Thursday, July 9, 2009

So, my friend told me I had it all wrong about Michael Jackson....

Instead of the sad and neurotic kid I had always seen, overwhelmed by stardom at too early and age, my twenty-something friend Endri sees Jackson as an almost prophetic world figure whose image was tarnished by false accusations and media hounding.

Of course, there's no reason both opinions can't be true. Certainly the young Jackson was astounding in his ability to captivate audiences, and the adolescent Jackson supple and creative both in his moves and his music. But even in those early music videos something made me uneasy, as Michael started appearing as a quasi-savior or demi-god. What was going on in the boy’s brain?

Early stardom—any stardom!—is perilous to psyche and soul. And this man was a world star like no other before him—the best-selling musician of the last 30 years. So, as news reports in the last two decades about the young man’s private life came out—the eating disorders, the extravagant spending, the kid-dream of a Neverland for a grown man to play in, then the allegations of child abuse—both my wife and I felt, with some compassion, that being forced by media-driven parents into his stardom had wrecked the poor kid.

Endri wasn’t about to let this impression go unchallenged. He had grown up with Michael's music and messages. While not star-struck, he had a more informed opinion about this songster's place among the modern bards, some of them actually carriers of prophetic messages the Spirit seeks to get into the world through any channel She can find. She’s not nearly as picky as the ordination committees of the denominations, who, to give them their due, have a different set of responsibilities. But then, neither Jacob nor Joseph, Jeremiah and certainly not Ezekiel would have passed the standard examination.

Which brings us back to Jackson, wounded meteor that he was. Be clear, I'm not suggesting Jackson was a saint, or even a prophet. But after a few short bursts of Endri's testimony to Michael's influence on him, and one heart-wrenching video, Earth Song, about the environmental crisis, war victims, and elephant-murder, I decided his output was worth reconsidering.

My instant Michael-education continued after the video: Had I considered what a hero he was to African-American kids,to say nothing of the white teens. And about how many of them got his social concern messages along with the highly stylized, sexy, boy-man androgyny, flashy costumes, shoes and famous moon-walk? Did I know his songs addressed world hunger, homelessness, drugs and AIDS as well as desire and denial, risk and repression? Did I know about all the money and advocacy he devoted to call attention to AIDS in Africa, when the world was still ignoring the plague? Had I ever heard of the “Heal the World” Foundation and the support of thirty-nine charities? I hadn’t.

So I did my own quick internet review of Jackson musical videos, and this is what I think I saw: increasingly, Michael appears in different guises, but with a common quasi-savior theme. Even as early as Beat It, he, or his music, brings peace in a tense multi-ethnic gang situation, and preaches interracial harmony. Over the years he becomes a kind of Orpheus, taming the beast in us, a cosmic Child, even a Savior-figure. Often he is the Androgyne, a sacred mythological figure, often shamanic, oracular. In Earth Song, Michael appears apocalyptically in a burning forest, tied to two poles in unmistakable crucifixion-stance, singing a passionate prayer to God, and to us:

Did you ever stop to notice,
All the children dead from war?
Did you ever stop to notice,
The crying Earth, the weeping shores?

Michael’s prayer resurrects forests, ends wars, raises elephants from death.

One might be tempted to dismiss these as messianic fantasies, and perhaps they were, in part. But that would be to ignore the more complex mystery of our times. Perhaps the semi-crucified songster had been overwhelmed by the archetypes he wore. Overwhelmed by earth's conflict and pain. How many of us know earth’s travail is daily there, but conveniently screen it out?

Michael, manifestly, didn’t, and prophetic messengers seldom have a happy life. Jung warns that the visionary (so also the creative person) is in danger of being “consumed” by the archetype pressing upon him or her. Did Jackson get lost in the midst of all that pressed in on him——the huge crowds of adoring fans, the pressure of world pain? He prays to God, in Hold Me:

Everyone’s Taking Control Of Me
Seems That The World’s Got A Role For Me
I’m So Confused....

These words speak not only for his confusion, but for the feelings of millions of those kids who grew up in an age when the world's increasing crisis was blared every day on TV and even taught in school.

It’s all too easy to see Jackson’s death by apparent over-mixture and overdose of prescription drugs as the sad end of a disturbed kid who never had a chance to grow up. Certainly that's what his critics (and they are legion) say. But that would, most likely, be to miss the main point: his influence on generations that are now called to deal with the problems he highlighted.

What will the fruit of his singing will be? That depends on how it awakens and moves those who heard the messages rather than, like heedless me, saw only the flaws in the messenger.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

So, Sarah Palin resigned, and the Eastern press laughs in scorn...

“How inept can she be? . . .And her hastily-arranged press conference—what a hoot! . . . The lady still can’t put one word in front of another without stumbling over them.”

Is the allegedly “elitist” press corps truly that deaf to the heartbeat of reactionary patriotism? So highly refined that sentence structure is what matters?

Sometimes I feel that I am destined, or doomed, to be the embodiment of the “culture wars gap” — the great distance which divides the Northeast and the liberal Coastal cities from the so-called Heartland. With deep roots in the conservative, fundamentalist South, I am a cultural refugee-convert to the Northeast, a progressive Christian in the Episcopal Church. Pretty far from a Palin supporter.

But when Gail Collins’ opines with ironic glee that “Sarah Palin has come a long way....Now (even) the prepared remarks are incoherent,” half of me smirks along with her, and the other half feels she just doesn’t get it at all. Not the way this will play to Palin’s enthusiastic base of supporters, many of whom agree with Sarah’s conviction that God has destined her to be President. (Which, by the way, is one of my nightmares. Remember, I’m a “refugee” from Sarah-Land.)

How is Collins’—and many other commentators—wrong, even if their cleverness is Oh So Right On? Let me count the ways:

Well, among the Alaskan governor’s alleged “incoherent” remarks are the following:

'Life is about choices' declared the nation’s most anti-choice politician. Sorry, Gail; right, but wrong. “Choices” equals “freedom” as in land of the free and home of the brave. Code word. Sure, Sarah supports what liberals call “anti-choice.” Sarah calls it “pro-life.” One language: two divergent vocabularies.

She babbled about her parent’s refrigerator magnet which apparently had a lot of wise advice. Gail; the magnet says “Don’t explain: Your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe you anyway.” Maybe Gail doesn’t relish refrigerator magnets, or hers reflect her many travels, but out there in middle America religious and moral sentiments abide. That parental magnet speaks powerfully of the feelings of an embattled minority whose sentiments are considered “incoherent” by the cogniscenti.

Palin’s stated desire to save Alaska the "waste of millions of dollars" over alleged charges of ethical misconduct is seen as a possible get-out-of-town-quick move before another scandal breaks. Gail hopes it will be an adulterous affair—smirk, smirk. Again, she misses the code words: "government waste." Palin campaigned to make state government more “efficient and effective.” She has, in her telling of it, been hounded out of office by “politics as usual,” by “media hounding” and by “enemies.” Code words. Code words. Code words.

Code words galore:

“to build up, not to tear down” (well-known quote from the Bible);
“fruitfulness and productivity”;
“industrious, generous, patriotic people”
“ take the RIGHT path...though it is UNCONVENTIONAL.”

Code words, not incoherence. Forget the sentence structure. Liberals seem to believe that clear thinking will win any struggle. Truth be told, not everybody can think all that clearly, and thinking isn’t the only form of “smart” around. As e.e. cummings said in a very different context: ....since feeling is first, whoever pays any attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you....

Palin knows how to kiss. How to kiss the sore places in the psyches of people who feel America has been headed down the wrong road since the 1960s. How to kiss the fearful hearts who believe that moral “apostasy” invites the wrath of God. How to kiss the bruises of those who feel the Establishment looks on them with scorn. She’s their icon.

If those of us in Obamaland really think the threat of a serious right-wing takeover of America has disappeared, we are paying too much attention to getting our syntax right, and missing the drumbeats going strong out there in the nation’s hinter-heartland. Sarah made it big in the headlines today, the 4th of July. That was no miscalculation on her part.

She is the dream girl of an impassioned minority of Americans this very Independence Day. Gail, northeasterners, liberals, take note! And, for God’s sake, don’t laugh.

For Gail Collins' NY Times Op-Ed piece, go to: