Everybody slows down to get a better look at a car accident. There's a bit of a sick kick we get from driving by and thinking, "That poor sucker's not me." The entertainment industry figured it out a long time ago: It's what keeps million of viewers glued to the set watching closeted, tone-deaf wanna-bes on American Idol or that thick Joe Millionaire chump duping a bunch of women into believing he's rich.
But our pop culturealways indicative of national public sentimentseems closer to passing some point of no return, some place at which we forget that, no matter how much fun it will continue to be to mock whatever Lara Flynn Boyle chooses to wear next, the rabid way in which we dehumanize another person's misfortunes cannot help but affect how we respond to one another. We seem in danger of ignoring the reality of human misery in a time when, more than ever, we need to stop looking at the world at a comfortable remove. Never has this been more apparent than in the continuing exploitation of Michael Jackson.
In the aftermath of the alarming baby-dangling incident, we've been offered Jackson's ever-crumbling hold on sanity as must-see entertainment. ABC's 20/20 ran a scathing British documentary, Living With Michael Jackson, in which a deer-in-the-headlights Michael maintained that his tortured face had been treated to nothing more than a couple of nose jobs. Then there was, of course, Michael Jackson Unmasked, NBC's in-depth look at just how much bad cosmetic surgery the troubled entertainer had undergone. If we were all viewing this with honest compassion for him, it would be one thing. But, come on now, we're not. Enough already.
Michael Jackson has been supporting his entire family since he was about 4. To hear him at 10 years old convincingly begging "Oh, baby, give me one more chance" in "I Want You Back" as though he were a heartbroken lover is to know he was blessed with a gift far beyond the comprehension of his years. And who ever gave him the chance to catch up? His father was evidently not a tender one. Most of his siblings can't really maintain careers without him (would you pay to see Marlon and Tito jamming without Michael's moonwalk?). The fact that Janet, whose aggressively enhanced breasts alone are worth concern, is viewed as the sane one says a lot about the distorted life his clan must have led as children. It's no wonder Michael has made himself look like some plastic Pinocchio: He's another confused soul who just wanted to be a real boy and has now spent millions of dollars constructing a self-made fantasy world that will finally allow that to happen.
The only thing driving coverage about Jackson's private despair is the dangerous manipulation of our basic human compulsion. People in charge want to squeeze every last drop of money out of it. (They've succeeded: Aside from the high ratings, this latest round of "Wacko Jacko" has upped sales of his back catalog.) We don't really care that a devastatingly confused adult has been harming himself and, possibly, several other children in the process. We just want to feel safe in our smug distance. Shame on us.