It is wrong to speak ill of the dead, at least of the recently dead: Decency requires that one waits a few months before doing that.
Therefore, when I say that by far the most significant thing about Michael Jackson, indeed the only thing about him that will interest future social historians, was his dim and vulgar freakishness (assuming that such freakishness has not become the norm by then), I mean it much more as a criticism of the society that first raised him up and then bowed down and worshipped him than of the man - if man is quite the word I seek - himself.
His life, it seems to me, was deeply tragic. Raised to be a performing seal, he was surely subjected to a severe form of child abuse. If he had actually been a circus animal, he would have been better protected; and it takes someone of quite exceptional toughness to survive such maltreatment with anything like an intact psyche.
Having developed strange desires, and with the money to indulge his whims, he fell into the hands of criminal doctors, who were complicit in his successive self-mutilations. He is a perfect illustration of the ethical principle that a patient is, or ought to be, different from a client or customer; and that doctors, while they cannot force unwanted treatments on patients, are not correspondingly required to comply with their wishes, however bizarre they might be.
The doctors who turned Michael Jackson into the kind of specimen one might expect to see preserved in a bottle in a pathology museum had a duty to call a halt to his bizarre self-transformations well before that stage was reached.
Compassion is due to someone who was so consumed with self-hatred, and with such a strong desire to be something very different from what nature made him, that he was willing to turn himself into a freak from photographs of which one averts one's eyes out of sheer discomfort. Unfortunately, as the doctors must have known very well, the bizarre appetite in such a case grows with the feeding; nevertheless, they went ahead and treated his profoundly damaged psyche as a cash cow.
The attention accorded his death will also interest future social historians. There has been nothing like it since the death of Princess Diana. The day after his death from heart attack (if that is what he died of), the paper of the British intelligentsia, The Guardian, printed an eight-page supplement, as if he were of transcendent importance. The prose strained to extol his genius.
Here is a sample: "More than Oprah Winfrey, more than Will Smith, more even than Barack Obama, Michael Jackson held within himself America in excelsis , the real deal: what it meant to be free and young in the land of possibilities."
It is difficult to tell from the internal evidence alone whether this is intended as the grossest sycophancy, satire or an anti-American diatribe. If Michael Jackson represented freedom, it was surely freedom à la Harold Skimpole, the character in Dickens's Bleak House : "I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to Harold Skimpole what it concedes to the butterflies."
In their attempts to pretend that Michael Jackson's song-and-dance routine was among mankind's greatest accomplishments, the writers indulged in what might be called the higher drivel. Here is one explanation of the great star's progressive self-whitening: "His goal was patently to be not just white but whiter-than-white, not just Wasp but Wasper-than-Wasp. It was as though what he always craved was to embody a single-member species of hyper-whiteness, hyper-Waspness, hyper-Aryanism, one that would be as 'superior' to the white race as, in the codified racist hierarchy, the white race itself is claimed to be to the black."
Surely, it was simply that the immense popularity of his kitsch permitted him to indulge his bizarre and childish whims.
Theodore Dalrymple, a British writer and retired physician, is the author of Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses .