Alienation personified

Michael Jackson obviously needs treatment, not punishment. His trial tells us a lot about today's alienated society, argues Eddie Ford

Following a trial lasting four months, and involving more than 140 witnesses, the jury is deliberating on the fate of Michael Jackson as we go to press. The 46-year-old 'king of pop' faces 10 charges, including four relating to the alleged sexual abuse two year ago of a male teenager, Gavin Arvizo, then aged 13, not to mention the lesser charges of "conspiracy to kidnap" and "administering an intoxicating agent" to the aforementioned youth. Jackson, if convicted, will be placed on the sex offenders registrar and could go to jail for anything up to 18 years. Jackson, back home at his Disneyesque Neverland ranch, was not alone in awaiting the jurors' final decision. Millions of people throughout the world have been transfixed by the trial - whether they be die-hard Jackson fans or determined detractors. But even if Jackson is pronounced guilty, the 'entertainment' need not end there. Under US law, a sentencing hearing has to occur 20 working days after the verdict. However, that period is often extended to give the probation department time to file a report and for the defence to prepare post-trial motions, which typically involves filing for a new trial and asking for their client to be acquitted via an arrest of judgement order. The singer could also be granted bail pending appeal, as long as it was proved that he was unlikely to flee and posed no danger to the community. Yes, the world's media outlets can still look forward to raking in the audiences - and of course the increased revenue generated by all the countless advertising and sponsorship deals. Almost inevitably, academic theorists are already busy writing about how the Jackson trial is the realisation of the "postmodern concept", and so on. Hence professor Toby Miller, of the University of California Riverside's cultural studies department, informed the BBC: "What you are seeing played out in very public form is the tragedy of a psyche and the tragedy of an empire". But professor Miller is not necessarily spouting obscurantist scholastic nonsense, as he also alluded to what he believed were the core reasons why the trial was being so closely followed - that is, "internationally, Jackson remains a big name", and "he represents the oddness of the United States around the world". There is some truth here. When we look at the Jackson trial we get a glimpse of the grotesque and profoundly unhealthy celebrity culture which the mass media both reflects and promotes - and glorifies. Specifically, we see how the US's freedom of speech laws are interpreted in such a manner as to allow the type of blanket media coverage that has accompanied the Jackson trial - a coverage, it should be noted, which is quite alien to many other countries where discussion of court cases is outlawed, or severely curtailed, in order to avoid prejudicing juries. So we have had the spectacle of television shows doing mock Jackson trials and inviting the audiences to vote in their verdicts - as if Michael Jackson was a contestant on Big brother or Celebrity love island. Truly horribly, reporters are filming at the jail where Jackson could serve time if he is found guilty - but if that is what the punters want, then give it to them. Experts are even analysing the jurors' clothes for clues on how they are minded, and souvenir photographs of the Jackson trial, you will be glad to hear, are now available at a no doubt reasonable cost. During the trial we had an ugly scrum, as dozens of television crews jostled for the best views of the courthouse, with each news organisation having its own designated, fenced-off space in the parking lot - right next to the dozens of satellite trucks monitoring the proceedings day and night. When the verdict is finally delivered, expect a media frenzy like no other - as if engaged in a military operation, helicopters will scramble to track the singer's entourage as it leaves his home and a posse of desperate reporters will hurtle into court as if their lives depend on it. These are all indications of a perverse and distorted society. In some respects, the enigmatic, and undoubtedly weird, Michael Jackson almost defies comprehension. Indeed, over the years, Jackson has become a near mythical figure - but, then again, most myths contain at least a kernel of truth. So, at one stage a group of American Jehovah's Witnesses rather optimistically announced that Jackson was "the messiah". Then we have the mysterious change in Jackson's skin pigmentation, with it being said that he was taking a course of powerful drugs in order to become paler. Jackson has also undergone extensive plastic surgery to alter his appearance - though once again that has been denied, and we all recall the photographs which heavily suggested that he slept in a special chamber, or 'oxygen bubble', in an attempt to prevent himself from ageing. Furthermore, Jackson was mercilessly hounded and humiliated by the media when it came to his two disastrous marriages - first in May 1994 to Lisa Marie Presley (daughter of the not exactly well-balanced Elvis), which collapsed after 19 months, giving rise to rumours that the whole thing had been merely a set-up, or 'blind', to improve his tarnished image (it was widely believed that the marriage was never even consummated). The next marriage was to Debbie Rowe, which ended in October 1999, but produced three children. However, once again it was suggested that this apparent display of normality was not what it seemed, as stories circulated that this marriage too had been unconsummated - and that in fact the children had been conceived using an assorted and colourful array of artificial inseminatory techniques, though there has never been any evidence of Jackson being either infertile or impotent. On top of all that, Jackson has openly admitted to being addicted to painkillers and various prescription drugs. Perhaps worse of all, though, he has adopted the spoon-bending crackpot and Exeter City FC-supporting Uri Geller as his 'personal advisor'. No wonder the guy's in so much trouble. You do not have to be Sigmund Freud to regard Jackson as a walking case study, if not a master class, in alienation and estrangement. However, this is hardly surprising when you consider for a moment Jackson's highly unusual, if not aberrant, childhood and upbringing. As a founder member of the Jackson Five, the young Michael - who modelled his dance moves and vocal styling on James Brown - acquired astounding levels of fame and money from a grotesquely early age. Thus, at the mere age of five, he was becoming the Jackson's Five's leading persona - definitely not playing with his train set or mucking about with his coloured crayons and action men. Surely, this would be enough to warp anyone, in some way or another. In 1992, though it did not come as any great shocking revelation, he told the Oprah Winfrey show of his domineering, bullying father, who relentlessly pushed Michael more and more into the limelight, at the expense of living any sort of normal or satisfying childhood. In reality, behind the razzmatazz and glitter, Jackson had led a stunted, miserable life - being more a slave to celebrity and its trappings rather than an social personality. Overall, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Jackson is a sad, lonely, alienated, hypochondriac who has lived a bizarre twilight existence, essentially cut off from the rest of humanity and hence prone to unhealthy and morbid whims, desires and fancies - but of course that does not automatically make him a criminal, let alone a "serial paedophile" who uses "pornography and alcohol" in order to "groom" young boys, as the prosecution lawyer at the trial invited us to believe. For communists, the key point to emphasis is that, whether guilty of the charges or not, the plainly troubled Jackson needs help - not to be cast into the hell of the US prison system which criminally contains some two million inmates - disproportionally black. Clearly, Jackson needs some sort of emotional-psychological and spiritual rehabilitation, which requires more contact with broader society, not to make his world even isolating, tinier and more miserable than it is has been up to now. More generally, leaving Jackson aside, communists fight for the humane and civilised treatment of all prisoners - sex offenders included. Dysfunctions, psycho-sexual or otherwise, are best treated with a view to rehabilitation and re-education than with a vengeful desire to destroy lives by imprisonment, the sex-offenders register, naming and shaming, etc. Jailing people who suffer from disturbing sexual impulses and predilections will more than likely create, alongside the universities of crime that are actually today's prisons, auxiliary specialised colleges of paedophilia in the 'rule 43' segregated wings of the same prisons: hardly an effective way of eradicating or reducing damaging social problems. The Jackson trial has also, once again, exposed the fundamentally amoral nature of the pop industry which, as currently constituted, is all about the exploitation of children, whether as performers or consumers - and who can deny that the young Michael Jackson was ruthlessly exploited, both by his father and the pop moguls? Historically, the cynical manipulation of the fancies and fantasies of pre- and early teen girls and boys, especially girls, is what the bubblegum pop producers rely on to sell records and make big profits. Such an industry by its very nature breeds, rears and generates greed, cynicism and, often, malfunctioning and thoroughly one-dimensional, non-rounded, human beings. Eddie Ford