Michael Jackson: The Performer Vs. the Person

What do we need to remember about Michael Jackson?

Posted Jun 28, 2009

mj performing As an entertainer, Michael Jackson was obviously second to none. His spellbinding "pop" artistry was mesmerizing to virtually everyone who watched him perform. And in the few days since his passing, the tributes made to his creative musical gifts--and to his enormous influence on 20th century popular music (to say nothing of his music videos!)--have drawn an extraordinary amount of attention. Even more attention (if that's possible) than Elvis Presley received after his own untimely death. Undoubtedly, he was the very "King of Pop."

Still, in the past two decades as much probably has been said about Michael's psychological quirkiness, if not downright pathology, as about his prodigious talent. And the tragedy, not just of his early death but also of his deeply troubled life, continues to clamor for our attention. In fact, one major illustration of a life--and moral consciousness--somehow gone weirdly astray is something I felt compelled to comment on over 12 years ago.

Back in 1997 I published a newspaper editorial in San Diego's North County Times (02/09/97) on the details of a postnuptial contract he ordered his attorneys to write up for him. It was to provide him with exclusive rights to his not-yet-born child should he split up with Debbie Rowe (his "nominal" wife at the time). My article wasn't simply about Michael, but about the excesses of our capitalistic system, which seemed to permit traditional ethical values to simply be "bought out" at the right price.

I'd like to take the opportunity here to republish this editorial by way of reminding the public that it's important to distinguish between Michael's artistic genius and what I can comprehend only as the serious moral ramifications of his willful, almost stubborn, childish "innocence."

Here's the original piece:



I read in your paper recently that Michael Jackson had signed a multimillion-dollar deal to purchase outright (if need be) his own offspring. Assured through DNA testing that his wife-of-convenience, Debbie Rowe, is in fact carrying his baby, he has reportedly had his attorneys fashion a contract wherein should the marriage deteriorate and the two of them split up, he would obtain exclusive rights to the child. In this (not at all unlikely) event, his wife has allegedly agreed--for the tidy compensation of $2.3 million--"never to see the child again."

My immediate reaction to this news item was one of frank astonishment. Matter-of-fact reporting at its finest, the brief piece carried not a single note of shock, disbelief or moral outrage. Still, as a psychologist I was stunned that in the late 90s a child not yet born could conceivably be subject to a capitalistic ethic potentially making illegal all contact between mother and child.

Could economic arrangements initiated by a neurotic, self-indulgent millionaire actually dictate a living being's relationship--or lack of same--with its own mother? Is money in our society so powerful, so "vocal," that it can effectively muffle ethical considerations about a child's best interests? Indeed, can a child be defined as a material acquisition whose emotional and spiritual needs must be subordinated to its "owner's" property rights?

As I pondered these troubling questions, I was reminded of an article I once published on Catch-22, which interpreted Joseph Heller's classic fiction as a contemporary moral satire on American capitalism. To Heller, a government based on certain principles of free enterprise could end up jeopardizing universally held ethical values.

Milo, the novel's half-crazed entrepreneur whose opportunistic behaviors are guided almost exclusively by profit motives, and who "innocently" regards war itself as a unique opportunity for financial gain, is an emblem of modern business values run amok. No doubt it's an exaggeration to compare Michael Jackson's marital "deal" with the wheelings and dealings of an absurdist fictional character. But to me there's something equally absurd--and opportunistic--about a superstar's using his fortune to try, however indirectly, to determine the rights of someone else's life-even if it be his own unborn child.

hand on crotch I can sympathize with Jackson's possibly urgent need to become a parent. What I find appalling is (1) that he should believe he has the right to dictate the terms of the relationship between his wife and their--not his--child, and (2) that the law might actually be exploited to "validate" his paternal aspirations--so long as the child's mother is granted a sum of money acceptable to her. Even ignoring the child molestation charges against "Jacko"--and I'm not sure they should be ignored--is it not the basest arrogance for anyone to presume to purchase the right to abolish a child's relationship with its mother?

And what about the as-yet-unborn child? What would be the impact on this child to learn that for a fee its own mother waived the right to a relationship with him or her? How would the child's self-image be affected by the knowledge that its mother conceived, then abandoned, him/her for just the right amount of "blood money"? And is the child's need (inalienable right?) for maternal nurturance and guidance to be dismissed--superseded by the needs (however possibly perverted) of its wealthy father?

I can only hint here at the disturbing ethical issues embedded in Michael Jackson's bizarre postnuptial agreement. What troubles me most is that exact dollar amounts are being attached to something that should transcend monetary considerations altogether. The article I read also noted that Jackson's spouse is to be reimbursed $1.25 million when the baby is born. To me, to put a price tag on a human life is as foolhardy as it is decadent. But, most of all, I worry about what it says about our society today if personal wealth alone might be sufficient to rule whether a mother and child are allowed to see one another.

Finally, to what extent can we even blame Jackson for seeking to fulfill his heart's desire? Is it possible that there's something inherent in our capitalistic ethic that somehow fosters the belief that as free citizens it is our birthright--indeed, almost our "duty"--to pursue our personal interests at every opportunity? Frankly, I shudder at the thought. . . .

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