Behind the headlines on Michael Jackson
By Leslie Feinberg
The plight and suffering of children and
teenagers who are subjected to sexual and other forms of abuse
cannot be relieved by a reactionary campaign to foment racism,
anti-gay bigotry and hatred of gender and sex variance.
It's imperative to keep this reality in the political
forefront as sensationalized media coverage about Michael
Jackson's arrest dominates the news.
On Nov. 19--the day Epic Records released a collection of
Jackson's greatest-musical hits--police armed with a search
warrant carried out a 12-hour raid on Jackson's ranch and
amusement park. The next day, Jackson turned himself in to
authorities, was booked on felony charges of sexual abuse of a
13-year-old, and was released after posting bail.
The facts about the case have not yet been fully revealed.
Nevertheless, Jackson has already been virtually tried and
convicted by the media.
The Santa Barbara County prosecutor's office will not file
formal charges until late November.
The 45-year-old African American, a child star as the lead
singer of the Jackson Five, is a legendary, internationally
renowned pop star. Since the late 1980s, he has been the brunt
of public ridicule in the media for having an increasingly
"womanly" appearance and complex gender expression.
He has been dogged by tabloid scandal and a district
attorney since 1993. At that time, Tom Sneddon, the district
attorney of Santa Barbara, Calif., tried to bring charges
against Jackson, alleging sexual abuse of a 13-year-old
Sneddon, a prosecutor nicknamed Mad Dog, "first came to
international prominence when he investigated child molestation
accusations against Jackson in 1993-94. The singer was
reportedly stripped naked and photographed as part of the
investigation." (AFP, Nov. 21)
But no charges were ever filed. Jackson settled financially
with the boy's family, saying he wanted to avoid a long court
However a Lexus search of keywords "Tom Sneddon" and
"Michael Jackson" between 1994 and 2001 reveals that the
district attorney has continued to hound Jackson in the media.
The perception of a vendetta by the district attorney and
demonstrable media bias have led Jackson's family, many
prominent African American entertainers and political leaders,
and fans of all nationalities to voice their outrage.
In a statement by the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Rev. Jesse
Jackson said that Michael Jackson was being tried by the media
and expressed his organization's "grave concerns" about how the
Santa Barbara district attorney's office is handling this
The civil rights leader described the raid of the Neverland
ranch by more than 70 police--some in flak jackets--accompanied
by doctors and an ambulance as "overkill." Jesse Jackson added
that during the Nov. 19 news conference by the sheriff's
department about the arrest warrant, Sneddon "proceeded to make
several jokes which were completely inappropriate."
Jermaine Jackson said his family supports his brother
Michael. "This is nothing but a modern-day lynching."
The singer's mother, Catherine Jackson, told the online
version of Germany's Bunte magazine on Nov. 24 that there are
two interpretations of the law in the United States: "one for
whites and one for Blacks."
Media coverage of Michael Jackson, both before and after
these formal charges, has been damning, lurid and seemingly
unending. Television stations pre-empted normal broadcasts for
After Jackson voluntarily turned himself in to authorities
at the Santa Barbara airport, media helicopters hovered in the
air as a convoy of police cars and other vehicles escorted him
to the county jail. More than one pundit referred to the
procession as reminiscent of the slow-speed car chase that
preceded O.J. Simpson's 1994 arrest on murder charges.
Over 100 reporters and photographers thronged outside the
county jail as sheriffs brought in the 120-pound singer with
his hands manacled behind his back.
A Nov. 22 New York Times editorial judged that "there is no
doubt that Mr. Jackson is guilty of trying too hard to protect
his innocence," which it defined as a child-like
An inordinate amount of prejudicial coverage focused on
Reporting by the New York Daily News was characteristic of
tabloid treatment of the case. A four-page feature on the
"Jackson sex scandal" on Nov. 21 taunted Jackson for a mug shot
"that showed him wearing more makeup than a prom queen." A
caption under a photo of Jackson flashing a "peace" sign
outside the jail said the singer was doing "his best Richard
Nixon impersonation." And an article described Jackson's
bedroom as his "creepy lair."
Perhaps the adjective the media use most frequently about
Michael Jackson is the word "freak." That epithet needs to be
confronted head-on. It lifts a rock on this odious and
right-wing campaign and shines light on it.
National Basketball Association super-star Dennis Rodman was
also the target of this poisonous barb when he came out
publicly as a cross-dresser.
How is it possible for such a dehumanizing slur to be so
widely used against internationally acclaimed and popular Black
stars in entertainment and sports? Because even with celebrated
skills, money and prominence, they are African Americans in an
economic and social system permeated with racism.
The term "freak" has always been steeped in racism,
anti-transgender bigotry and the dehumanization of disabled
From 1840 to 1940, "freak shows" were heavily marketed to
rural areas, towns and large urban areas in the United States.
They were considered one of the most popular forms of
entertainment in this country--and they were lucrative.
Bearded women and those billed as mixed sex--"half-man,
half-woman"--were among those displayed in dime museums,
world's fairs and circus side shows. With the rise of
colonialism and the expansion of imperialism, people from
Africa, the Pacific Islands, Asia and South America were
captured and "exhibited" in these shows.
"The presentation of imported non-Westerners was big
business," notes author Robert Bogdan in his book "Freak Show."
Bogdan stresses that this business was saturated with an
imperialist world view and did not confront racism. "On the
contrary, what [the public] saw merely confirmed old prejudices
and beliefs. ... These attitudes also provided good support for
the United States' exploitation of the non-Western world during
the late 19th century."
The depictions of African peoples in particular, Bogdan
writes, "arising as they did from racist attitudes, helped
sustain first the institution of slavery and later systematic,
unfair, and unequal treatment of nonwhites."
And Bogdan concludes, "Whenever we study deviance we must
look at those who are in charge--whether self-appointed or
officially--of telling us who the deviant people are and what
they are like."
Turning down the volume
The volume and intensity of coverage of Michael Jackson's
arrest virtually drowned out all other world developments,
including news about the Pentagon unleashing massive bombing
raids on the civilian population of Iraq in its "Operation Iron
Jackson's ranch was raided the day after the Massachusetts
Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.
Reactionaries have long tried to justify their bigoted
crusades with the groundless accusation that all people who are
sexually attracted to those of the same sex, or are perceived
as gender variant, "prey" on children. Progressive people need
to deny the right wing an opportunity to use the high-profile
coverage of the Jackson case as a propaganda weapon against the
right of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to teach
school, coach sports teams, adopt or gain custody of their
The biased publicity against Jackson has done nothing to
reveal the depth and breadth of child sexual exploitation and
abuse in this country, much of which takes place within
families. A 1986 interview of 930 women in San Francisco by
sociologist Diana Russell, for example, demonstrated that 16
percent of these women were incest survivors. The most common
offenders were uncles, male first cousins, fathers, brothers
and other male relatives.
Defending the bodies and lives of children requires a
political movement that can raise public consciousness about
the fact that child abuse is institutionalized. It is an
outgrowth of class society in which women and children are
considered private property within the patriarchal nuclear
Right-wing scapegoating lets the government and legal branch
off the hook for stripping children and married women of so
many basic rights.
Hands off Jackson's body!
A torrent of mocking about Michael Jackson's reported
plastic surgeries has been unleashed by this case. He is
labeled "bizarre" and "monstrous."
If undergoing plastic surgery were a crime, a bevy of
socialites--and not just women, either--would be forced to
endure the "perp walk" in handcuffs on prime-time news. The
jails and prisons in this country could not hold everyone who
has undergone body and facial alterations. "Nose jobs,"
face-lifts, liposuction, weight lifting, dieting, hair
replacement--the list is long.
Cosmetic surgery cannot be extricated from shame in an
economic and social system as oppressive and unequal as
capitalism. But the bottom line is the right of individuals to
make decisions about their own bodies and identities. That's at
the heart of the struggle, for example, for women's
reproductive rights. It's not the right of the state or the
church--or the media--to determine.
Sex reassignment, like tatooing and piercing, is an ancient
feature of human society. Even before the rise of class society
and all the oppression it brought, there were people who,
through physical alteration and/or social acceptance, lived in
a sex that appeared to contradict genital sex.
The public derision of Michael Jackson for a "womanly"
appearance is anti-woman. It obscures the reality of sex and
gender variance in the human population. And it's an attempt to
further cleave human diversity into "difference"--the essence
of "queer" baiting and the distillation of divide-and-conquer
Reprinted from the Dec. 4, 2003, issue of
Workers World newspaper
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