Wednesday, June 15, 2005

only sort-of a Michael Jackson post

I paid very, very little attention to the Michael Jackson trial while it was going on. One more trial, bigger name defendant than most. Once it provided a glimpse into a possible social phenomenon, though, it started to get a little more interesting.

What social phenonmenon? I couldn't understand why so many people had convicted him even though the jury, which presumably has the best access to solid information and the best opportunity to judge the credibility of the witnesses, found him innocent on all counts. See the exchange in the comments here, for example. A lightbulb turned on when, in a recent conversation, someone said "I was hoping he'd get busted, because celebrities always seem to skate free." I think there might be a perspective shift going on, here. This person wasn't seeing MJ as an individual man who might spend the next 18.5 years of his life in prison, but instead as a member of a privileged class that is less subject to the laws that bind the rest of us.

On the one hand, MJ, OJ, Martha, etc. are human beings. They're individual people who are potentially innocent or guilty, and the trial is the best mechanism we currently have to determine that innocence or guilt. On the other, they're symbols, tokens in some sort of battle between people with a lot of money and power, and people without. Notice, also, that this is the same perspective shift that occurs in wars: switch from seeing the enemy as individuals to seeing them as tokens. (It may also be one that characterized the 9/11 hijackers. The Al Quaida training manual, as interpreted by Homeland Security, includes a number of passages designed to demonize the enemy.) There's a difference in degree, perhaps, but I don't think the shift is so different in kind. That commonality suggests there's something fairly deep going on here.

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