Friday, July 3, 2009

Life's Rich Pageant

“Breaking news coming across the wire services right now. Michael Jackson is still dead. I repeat. Michael Jackson is still dead.”

This is a freak show, but even freak shows get old after a week of twenty-four hour coverage. The hyperbole is thick and caustic: Barack Obama became president because of Michael Jackson? He broke the barriers, and that is why we have a black president? MTV never played a black performer until Michael Jackson? Michael Jackson changed the face of popular music forever?

Get real. Michael Jackson changed his face. That is the only thing we can say with certainty.

And what about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X? The history of sports must include Jackie Robinson. Or in music, Nat King Cole, James Brown (a hero of Jackson’s), and Marvin Gaye, all of whom predated Jackson’s successes of the 1980s and 90s.

This weekend is the fourth of July and Americans need to do some serious reflection. People die, and for those close to the deceased, that is sad. But we need to keep sight of the bigger picture. Instead of showing up outside the gates of Neverland Ranch in Los Olivos where the Jackson family has already announced there will not be a viewing and service for the singer, Americans need to focus on the decline of the empire. Unemployment figures climbed yet again. Iran is on the verge of civil war, and Iraq experienced another round of violence as some American troops pulled out. And we have casualties for the first time in a long time in Afghanistan.

But maybe Americans cannot handle such self-examination. It is easier to mourn an eccentric, dysfunctional performer and follow his family members than to deal with our own issues. Michael Jackson’s death is an easy equation—he died and now we are sad. Losing a job and failing to find another, trying to fight off the bank from foreclosing on the house, facing a difficult world that demands thinking and decisive action—those are issues too complicated and too scary to contemplate.

We are a country that values the ostentatious, the material goods, the physical strength, and we ridicule the deficit of those things. We are not a nation of thinkers. But that is exactly the skill we need to survive the test of this age. And we need to inculcate these thinking skills in our children. Michael Jackson is not the role model for our youth. He took drugs, swore off education for fame and fortune, jeopardized the lives of his “children,” acted inappropriately with young boys, and produced music that has yet to stand the test of time. He ain’t Shakespeare, folks. And he certainly is not a hero.

Ours is a country founded by a few men of thought and action. These men based the documents of this country on French philosophical thought and good, old-fashioned logic and reason. Jefferson read books. Franklin read books. They wrote and rewrote and revised until they got it right. Not many countries can say their constitution survived two and a half centuries. Sure, it is a living document, subject to amendments and legal exploration, but the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, these words stand. They deliver us from our own fanaticism time and again.

We have a president who can write a sentence. Moreover, he can speak his mind and be understood by others. He continually applies a thoughtful approach to governance, and demonstrates thoughtful consideration before acting, far different from the previous administration that utilized a “knee-jerk” response to every challenge.

Americans need to follow his example. It is time for us to re-engage ourselves in the democracy and become part of the discussion. The challenges we face in this country require thinking skills—hard, focused, analytical thought and critical thinking. I fear we may not be up to the challenge.

As long as we are sidetracked by the cult of celebrity, by materialism, by gossip and rumor, we do not stand a chance. Times are hard and we cannot run away. We must stay and fight with our minds, or ability to learn and adapt. We must become something only a few of us have every been: thinkers.

Michael Jackson said it best: it does not matter if you are black or white. We know that now, after the election of Barack Obama. What matters is how we think, and that is what we need now to continue to be a part of the American dream, of life’s rich pageant.