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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 boy.

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 battle.

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. ( archives)

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 case.

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."

Odious campaign

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 live coverage.

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 "infantilism."

An inordinate amount of prejudicial coverage focused on Jackson's appearance.

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 people.

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 Hammer."

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 children.

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 family.

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 strategy.

Reprinted from the Dec. 4, 2003, issue of Workers World newspaper

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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