those who vocalized their support of our troops, but their opposition to the war were immediately and summarily labeled as soft on terrorists. (As a short aside, how many of the terrorists from 9/11 were from Iraq or trained in Iraq again? ‘Nuf said.) There was no acknowledgement of a middle ground, somewhere you could support our troops, love America, bleed red, white and blue, yet disagree with the policies of the then President. Forget the hypocrisy, forget the politics, forget the emotions; rather, think about the statements in and of themselves. Do we really want to become a nation of absolutists? Isn’t that one of the tactics the hardliners in Iran and elsewhere used to take complete control of those countries?

So back to Michael Jackson. Why is it he’s either a pop icon and a “noble spirit,” someone whose tragedy should be looked upon and the question asked, “Was there no one to save him from himself?” clearly portraying him as a victim; OR, he’s a child molester who should be held accountable for his actions and remembered by this and shown to be the perfect example of how not to live your life? Isn’t there some in-between in there somewhere?

We need to address this issue as all others that face us in our lives. Although it’s easier to label something black or white, good or bad, making it a one or a zero thus forcing a digitized version of our world view, for in doing so we cut lose so much of what life is made. We live in gray areas and experience the world in shades, some gravitating to one side or the other, but very few falling solidly in one convenient bucket. We like those buckets though because making something either this or that is easier. We can avoid the hard questions and the spiritual and moral dilemmas that come along with dipping our toes into the gray.

Michael Jackson was an immensely talented performer, one who clearly influenced a generation and whose influences will continue to be felt decades after his death. His music inspired and comforted millions upon millions of people the world over. For this he will be missed. But he was also a flawed man, one who had difficulty facing up to the consequences of his actions. In the end, he and he alone was responsible for his inappropriate acts. For this he should serve as a warning to others and a disappointment to fans.

I’m not failing down the slippery slope of situational ethics or moral relativism as some would warn. We must agree that there are certain constants of objective ethics we all adhere to regardless of religion, creed or nationality. After all, that’s what our social contract is based upon. What I am saying is we cannot allow ourselves as a nation to continue to fall down the rabbit hole of absolutes. Account for all sides of an issue, and know that sometimes the answer really does fall in that tough gray area.

1 comment:

Shira said...

Michael Kimmelman (art critic, reporter for the New York Times) has written that modern media constructs messages that are "immediately obvious." Messages that take little or no effort to comprehend. Think a CNN sound bite or 'got milke' ad. Consequently there has been an elimination of ambiguity in media. As we are trained to this type of one-dimensional message, when we are confronted with ambiguity or "shades of gray" as you would have it, we do not handle it well. I agree with Kimmelman and I agree with you.

BTW, it was nice meeting you on Tuesday night.