Between Image and Reality: America’s media response to Michael Jackson

There is plenty of commentary to be offered on the obsessive response of America’s media to the death of Michael Jackson. You have to hand it to Congressman Peter King, who, albeit it in a very undiplomatic way, expressed what many are feeling. At the very least, Michael Jackson was an accused pedophile, a bizarre caricature of a self-loathing Black man whose hatred of his own skin and features led him to multiple acts of self-mutilation, a serious substance abuser, and, to put it generously, a very, very strange version of an adult. From whence all the adoration?

I know, I know, and I agree. He was a brilliant talent, a peerless dancer and gifted singer who changed the course of popular music. All true and beyond dispute.

But at the risk of being politically incorrect, I am most fascinated by the response of large sectors of the African-American community who seem both willing and perfectly able to set aside Jackson’s obvious flaws to focus on his “greatness.” Al Sharpton, in his eulogy for Jackson, said something to the effect of these words to Jackson’s children: “There was nothing strange about your daddy. What was strange was what he had to deal with.” And he got a standing ovation when he said that!

Rev. Sharpton- do you really believe that? And if you do, how?

To dig myself further into a politically incorrect hole, this whole thing is not altogether different from the African American response to the O. J. Simpson verdict, when White America was largely horrified, and a significant percentage of Black America saw it as a victory of an African- American icon (he may well have been the greatest running back of his time) against the White establishment. They were completely able to set aside the overwhelming probability that Simpson was a cold-blooded and brutal murderer to celebrate his victory.

Even allowing for an extreme application of the Christian idea of separating the sin from the sinner, it’s hard to dissociate Jackson’s musical and dancing genius from his persona, which was part and parcel of his act. And I still don’t know how to even begin to understand the response to Simpson’s verdict.

When I superimpose my rabbinic perspective on all this, I am reminded of Moses, who was denied his fondest dream- entrance to the Promised Land- for what at least on the surface presented as a fairly garden- variety sin. I know, the ancient rabbis read much more into his striking the rock instead of speaking to it, as God had commanded him to do, but they had to, in order to justify the cruel punishment that God meted out. And Aaron’s two oldest sons, who died tragically for bringing an “alien fire” in the desert sanctuary… they were never again mentioned in the Torah without an accompanying reference to their sin. No separating the sin from the sinner in either instance.

It’s pretty clear that, in our tradition, we are obliged to own up to our actions, and to acknowledge that who and what we are is a matter of choice. Of course there are behaviors that are beyond our control, true compulsions, psychoses, and the like. But by and large, most who fall into sin and wrongdoing are called to responsibility for their actions. We don’t ignore the darker side of people, even in high places…. especially in high places! And if there are those in our community who would- and occasionally there are- I would hope that we have learned to challenge them.

Genius, when it is taken away, should always be missed. Michael Jackson’s art should be missed. Who he was, and what he came to be, should not.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.