Given my choice of movies, the execrable Michael Jackson puff piece/pseudo-documentary This Is It would have remained near the bottom of my list, but on a long airplane journey over a cloud-obscured ocean, having read all my back issues of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, there wasn’t anything else to distract me from getting out the computer and actually doing some work.
So I had a look. No more than 10 or 20 minutes, I promised myself, but wound up watching until the credits rolled. Not because it was better than I’d expected, nor even because it was worse. It was worse, but not in the compulsively fascinating train wreck sense. No, this fell into Hannah Arendt banality-of evil territory, following a couple dozen basically decent Americans into shameless liars and sycophants merely by the mere proximity of the shuffling zombie still desperately marketing himself as “The King Of Pop.”
Having made my own living in the field of pop music, I’m no one to sneer at grandiose and misconceived claims. I’ve said overly extravagant things about my own favorite entertainers, and not just those I was trying to sell to the public. But the nature of “pop” is so insubstantial – when done right, there’s nothing beneath the surface but more surface – that proclaiming oneself king of it is both ludicrous and pathetic. I mean, do you remember the cool kids at school having to tell you they were cool?
“It’s like the church of rock and roll,” declared the director, a potbellied schlump who looked like his last substantive contact with rock and roll had been around 1975, if ever. Trying to drive that point home, he finished the film with an ersatz prayer circle: dancers, musicians, singers, stagehands, and costume designers holding hands and bowing their heads in reverence to the Genius™ that was Michael Jackson.
“Was” being the operative word. The poor creature, who we now know was narcotized to the eyeballs throughout the entire grim affair, wandered in and out of focus, always a half step behind or ahead of his supporting cast. I was reminded of seeing Rudolf Nureyev near the close of his career, when one of the 20th century’s greatest dancers could do little more than walk through his role. When he summoned the strength to do a brief, attenuated version of a classic Nureyev twirl or leap, the crowd – myself included – went wild. Not for what they were seeing, for it was nothing any competent ballet student couldn’t have managed, but for the memories of greatness, of the glory that had been.
Michael Jackson fans who flocked to see This Is It no doubt felt similarly about their fallen hero. Unless they were as doped up as he was, they couldn’t have believed they were seeing more than a pale, depressing shadow of what Jackson was capable of before he squandered his health and sanity on a perverse but grimly logical pursuit of the American dream.
To have almost limitless wealth, to be able to possess almost anything imaginable, no matter how pointless or tasteless, to surround yourself with fawning admirers eager to assure you of the unalloyed brilliance of your every word, thought or gesture: what could be more American than that? Well, winning it in the lottery instead of doing any actual work to obtain it would be, but we can’t fault Michael Jackson in that department. He worked extremely hard to accomplish what he did, making the sight of him pissing it away all the more painful.
Kind of like America itself these days, eh? Which is really what’s been on my mind more than the sad but hopefully cautionary tale of Jackson’s descent into the abyss. I’ve always had a penchant for the apocalyptic: when, as a lad of 9 or 10 I first encountered the story of the fall of Rome, I set out to write a novel, set in the year 3000, that featured archeologists excavating the ruins of America and musing on the reasons for its demise.
Sadly, my ambition was outstripped by inertia, as has often been the case; otherwise I might have a manuscript readymade for what I’m told is a burgeoning market in collapsing empire lit. Growing up, I took a similar view – a “This Is It” perspective, you might say – of the civil turmoil of the late 60s, the economic upheaval of the 70s, Reaganism and its attendant evils in the 80s. A few more mind-altering drugs and I would have been the bearded loon parading up Market Street with “The End Is Near” emblazoned on my placard.
As you may have noted, the end never quite arrived, and once I’d gotten over my disappointment (the child in me clung tenaciously, well into adulthood, to the notion that chaos and collapse would be, you know, exciting and fun), I had to adjust to the idea that perhaps I was going to get old after all, and that silly things like health insurance and Social Security and a safe, warm place to live could one day become important to me.
Well, here we are: although I haven’t yet needed health insurance I’m sufficiently afraid of not having it that I fork over 10% of my annual income to a rapacious corporation that uses the profits garnered from captive consumers like myself to sabotage any possibility of meaningful health care reform. Social Security? In theory, trillions of dollars are set aside to pay for the retirements of this and future generations; in practice, we spent all that money long ago on tax cuts for the fabulously rich and fantastically ill-conceived and mismanaged wars. A safe, warm place to live? So far, I’m all right, but plenty of people aren’t, and with cities and states stripped of their resources and national bankruptcy looming – hell, if we didn’t have such a powerful army, the world would have stopped accepting our checks years ago – I don’t want to count on things staying that way.
It’s ironic, I suppose, that just when I’d finally put aside my lifelong fascination with the apocalypse – indeed, when I’d started advising young people that it always looks like the end when you’ve got your whole future in front of you – I find myself feeling pessimistic about the future in a way I never have before. It’s not so much the threat of nuclear-armed terrorists, though that’s hardly comforting, nor an economy founded upon smoke and mirrors, nor even the various forms of environmental catastrophe staring us in the face.
No, what really terrifies me is the rising tide of idiocy that seems to have been let loose upon the land. Oh, I know, crassness, sensationalism, bombast and self-importance have always been an intrinsic and sometimes even charming part of the American character. The same goes for wacky political parties and screwy religious cults: a level-headed, sober and circumspect society we’ve never been, and I suspect most Americans prefer it that way. Besides, that streak of bull-headed madness has developed in close parallel with the idealism and innovation that has helped us weather and even profit from past crises and challenges.
But when I refer to the idiocy presently stalking the land, I’m not talking about the garden-variety stupidity and tastelessness, that floods into our homes via hundreds of cable channels or has the director of the aforementioned Michael Jackson excrescence declaring, “This is the most extraordinary event of my creative life.” No, I’m thinking of idiocy in the sense it was first used by the Greeks, to whom an idiot was a person possessed by the fantasy that he lived in a world of his own, free of connection or obligation to society.
The lunatic right – I hesitate to use the term “right,” because it implies a connection to classical conservatism, which, think what you may of it, was at least a respectable ideology founded on rational premises – makes an easy target here, but while egregious, it’s hardly the only offender. Demagogues of the Glenn Beck/Sarah Palin ilk find it easy to inflame the poorly educated but sometimes justifiably aggrieved ranks of teabaggers, but the left has not covered itself with glory, either. Even Barack Obama, that embodiment of cool, calm intellect and reason, shows distressing signs of becoming what no one would have imagined: an affirmative action president.
Oh, he’s adequate to the job, all right. More than adequate. But despite his undeniable brilliance, he seems content to coast through with a B average. A high B perhaps, and during ordinary times, it would be enough to mark him out as a decent, even a very good president. But the times we are muddling through demand an A+ president, an FDR or a Lincoln. Not only does Obama appear unable or unwilling to step his game up to that level; a perusal of the political landscape doesn’t reveal anybody who could.
Finding a way out of our present impasse will require something like the unified sense of purpose with which we responded to the Great Depression or the Second World War. In its place we get a crescendo of, “Why should I have to pay taxes?” coupled with, “But don’t you dare cut my benefits.”
Much merriment has been made at the expense of protesters who demand that the government stay out of their Medicare or who view the attempt to provide them with affordable health insurance as a Stalinist plot, but once again, ignorance exists across the board. The right is up in arms – literally, in some cases – against Obama for attempting to impose “socialism” on the USA; the left is ready to jettison him because he hasn’t issued executive orders ending unemployment, imposing single payer health care, and providing free marijuana for all.
Meanwhile, bridges and roads fall to bits, public transportation and schools are gutted, services that remained part of the civic structure even in the darkest days of the Depression are cut back or canceled because “we can’t afford them” anymore. We are still, by any measure, the richest country in the history of the world, but we suffer from desperate poverty, and not just in the physical sense. Our imagination and our vision, our can-do attitude and our must-do sense of responsibility have gone missing, or, perhaps more to the point, been sold for a mess of pottage.
Am I too easily discouraged? Mistaking a momentary blip on the horizon for a dire and inescapable fate? I hope that’s the case, that in a few years we’ll be able to smile about those dark days when our future was mortgaged to the Chinese, people seriously believed Sarah Palin was qualified to be president, and a pathetic, drug-addicted manchild like Michael Jackson represented the apotheosis of modern culture. I’m hoping, but I’m not holding my breath.