Jackson's trial, our error

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K. For, without doing anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning. So begins The Trial, whose lonely protagonist stumbles into a judicial nightmare orchestrated by a malign society.
On United States campuses, thousands of freshmen read Kafka’s novel every year.

In Santa Maria, California, the plot is being played for real. In place of Joseph K, read Michael Jackson. Or so his supporters believe, as they scream his innocence into television microphones. For Jackson fans, his Neverland ranch is a child’s paradise. To his enemies, it is hardly more benign than Abu Ghraib with monkeys. If you discount the defendant’s variable skintone, there are no shades of black and white here.

Ten million dollars and four months down the line, the trial of the century finally fulfilled some of its promise as Jackson awaits a verdict on 10 child abuse charges, all of which he denies. The jury has been out for a week, and sociology dons are explaining why we should be gripped.

According to Professor Toby Miller of the University of California, the world is witnessing ‘the tragedy of a psyche and the tragedy of an empire’. Excessive? Not if you buy the idea that Jackson is the emblem of his nation. The SUV, the plastic surgery and the petfood bill that would sustain large tracts of Africa all reflect a US everyman. When Jackson gazes into a mirror, the face of consumerist America stares back. Alternatively, he is the symbol of a faith-based superpower, according to fans who could long ago have discounted the allegations on the Almighty’s tip-off, without the bother of a trial.

Or maybe the singer, flanked by his three brothers, is the incarnation of down-home America. His spokesman, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, sells him as the frontman for civil rights. Others see, in a king of pop with princes for offspring, the profile of a cultural imperialist stamping his country’s vision on the world.

Even for a nip-and-tuck chameleon, this is a lot of facial reconstruction. Besides, informed patriotism was never Jackson’s specialist subject. As his old record boss, Walter Yetnikoff once wrote: ‘I wasn’t sure he could name the President of the United States.’

More plausibly, Jackson is a magnet to the rootless of many nations. Those standing vigil include a student dropout from London, who has spent £14 000 on this pilgrimage, and a young mother who has left her three children at home in Essex. Many are refugees from poverty, failure, abuse or just reality. Everyone seems, like their spiritual hero, to be fleeing something.

The odd spectacle inside and outside the courthouse has been treated with ambivalence by more remote observers. Some feel sorry for Jackson, whose debt is estimated at $335-million and who has exchanged his moonwalk for the shuffle of a man hobbled by pain

Others see the trial as a piece of modern social theatre (or postmodern, as the Jackson studies dons would have it), revealing some overlooked verity about the state of America or, at a push, humanity.

But the case bears a more literal reading. Jackson may be pitiful and damaged by his childhood, but he is also a shrewd player and a formidable legal foe. In 1993, claims of abuse by a boy called Jordan Chandler were settled out of court for $20m. None of this suggests that Jackson is guilty of any past transgression or of the charges relating to his 13-year-old former friend, Gavin Arviso.

It does, though, say something about public reaction to alleged child abuse. In Britain, fear of suspected paedophiles is one of the dominant terrors of the age. In America, the mood is even heavier with panic. Here, campaigners failed to have convicted men named and shamed in the wake of the murder of the schoolgirl, Sarah Payne. Megan’s Law, the US model, was ratified in 1996. Brought in after the rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka, it gives communities full details of any sex offender released into their midst.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the fearful have failed to grasp that the overwhelming majority of child harm, sexual and otherwise, is home-based. Last year, US child abuse services logged 896 000 cases of maltreatment. That so much attention is focused on one case involving a pop star is less strange, though, than the tepid reaction.

The lack of mass hysteria cannot be ascribed to Jackson’s fame, for well-known suspects tend to suffer most. Entertainer Matthew Kelly was subjected to hateful speculation before it emerged that allegations that he had sexually abused a boy were wholly without foundation.

For the non-famous, panic over children trumps most human rights, perhaps including that of life. Of the men arrested as part of Operation Ore, the investigation into a pay-per-view child pornography website, more than 30 have committed suicide.

Jackson is a US royal, whose long-dead marriage to Lisa-Marie Presley once seemed akin to a match between a Montague and a Capulet. On any normal logic, his case would have captivated America for many months. That it failed to do so is only partly down to the fact that there was nothing novel in the latest charges.

Public lassitude had more to do with Jackson’s accuser, Gavin Arviso, a child too old for fairytales and too knowing for pity. If an absent father and a mother susceptible to fame and blandishments made him vulnerable, those tokens did not add up to Hollywood-style pathos. Beyond the Santa Maria courtroom, there are wider questions for society.

At a time of generation creep, naivety and purity are no longer deemed the province of any particular age group. Do we prefer the testimony of infantilised adults or of children grown old and cynical beyond their years? In the Jackson case, the jury will decide which of the two is telling the truth. Elsewhere, the confusion will go on.

In a society riven by ill-founded fears of shadowy predators, the prayerful of America and Europe gather each day at the gates of Neverland to bless a 46-year-old star who has advocated innocently sharing a bed with other people’s children. Since there is no suggestion that other well-intentioned, middle-aged men clad modestly in pyjamas should follow his example, the fans may be making an exception here.

So, too, is a wider audience. For the first time in years, Michael Jackson is suddenly being hailed - in the media and university common rooms alike—as a cultural phenomenon and a symbol of modern America. Maybe he will face up to 20 years in prison. Maybe he will walk from court this week an innocent man.

Irrespective of the result, his case should be seen for what it is. This is a child-abuse trial, not an audit of the American psyche. Nor is it, as the fans imply, a judicial travesty featuring Jackson as Kafka’s helpless Joseph K.

Michael Jackson is more powerful than that. His records may not be selling well these days, but, far beyond the court precincts of Santa Maria, many millions still buy the mythology. - Guardian Unlimited Â