Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Michael Jackson: "Not This Time."

I've been thinking lately about how ridiculing, demeaning, criticizing and humiliating are weapons of oppression in our country. They are no longer shameful secret tactics used behind closed doors by mentally-ill parents on their helpless and vulnerable children. They now are the favorite public expressions of "the boss" or the persons in charge on most reality shows.

More and more we learn that very successful business owners, CEOs, agents, movie stars, authors, and top-level politicians have apparently achieved their success largely by ridiculing, demeaning, criticizing, and humiliating their competitors and the people over whom they have any authority. We see young ambitious people in all the professions stand up publicly and proclaim that they will enthusiastically not only cheat lie and steal to get ahead, but they volunteer their views on their competitors by openly ridiculing, demeaning, criticizing and humiliating them. "That punk, I'll kick his butt." We even saw some of this in the Max Blumenthal video about privileged young kids in Israel mouthing off demeaning comments about the President of the United States, calling him a "pussy," openly and deliberately trying to humiliate him. Behavior that once would have been unthinkable is more and more openly embraced among certain privileged segments of society

People who were abused as children often end up being abusers themselves. We understand that there is a tragic mimicking of sick behavior, a terrible destruction of lives, created by the abusive parent, destroying the lives of their children, but also creating damage for future generations.

But what about the current popularity of extolling and embracing sick abusive behavior as a part of our public persona? What used to be the hidden, shameful, secret conduct of disturbed parents, usually kept secret by the victim/child who felt ashamed that they were treated horribly, has now been incorporated into the basic training for all of our professions and other high-paid positions. What formerly was considered horrible behavior is how applauded.

Women and minorities, as individuals and as members of a group, are routinely subjected to ridiculing, demeaning, criticizing, and humiliating comments and behavior. These tactics are used by the dominant and powerful groups in our society to rationalize and reinforce the oppression of the minority and weaker groups. Every time we hear men making "jokes" about women's bodies, almost dissecting women and treating them as body parts and objects instead of as human beings, this has the effect of reinforcing the exclusion of women from opportunity in our society. It also creates terrible feelings of both fear and shame in women: fear that their body parts will be attacked or molested, shame that they are publicly humiliated in that fashion.

When I first got out of law school, I worked in a law firm in which one of the partners would invite all the male associates out to lunch once a month. I was the only female associate at the time, and I was never invited. One of the male associates who was a good friend of mine told me that the lunches were horrible, and nobody wanted to go. This partner, who was as uptight, rigid, Republican, racist and sexist as can be imagined, used to spend the whole lunch hour making vulgar comments about the waitress or other women who walked by -- vulgar comments about their breasts and other body parts. No wonder I wasn't invited. This is male-bonding behavior intended to reinforce sexist attitudes, and the exclusion of women.

Another partner in that firm actually made a watermelon joke to me about a black secretary -- behind her back, of course. The privilege felt by professional white men, the obligation almost, to perpetuate the exclusion of women and minorities by ridicule, is widespread, extremely damaging, and ultimately very effective.

I have a friend who is a white male, and in 2008, his "boss" inside a relatively successful mid-sized company had the habit and practice of circulating, at work, by e-mail, disgusting and vulgar drawings of women engaged in sexual activity, as well as horribly racist drawings of Obama. This is not history. This is current and ongoing. Criticizing, ridiculing, demeaning, humiliating women and minorities, in particular, is a weapon used to reinforce sexism and racism, to break down the individual members of the groups as well as deprive the group overall of any sense of self-esteem or dignity.

A refusal to ever praise or acknowledge the merit of anything done by members of these groups is a part of that same tactic. I used to work with an attorney who never praised, never thanked anyone for any work they did for him. It was apparently part of his effort to keep control over his employees. This is a white man born into wealth and privilege, a man whose most creative work in the past 20 years was probably writing up a grocery list for his wife. Yet he never once complemented his secretaries or thanked any of the attorneys who did sometimes remarkable work. It's a tactic. It's intentional. The intent and the effect is to undermine other people, strip them of any sense of worth to make it easier to manipulate and use them. Simply ignore people's achievements, never praise. It works to convince people that maybe their work isn't really that good, maybe they're not that good.

Not only is this true on an individual level, but on a group level as well. When we think of famous American artists, for example, few women or minorities come to mind. Men decide what art is valuable, what art has merit, and they routinely exclude women and minorities from consideration, or they judge them to be inferior. We have so few women or minorities allowed in politics, and they are kept at low levels in most professions, so it's hard to find role models, or people to be proud of in those fields. The history that is taught in our schools ignores most women and minorities, and still generally only praises and discusses the conduct of white men. The failure to praise, refusal to give credit, is itself a form of oppression, a tool intended to prevent women and minorities from every being able to feel good about "their" people.

What does this have to do with Michael Jackson?

We see some groups highly critical of Michael Jackson since his death, only discussing his alleged sexual molestation of children. There are newspaper cartoons showing him going straight to hell, for example. I don't recall ever seeing a newspaper cartoon when Nixon died showing him going straight to hell for the two million Vietnamese who died as a result of the war against Vietnam, a war which he accelerated and enthusiastically supported. I don't recall ever seeing a newspaper cartoon when Reagan died showing him going straight to hell for all the death squads he set up and funded in Central America, and all the people who were murdered because of that. And I don't recall seeing newspaper cartoons showing Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and that whole goon squad they ran with going straight to hell because of the illegal war against Iraq and the torture and murder of innocent victims.

I would never minimize sexual abuse of children. But I sometimes wonder whether our society imposes a harsher, fatal condemnation of any women or black person who allegedly violates some law or norm, in contrast with the known mass murderers who are our heads of state, whose slaughter of people in other countries is always given a pass on their death. White men who kill millions are buried with white rose wreaths and fancy limousines and church choirs, while women or minorities who allegedly harmed one person are condemned to secret burials, pine boxes, insignificant headstones. Not This Time.

I've noticed a really strong cohesive response by leaders throughout the black community in this country, all uniformly praising and supporting Michael Jackson, all using very laudatory words about his body of work, all rejecting any media discussion of the questions about Jackson being a man with severe problems. But the leaders of the black community not only are hushing up any discussion of this, they are praising Michael Jackson and mourning his death as if he was Martin Luther King, Jr., instead of just a pop-singer.

It occurred to me that this is intentional conduct by the black community. Despite the overwhelming contribution of black Americans to music, they do not yet have "their" black American popular performer who can be called, for all time, a "King" of some type.

Michael Jackson was their best bet, and they will not allow white society to take that away from them by the same old tactics of criticizing, ridiculing, demeaning, and humiliating either Michael Jackson himself, or the black community for supporting a man who was flawed in his personal life. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Spike Lee, all the young rap and R&B artists, have made an announcement to white America that they will not allow Michael Jackson to be destroyed by being criticized, demeaned, ridiculed, and humiliated. They will not allow white America to take away from the black community "their" Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, whose name will reign forever alongside the greats such as Sinatra, Elvis, and the Beatles. Not This Time.


  1. Good analysis. It's also interesting that white society only warms to black male personalities when they've been neutralised - or should that be neutered?

    Take Muhammad Ali for example: he was persona non grata because he had opinions and was not afraid to express them. But when Parkinson's laid him low it was suddenly OK for him to light the Olympic flame.

    A full-blooded black male is considered too threatening to white men, but effeminate, ill, old or funny is OK - we're comfortable with that.

  2. Good point. I'm surrounded by boxing fans who worship Muhammed Ali, but I think you're right. Back in the day, he was under severe attack in this country. Now that he's old, weak, ill, everybody loves him.