Friday, July 10, 2009

Stranger Than Fiction

When the Rev. Al said to the very Caucasian-looking young girl, "There weren't nothing strange about your daddy," I could hear the theme song from Twilight Zone in the background. No one was stranger than the King of Pop.

I've resisted writing about the strange life and tragic death of Michael Jackson. His music was a small part of the soundtrack of my life (now immobilized on my iPod), and I tried, and failed, to emulate his dance moves which now seem to be the basis of the repertoire of most global dance troupes. Everyone's death, to some extent, diminishes us. While the verdict is not yet in, news stories point to an gargantuan addiction to a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals. Jackson is not the first musical "genius" to succumb to the allure of drugged oblivion. At the memorial service in Los Angeles (a global event to rival state funerals like that for Diana), brother Marlon, speaking for many, said, "We would never, never understand what he endured, not being able to walk across the street without a crowd gathering around him. Being judged, ridiculed, how much pain can one take. Maybe now, Michael, they will leave you alone."

Fat chance. Michael is this year's O.J., the black man persecuted by a racist world. But wait a minute. Jackson wanted desperately to look white, and he enlisted an army of plastic surgeons and dermatologists to erase all racial traces from his face. The results have been compared to Marilyn Monroe as well as Batman's nemesis, The Joker (as played by Jack Nicholson rather than Heath Ledger). He hung out with white icons Elizabeth Taylor, Tatum O'Neal and Brooke Shields, not to mention his first wife Lisa Marie Presley, all beards that helped him hide what most people believed to be his homosexuality (I thought his high voice was a put-on until I heard some of his brothers speak; it must be genetic). The Staples Center was filled with a biracial crowd, but the performers and speakers were mostly black and they held Michael Jackson up as a beacon for race relations. I found it befuddling to think of his disavowal of blackness as an example for young people struggling toward racial pride. If Sascha Bruno Cohen were murdered by one of the redneck southerners he humiliated while filming "Borat" and "BrĂ¼no," would we hold up his fictional creations as an example for what it means to be white?

But just as I've been an inveterate ambulance chaser most of my life, fascinated by fires and car crashes, I have followed the news on CNN ever since Jackson's unexpected death was announced. I couldn't stay up for the memorial service, which began at midnight in Bangkok, but I've seen the YouTube clips and have even downloaded NBC's coverage (which I can't yet bear to watch). And I cried when daughter Paris told the cameras, “Ever since I was born, daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. And I just wanted to say I love him so much.” Fatherless children disturb me deeply, whoever they are. But just like the forthcoming toxicology report and the myriad of legal disputes over Michael Jackson's will and considerable fortune (current sales may offset reported debts), the patrimony of these children is news. Who are they? We know that the mother of Paris and Prince Michael (now there's a normal name) is Debbie Rowe who apparently earned eight million for her work. The mother of the youngest, Blanket (cute), has not been revealed. But how could Jackson have been the biological father of any of them? Either they have two Caucasian parents or they've been visiting Jackson's dermatologist (who denied, sort of, that he had been the sperm donor), who employed Rowe as a nurse.

I don't need to mention the persistent charges of pedophilia. Jackson's early fame, and the beatings he reportedly got from his father, Joe, denied him a childhood. Listen to the words of his song of that name to discover clues to the bizarre person he became. "Have you seen my childhood? I'm searching for that wonder in my youth...No one understands me. They view it as such strange eccentricities...'Cause I keep kidding around, like a child." He recreated the land of Peter Pan where children never grow old, and admitted to interviews that he slept with his young guests. But a forthcoming book, Unmasked, by celebrity biographer Ian Halperin, says that Jackson was into men, not boys, and masqueraded as a woman with his lovers. Halperin said the star once picked up a construction worker in Las Vegas and swore him to secrecy. "The lover admitted Michael made him sign a confidentiality agreement." The author said the singer was no pedophile and went into hysterics when his insurance company paid millions to a teenage boy who accused him of molestation. What terrible demons drove him to dose himself with Demerol, Xanax, and drips of Diprivan, a drug normally used in operating theaters by anaestheologists?

The strangest rumor floating around the internet is Jackson's association with the number 7. According to one report:
Michael Jackson signed his will on 7/7/02. Michael Jackson's memorial was on 7/7/09 ... exactly 7 years after the will was signed. Michael Jackson's two biggest hits -- "Black & White" and "Billie Jean" -- were each #1 for 7 weeks. Michael Jackson's three biggest albums -- "Thriller," "Bad" and "Dangerous" -- each produced 7 top 40 hits. Michael Jackson was the 7th of 9 children. Michael Jackson was born in 1958 ... 19 + 58 = 77. Michael Jackson died on the 25th ... 2 + 5 = 7. And, finally, Michael Jackson has 7 letters in his first and last name. Yeah. One wag, familiar with urban legends, added that "I heard his assistant's name was Kennedy Johns and Kennedy's assistant's name was Jackson Michaels." Wow.

Nan's cousin Ben returned home to Phayao last night. We took her to the bus station at Mo Chit. Only 21, she seemed much younger. She was small, thin and prone to the giggles. It was her first visit to the capital and she had left her eight-month-old son back home with her mother. The baby's father was still in high school. Nan had first considered the local factory of her firm which supplies custom foam pads for packaging, but decided that the work might be too difficult for a girl who left school after the 6th grade and had never held a job. So she bought a portable stall for making crepes from a friend for 3000 baht (almost $100) and tried to teach her how to cook and sell the pancakes at a market. It was not easy. Ben wanted to sell clothes in a department store but Nan thought it would be too dangerous for her to work until 10 at night. Her cousin had difficulty understanding directions and figuring out bus routes. So after only a week in the big city she was back on the overnight coach to her village in the north, fortunate in that she did not have to stay in Bangkok to support her child since her own father, shamed by the illigitimate grandchild, makes a good income in Taiwan where he has worked for some years.

The calm before the political storm may end in Thailand next month when the twice-canceled ASEAN conference resumes again, this time in Phuket. Security is draconian. Protests or demonstrations of any kind of have been banned. The red shirts had been planning to celebrate exiled and fugitive Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's 60th birthday next week with a large gathering in Sanam Luang, but it was prohibited by Bangkok authorities and Thaksin requested his supporters to honor him by making merit at their local Buddhist temple. The red shirts did protest yesterday outside the office of Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya who has been charged for his role in supporting the yellow shirts when they closed down the international airport last year. Their call for him to resign was refused. For an excellent review of the current political situation here, and the chaos that could reign when the royal succession occurs, read the excellent article in Bloomberg online by William Mellor and Daniel Ten Kate.

I didn't celebrate the 4th of July last week, mainly because the thought of barbecued hot dogs, kegs of beer, fireworks and flag waving stirred no emotion in my breast. I may have kicked the habit of patriotism. Nationalism has caused much harm in the world and continues with the help of extremist religion to wreak havoc everywhere. Here in Thailand, where I can never become a citizen, I've gotten involved in the study of how Thai identity has become constructed. The elites have employed legend and propaganda to create an imagined community that would promote unity and peace, and keep the rural poor in their place. Former Vietnam correspondent John Pilger, in an article in the New Statesman, is well aware of how American elites have used 4th of July rhetoric to justify wars, inequality and corporate rule. The only proper response to American's birthday is mourning, the British critic suggests. Little has changed with Obama, he charges:
Since 1945, by deed and by example, the US has overthrown 50 governments, including democracies, crushed some 30 liberation movements and supported tyrannies from Egypt to Guatemala (see William Blum’s histories). Bombing is apple pie. Having stacked his government with warmongers, Wall Street cronies and polluters from the Bush and Clinton eras, the 45th president is merely upholding tradition. The hearts and minds farce I witnessed in Vietnam is today repeated in villages in Afghanistan and, by proxy, Pakistan, which are Obama’s wars.
Of course, any diligent reader of Howard Zinn would never be able to celebrate the 4th of July with a clean conscience.

My oldest son turns 44 tomorrow. Happy Birthday, Chris!


Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

Nice post about Jackson. I've avoided all the media attention on his life and death and I'm glad I did. Thank you for your excellent summary and thoughts.

As to American wars... like you. I dislike the use of violence anywhere....

....but surely, if the US left Afghanistan and Pakistan, not only would this spell disaster for the rights of women in that region, it would also effectively mean the handing over of Pakistan's nuclear weapons to the Taliban. Not a happy thought.

All the best,


hobby said...

You sure are not afraid to take on the 'difficult' subjects - the mere mention of the term 'Wacko Jacko' is seen as being derogatory by one of my acquaintances, when I merely used the term as an apt description of his later life.

btw, FWIW, although he spends most of his time in Britian, John Pilger is actually Australian.

Hazel said...

Hello, I didn't know Jackson "wanted desperately to look white..." I thought he had vitiligo. If people still won't leave MJ alone even in death, I don't know what kind of lives are they. I like the King of Pop, but I admit I also wonder about the paternity of his first two kids. But then it doesn't really matter to me. Just thankful I had a pillow for a giant Kleenex when Paris spoke at the memorial. And as for the charges, well, innocent until proven otherwise. If he wasn't, then I wonder what does it say about the American justice system. And oh, that bit about 7, that's fascinating. Thanks for sharing that.