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Michael Jackson’s comparison of himself to Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King in the videotaped testimony which recently aired at his trial will strike some as yet another example of a bizarre man’s stunning flight from reality. But it would be unjust to single out Michael as a warped celebrity with strange delusions of grandeur when, in reality, such far-fetched self-appraisal is thoroughly in keeping with how American celebrities see themselves.
Anyone who has watched the Academy Awards would be forgiven if they mistakenly believed that the actors and actresses receiving the awards were doing so for curing cancer and securing world peace rather than for, say, memorizing dialogue and impersonating a character in front of a camera.
A particularly memorable case in point was Halle Berry’s 2002 acceptance speech for the Academy Award for Best Actress in which, gasping for air as the enormity of the occasion gripped her, she deliriously exclaimed how she was “the vessel” who had advanced the, er, entire civil-rights movement.
After all, surely when a woman hyperventilates and screeches at the top of her lungs that she is the conduit that had so advanced “women of color,” she must be referring to something more than the enormous sacrifice required to sit for hours in hair and makeup in her luxury trailer and take direction in “Monster’s Ball.”
That American celebrities see themselves variously as gods and messiahs explains why they can behave so crassly and experience no shame. The average man who is engaged to a woman only to publicly dump her, when the association no longer suits his professional purposes, and then a little while later get another woman pregnant, without marrying her, would feel just a little bit of dishonor. After all, the gentleman is the man who commits to a woman – rather than uses her for either professional or sexual purposes. But Ben Affleck feels no such embarrassment, because he is a screen idol and famous people are, well, just different from you and me.
It was this belief that he is different – more elevated, more sensitive – than ordinary folk, and thus not subject to rigid rules of right and wrong that most destroyed the life and career of Michael Jackson, a man who once had considerable good in him. If you thought he was having too much plastic surgery, well, as a mere earthling you could never understand the imaging needs of a superstar. And if you thought that sharing a bed with a child, however platonic, was disgusting, well, that too is because seeing it from your mortal vantage point could never enlighten you as to how the self-proclaimed “voice for the voiceless” sees it.
I shall never forget how, when I was close to Michael and still believed that his celebrity could be used for positive purposes, we sat down to produce, for the purpose of publication, hours and hours of conversations about what he saw in children. The conversations were fascinating – Michael is much smarter and insightful than people would otherwise believe – and on one occasion the subject turned to evil historical figures who had had abusive parenting and which helped to partially explain why they had grown up to be monsters. Michael was claiming that everyone had good in them, and that he believed he could reach it, as the following transcript shows:
Shmuley: What if they were like the Nazis, just evil people?
Michael Jackson: I can’t imagine that I couldn’t reach their hearts in some kind of way.
S: So you believe that if you were face to face with Hitler you could …
MJ: Absolutely. Absolutely! He had to have had a lot of yes people around him who were afraid of him.
S: You believe that if you had an hour with Hitler you could somehow touch something inside of him?
MJ: Absolutely. I know I could.
S: With Hitler? Come on. So you don’t believe there is anyone who is completely evil and there is no way to touch them. So you don’t believe in punishing the wicked because then …
MJ: No, I believe you have to help them, give them therapy. You have to teach them, that somewhere something in their life went wrong. They don’t see what they do. They don’t understand that it is wrong a lot of times.
S: But Michael, there are clearly people who are irredeemable. Like Hitler. He was evil incarnate. There was no humanity there for you to address. You’d be speaking to the abyss, to a darkness like you never before witnessed. What about someone who has killed a lot of people? Don’t you believe that there should be no therapy for them? They are murderers and they need to face extreme punishment.
MJ: I feel horrible about it. I wish somebody could have reached their hearts.
S: What if they have done it already? They’ve already killed their victims.
MJ: If they have done it already, it is wrong.
Now, while Michael could be forgiven for his naive assumption that even hardened mass-murderers have something good left in them – a man is allowed to be a dreamer – what is truly shocking is his belief that he could somehow have gotten through to Adolph Hitler. One can only imagine what level of messiah-complex it takes to believe that one can pull the devil himself out of hell and bring him into heaven.
But Michael fell back on this messiah-complex to give meaning to his suffering. He never saw himself as having made mistakes that caused his anguish throughout his life, and even now in his trial feels that he is being unfairly persecuted. Rather, just as Christ was crucified for the sins of mankind, but remained innocent all along, so too Michael Jackson.
Little did Michael realize that all sin results from hubris. How sad that Michael could never see that a man who spends tens of millions of dollars on himself per year in the most lavish lifestyle, and has his security guards holding his umbrella for him even while he is on trial for his very life (where you would think he might finally have learned to exhibit some humility) is hardly the Messiah. He’s just another self-absorbed Hollywood celebrity.