Because I work in a newspaper office, I couldn't fully escape the Jackson funeral games. That's a sad statement to make, but they keep the TV tuned to a news channel, and Jackson had been determined to be the dominant news of the day. I don't spend too much time in the newsroom, actually, but I had the dumb luck to be there when Rev. Sharpton spoke. From him I learned that "Michael Jackson taught the world to love," and other audiences might be forgiven for believing, on the strength of Sharpton's oration, that Jackson had freed the slaves and ended Jim Crow while he was at it. The Rev. also observed that, despite all adversities, "Michael Jackson never stopped," but this was indisputably the most fraudulent of his assertions, for if Jackson had not stopped, so to speak, then what was everyone doing in that arena yesterday?
If Michael Jackson had indeed been an example of love to the world, his lessons were lost on the likes of Sharpton, who has spent much of the last fortnight seeming to force the world to love the late entertainer. He pushed his way to the forefront of mourning, not so much as the chief mourner, but as someone determined to enforce general mourning among the entire population. He and others seemed determined as a matter of cultural politics that Jackson should be recognized as at least equal to Elvis Presley, and preferably as greater. Insufficient acknowledgment of Jackson's greatness could be attributed only to one cause, which was why Sharpton kept grumbling about an alleged double standard that subjected Jackson to post-mortem scrutiny of his private life while unnamed others were supposedly exempt. This case was overstated. My childhood recollection of the year 1977 was that Presley's body had barely begun to cool when gossip spread everywhere about his drug use and other follies. It has hardly been different for celebrities since, of all races.
If anything, Sharpton's pre-emptive defensiveness provoked some of the smears he complained about. For him to tell people not to speak ill of someone was practically an invitation to some people to do just that, simply to show that they would not take moral instruction from such a man. Such a thought may even have provoked Rep. King's controversial outburst, which will be forgotten sooner than some believe today. If King had to worry about what black people or Michael Jackson fans thought of him, he probably wouldn't have his current job. In any event, it may just be a vestige of monotheist culture even among secular folk like myself that makes our necks stiffen when someone seems to order us to bow before the idol of the moment. At the same time, some people were going to speak ill of Jackson no matter what, either to play the troll or from a sincere belief that his assumed crimes disqualified him from any public honor. At the same time, cultural politics were in play, especially when it became obvious that the public mourning for Jackson would surpass what had been done for nearly every other entertainer in history. That provoked envy from people who felt that their favorites were greater than Jackson. This was Mr. Duff's attitude when he made a surprise post-retirement appearance in the office yesterday. He's of the generation that revered Elvis, whom he praised for singing actual words, e.g., "You ain't nothin' but a hound dawg." I tried to remind him that "ain't ain't a word," but this advice was lost on him.
Ideally, there's nothing wrong with the idea of respect for the dead and especially respect for a bereaved family. People can think what they like of Michael Jackson, but it really would be unseemly to publicize their opinions while others are honestly heartbroken and in need of consolation. In retrospect, we can play a chicken-and-egg game to decide whether Jackson's detractors or worshippers went overboard first. But once the mourning became a public event with cultural implications, civil society inevitably had to make room for dissenting viewpoints, whether anyone really liked it or not. When so many people insisted that we all loved Michael Jackson, or that we all should, the opposition was entitled to say that they didn't, and even that you shouldn't. It's my own view that individuals can earn infamy and deserve hatred, and that the idea of respect, whether it applies to a dead person or to a political office, must have limits if it isn't meant simply to censor legitimate indignation. I do not accept that respect for the office of the President of the United States requires me not to despise or curse George W. Bush, and I can't accept that respect for the dead requires us to forget the scandals of the famous when people on podiums are declaring them saints. In any event, history is on my side. Of all the histories of Roman emperors written under the empire, it's probably no accident that one of the most scandal-laden, that of Suetonius, is one of the few to survive today. Over time, scandal becomes inseparable from legend, as the legends of Elvis, JFK, Marilyn Monroe and many more will show us. The vices of the poor are forgotten, but the price of fame for many who aspire to it is that their scandals will long outlive them.