In Neverland

By Stan Persky | June 23, 2005

My favourite Globe and Mail columnist, TV critic John Doyle, writing in the wake of last week’s acquittal of pop star Michael Jackson on charges of child molestation, decided that the major unexplored issue of the spectacle was not the meaning of the events or the soul of its eccentric protagonist(s), but Jackson’s fanatical fans. “What was missing from the extensive TV play,” declares Doyle, “was coverage and analysis of those sad, strange people who supported Jackson throughout the trial.” Asks Doyle, “Are they versions of us, the general public?”

My favourite TV columnist rambles on about Wacko Jacko’s adulators, and insists that “that’s the real story of the Jackson trial, the one that remained a mystery, the issue that has been buried. Can somebody please explain why people from all over the world followed Jackson as if he were the leader of a religious cult, and believe in his right to have young boys sleeping in his bed. . . What on earth has caused this devotion?” Doyle’s wrap-up in his post-verdict column merely repeats the main motif and its over-portentous question: “The countless people who shouted out ‘We Love You Michael’ are the ones who are beyond belief. They represent the story that needs to be told. They’re not versions of us, are they?”

And the answer to that rhetorical query?

Well, no, they’re not. And we’re not versions of them. Nor do we really need to nail down their stories, except maybe to figure out how they’re able to financially afford weeks of hanging out in front of an obscure southern California courthouse or milling at the gates of Jackson’s sizeable patch of rural property known as Neverland, named in honour of author J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. And it’s probably a distortion to suggest, as Doyle does, that the fans, however zany they may be, “believe in [Jackson’s] right to have young boys sleeping in his bed.” Whatever it is they believe, I don’t think they believe that.

Of course, it’s always tempting to consider the possibility that the most extreme Other is simply a nightmare mirror of ourselves — the murderer, the suicide bomber, the homicidal airplane hijacker heading toward the about-to-be demolished towers — and sometimes they are a version of us (as we’ve occasionally pointed out in these pages), but sometimes, as in this case, they’re just extras on the set.

Ah Doyle, I thought and sighed, upon reading his feeble morning-after effort to make some sense of the trial. Well, even the great ones nod. But this is also the John Doyle who a couple of years back rapturously (and correctly) reviewed Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys, a very good shades-of-Joyce Irish novel that recounts not only the love story of two 16-year-old lads in Dublin, c. 1916, but also contains some persuasively explicit descriptive passages of an adult male bedding and vigourously penetrating one of those adolescent “pals o’ my heart.” So, it’s not mere revulsion for the subject matter that makes Doyle feel obliged to pronounce, as has almost every other commentator, that “Jackson is a truly repulsive figure.”

Before I get to what I’m actually on about, I should say a word or two in praise of Doyle, since we’re in no hurry around here. The reason why he’s my favourite Globe columnist (I also follow Margaret Wente and Rick Salutin, for those of you perversely interested in my Globe reading tastes) is that day-in, day-out, year after year, except for the occasional pause when he heads off to cover soccer or goes on an extended Irish bender, Doyle manages to write with wit, intelligence, and general good cheer about a subject that one might imagine to be about the most mind-numbing possible. As a fellow scribbler, I really admire Doyle’s ability to maintain writing quality over a long haul about a topic, TV, that seems designed to defeat all intelligence. It’s no small feat in the grind of daily journalism.

All of the above is by way of preface to a puzzlement. I was surprised, in the wake of the Jackson trial, to find so little post-hoc commentary in the media (and after all, this was a process almost inseparable from the media) that was of even minimal interest. Believe me, I looked. I jogged the search engines, the browsers, the infinite bloggery, but almost nothing. I scoured the net, checking everything from venerable 60 Minutes’ commentator Andy Rooney to the North American Man-Boy Love (NAMBLA) Bulletin. Predictably, the 80-something-year-old Rooney was more interesting and amusing than the earnest self-proclaimed boy lovers. Of course, I may have missed something profound. Mostly, there was this and that about whether the “King of Pop” could rescue an already faltering career, but since I’m not, to borrow the title of a Kinks’ tune, “a dedicated follower of fashion” when it comes to the realm of pop music, it’s hardly of major interest. Nor were the learned discourses of accountants attempting to sort out the singer’s perilous fiscal condition. Ditto for laments about “celebrity justice,” and other grasping at straws one-idea pieces. Sometimes silences are meaningful. It was Wittgenstein who suggested that what we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence — or leave to the late-night TV comedians.

But this is one of those unspeakable topics about which there ought to be something to say. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Crisp reflections on culture, disquisitions on the Peter Pan myth, something more than the standard cliches about the margins of sexuality.

Very curiously, the most nearly-interesting piece I found was by right-wing (London) Telegraph columnist Barbara Amiel (the spouse of former Canadian newspaper mogul Conrad Black), and a writer I usually dismissively put in the “truly repulsive person” pigeonhole.

Amiel sets the stage for her argument, writing, “The world that has unfolded in the court room in Santa Barbara [sic] has been a revelation.” Not to be picky, but the town is Santa Maria — it’s in Santa Barbara County (the city of Santa Barbara itself is a sizeable metropolis); however, since Amiel lives far away, we can excuse her for being a bit fuzzy on the geography. On the plus side, despite lacking a compass, Amiel does write actual sentences, a notable virtue in the world of journalism these days. “In this town of sweet-smelling flowers and pastel-painted haciendas,” she says, “American society has been sliced open. . . The [trial] transcripts filled up with stories from life’s losers, scraping their memories for smut.

“In their cross-hairs was Jackson, a strange creature, almost painful to behold, with his sharply amputated nose, painted face and black-hole eyes. He sat in court looking like the straw man in The Wizard of Oz. . . a man of considerable talent, but considerably less intelligence, whose wealth and bizarre pathology rendered him vulnerable and helpless in front of his predators.” No, not entirely helpless; he did have some expensive legal talent lounging around. Amiel’s “straw man” reference, by the way, is to Jackson’s portrayal of The Scarecrow in the all-black film, The Wiz, and the scarecrow goes to Oz, you’ll recall, looking for brains.

Amiel’s argument, which isn’t entirely coherent, and which I won’t reprise in its entirety, revolves around the trope of “predator or prey?” Of course, as someone personally familiar with the misadventures of rich and eccentric people, she might be expected to be have some sympathy with fellow misadventurous, wealthy, eccentrics.

Perhaps it’s only conservative iconoclasts or elderly sages who these days can get away with dangerous musings about passions or pathologies that dare not speak their names. Amiel early on observes that “Jackson may or may not be guilty as charged, but that has long been beside the point,” and then turns her attention to the predator/prey issues she regards as more relevant. But she periodically returns to the alleged actions — what many reporters referred to as the “ick factor” — upon which the case was predicated, and observes that “Jackson’s pathology is unquestionably his need for young boys in his bed, whether or not he does anything illicit with them. That is his vulnerability, to be first exploited — and then punished.”

Later in Amiel’s musings, she more controversially asks, “But guilt or innocence of what? . . . Child molestation of any sort is to be deplored, but in the absence of violence, fear or physical coercion, in the absence of penetration, what actual harm has he done?” Interestingly, ancient Andy Rooney makes a point similar to Amiel’s when he says that “whatever Jackson did may have been disgusting but there’s no evidence he ruined any child’s life.” Of course, this is the moment where herds of therapists would rush in where even foolish angels fear to tread. “These children have received millions for their moments in his bed,” Amiel says a bit too smugly, but one suspects that a claim of monetary compensation somewhat misses the point of the charge. As for her remark, “Before they were told it was a crime, they couldn’t wait to get back to Neverland,” it’s not exactly the judgment of enticed children that we’re most interested in here, although perhaps she means that the frightening pronouncements of the authorities about the evil of the acts is as psychologically damaging as the possible sexual encounters themselves. Overall, I think Amiel is on to something, but her reasoning is murky.

Amiel also notes that “crimes go in and out of fashion,” and makes the relevant point that “today, any form of sexuality involving underage persons or disparities of power is looked at with the utmost gravity.”

She adds, “The disparity between Jackson’s mental age and that of his accusers seems not so great. Twelve and 13-year-old boys often giggle together over porn and experiment with their newly discovered sexuality. Jackson’s falsetto voice may come and go, but his childish behaviour is fixed. He seems stuck somewhere in the emotional landscape of adolescence. . . Jackson sits right on the border that separates maleness and femaleness, blackness and whiteness, grown-up and child, and possible sanity and insanity.”

Now, as I say, I’m not sure that Amiel’s reflections hold together, but at least they’re not hysterical (which can’t be said about the hours and hours of often shrieking TV commentary offered to the public); further, they constitute a kind of roundabout plea for a little more tolerance; and they’re distinguished from most of the rest of what I could find in the media by being an effort to think about the issues rather than to exhibit an expression of one’s icky feelings.

Okay, enough probing, and surveying of the “literature,” such as it is. Time for a little summing-up. What was/is the Michael Jackson case about?


1. Moralism vs. law.

Probably the most interesting formal feature of the trial and its outcome — and the reason the verdict was greeted with sighs of relief, even by people with little interest in the particulars — was the small but hopeful political sign it offered in the midst of America’s “culture wars.” In the United States at present, make no mistake about it, they’re in the midst of a major ideological struggle between the certainties of fundamentalist “faith-based” hordes of believers and currently confused secular liberals and moderates. The fundamentalists want to order private sexual behaviour (particularly homo stuff); deny scientific accounts of reality that conflict with their faith (particularly evolution); erode the boundaries between church and state (supplanting reasoned discourse with pronouncements and interpretations based on authoritative and authoritarian scripture); police culture so that it is restricted to a “family values” codification; and define “life,” although here they tend to be inconsistent, obsessing against abortion, but perfectly willing to slaughter sizeable numbers of people on behalf of divine justice. Mostly, they want to make Last Judgments in the name of God.

The Michael Jackson case was a tiny, tiny skirmish in that larger cultural conflict. For the moralists, he is a paradigm of sin. His ambiguous sexuality displays a predilection beyond even allegedly nature-violating homosexual practice; his fantasies of magic and faerie blaspheme against biblical literalism (though, perhaps with the ministrations of Rev. Jesse Jackson, or the Nation of Islam, he may be brought within the folds of some orthodoxy); and his entire post-Jackson 5-childhood career and “lifestyle” embodies the worst of Hollywood’s moral loosening. The clamour for his conviction had a palpable seismic reality in the California outback.

Yet, a presumably rather conservative southern California, small-town, mostly white jury, disposed to be appalled by the allegations and vigilant to preserve moral decencies, heard all the gruesome evidence admissable. The judge, Rodney Melville did rule, as Amiel reported, “with a straight face,” that news of alleged late-night Vaseline deliveries would not presented to the jury, but just about everything else was.

And yet the jury found, as Andy Rooney put it, “The prosecution did not prove [Jackson] was guilty of anything except of being a very strange person. (I would have said queer person a few years ago.) Being strange is not a punishable offense and he was acquitted of all charges.” That is, even in deepest, darkest, puritanical America, a jury put aside the ick factor, looked at the evidence, and decided that it wasn’t even close to meeting the standard of proving anything beyond a reasonable doubt, not even on the minor charges of supplying youngsters with alcoholic “Jesus juice.” Which demonstrates that juries, courtrooms, and other public forums are better places for “the people” than plunked down before TV sets watching screaming matches. In a period of raging “moralism,” it was a relief to experience the sanity of law.


2. Is Michael Jackson interesting?

Just over a century ago (in 1904), a more than slightly eccentric English, pint-sized (just barely 5 feet tall), and, as he informed his temporary wife, heterosexually impotent, playwright, J.M. Barrie, staged a fantasy play, Peter Pan. Like its recent precursor, L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900), it conjured up a world of empowered children and a magical utopia. Both Baum’s Oz and Barrie’s Neverland, and their memorable figures — eternal boys, cowardly lions, wicked queens, and the rest — enduringly entered the imagination of the 20th century.

Decades later, an indubitably talented pop musician — even those of us who aren’t dedicated followers of musical fashion are aware of Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk” — proposed, rather astonishingly, to make Barrie’s imaginary Neverland literal, and to make himself, through elaborate quasi-medical measures, into an actual version of the protagonist of Peter Pan. (It’s a commonplace these days to refer to the middle-aged Jackson’s physical grotesqueness, but looking at pictures of him at the height of his popularity, at least some of us would describe him as rather cute back then; certainly, hordes of his teen fans around the world thought so. They found his other-worldly beauty interesting in its seeming transcendence of gender, race, and age.)

Of all the possible fantasies to go to the enormous trouble to enact (to say nothing of the enormous wealth necessary to do so), Jackson’s entrance into the persona of Peter Pan, and his creation of an idea of Neverland as a children’s utopia, strikes me as interesting. Of course, it’s also silly, impractical, unworldly, and oblivious to reality, as dreamworlds often are (and are meant to be). If intentions are to be believed, Neverland ranch was even intended to have a social function as a refuge for deprived children of various kinds. And if Jackson is an artist (and I think he is), both the persona and the land of faerie were connected to his art. For those even slightly sympathetic to Jackson, what they believe is not his “right to have young boys sleeping in his bed,” but in the imagination that produces Peter Pan and Neverland. They also want to believe that Neverland is a place that is safe and innocence-restoring for children.

There are rich eccentrics and there are rich eccentrics, and it’s possible to distinguish between them. For instance, last year we were reminded, by Martin Scorcese’s film, The Aviator, of the eccentric airplane designer, Howard Hughes. While some of his planes were interesting, his increasingly reclusive, encroaching madness was pretty much run of the mill as a sad instance of extreme paranoia. As for fantasies of the rich and infamous, those of the wealthy CEO’s, who in recent years were discovered filching from the suckers, turned out to be little more than thoroughly mundane drunken, doped parties with trophy non-wives staggering around expensive yachts. So, there are boring megolomanias and fairly interesting elaborate imaginations. And it matters which is which.

Now, it’s perfectly possible that Jackson has not only an elaborate imagination but is also an elaborate fraud and, given the frailties of his own psyche, not necessarily fully aware of his self-dissimulations. During the infamous 2003 TV interview with Martin Bashir which led to the most recent trouble, while then 12-year-old Gavin Arvizo, who later turned out to be Jackson’s accuser, was nuzzling up against the pop star, Jackson said, about sharing his bed with children, “It’s very right. It’s very loving. That’s what the world needs now.” Apart from possibly being wrong, he may have been simply lying. Certainly, he must have some idea of sexual activity. What was all that crotch-grabbing in the videos of Thriller (or was it Bad?) all about? And though Jackson may have an odd idea of how babies are made (since his appear to have been produced by artificial insemination), he at least has some experience of onanistic ejaculation.

That is, Jackson may be, in addition to his talents and imagination, a run of the mill pedophile with vast wealth temporarily at his disposal to enact his predations. He may be little more than the stereotypical dirty middle-aged man who hangs around children’s playgrounds, except in his case, he’s bought the entire playground and transported it to his private domain. Certainly, that was the case the prosecution attempted to make, portraying Jackson as engaged in the absolutely standard “grooming” techniques of pedophiles — the provision of toys, alcohol, porn, and suggestive proposals, abetted by high-tech surveillance and a security army. Just another scruffy freak, but writ large and all dressed up. On this crucial point of fact, we are, I think, ignorant, a condition some moralising types find intolerable.


3. Okay, finally, let’s deal with some of the “ick” in the “ick factor.”

I was surprised by the number of otherwise sensible commentators who felt compelled to announce that they find Jackson “repulsive,” “sick,” “whacko,” “disgusting,” etc. Of course, the looney-tune commentators also said all that, at the top of their lungs. I take it that a lot of those declarations were not an actual expression of some visceral feeling or taste, but a way of establishing one’s bona fides about not being soft on “child abuse.”

Barbara Amiel’s remark that “crimes go in and out of fashion” is relevant here. In North America, we’re in the midst of a social hysteria or panic about sexual abuse of children that’s been going on since the 1970s. It is taken as fact that child sexual “abuse” is about the worst act imaginable. I’ll refrain from the insertion of a tiresome leftist pitch at this point for the evils of poverty and war as a means of getting a more realistic perspective on the evil of child sexual abuse. But the view that elevates child abuse is integral to the broader debate about cultural mores and wars. It’s a perspective not confined to the fundamentalist right, but is embraced by a range of feminist theorists, and large numbers of academic and freelance psychologists, who have made the slogan “scarred for life” a shibboleth about the alleged affects of any sexual contact between adults and children.

Although there are a few NAMBLA dissenters around, most of us think sex with children is morally impermissable because children under a certain age (what that age exactly is, is not entirely clear) are incapable of making informed judgments of consent to engage in such sexual activities. Even the ancient Greeks, who thought it was okay to have boys sleeping in their beds, devoted considerable discussion to the moral fine points about the circumstances under which such affections might be legitimate (see Plato’s Symposium if your memory needs jogging on this point). Since we all mostly agree about this, that makes the frequent demonstrations and declarations of revulsion all the more odd, since they have no function in securing social agreement on the issue, but seem primarily designed to enforce moralism.

Sure, there’s a debate to be had — one I won’t really enter into here — about a large range of subsidiary and semi-technical issues. They include: age of consent (in Canada, we think it’s somewhere in the range of mid-adolescence, maybe 16 or so); the long-term effects of sex between adults and non-adults; the question of the circumstances in which sex between adults and children takes place (for example, whether it’s overtly or implicitly coercive, or not) in relation to the longer-term effects on the children, etc. Usually, only a few right-wing commentators, generally of a libertarian bent, have, like Barbara Amiel, dared to suggest that “in the absence of violence, fear or physical coercion, in the absence of penetration,” little harm has been done, or like Andy Rooney, claimed that “there’s no evidence [Jackson] ruined any child’s life.”

I don’t think you need a hard and fast position on the subsidiary issues to recognize both that there really is child abuse (we have lots of evidence of it) and we should do whatever we can to prevent it, and that the issue has been emotionally exaggerated (for a variety of good and bad motives). In short, as with most other issues in the public forum, we need less ick, more thought.

As for Michael Jackson, while in Neverland there are boys like Peter Pan who never cease being boys, the bad news is that in Thisland, all the boys become someone and something else, even Michael Jackson.


Berlin, June 23, 2005


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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