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Presidential Politics, Part 3

Willa:  Lisha, so much has changed since we wrote our last post. This emotionally wrenching election has finally ended, and I feel so stunned and demoralized. It feels like our political process is deeply damaged, maybe even broken as many people say, and it seems now more than ever it’s important to talk about alternative forms of power – meaning ways other than politics to bring about social change.

Lisha: This has been such a difficult time for me – confronting how deeply divided we are as a nation. I’m not at all sure that our institutions are strong enough to withstand the pressure they’re under, and I believe it demands a response. As Michael Jackson said in This Is It, “It starts with us. It’s us, or else it will never be done.”

Willa:  I think you’re right, Lisha, and that’s a great example. He’s specifically talking about the limitations of government here, and how politicians tend to follow public opinion, rather than lead it. That’s clear in the sentences leading up to the sentences you quoted:

People are always saying, “Oh, they’ll take care of it. The government will do it. Don’t worry, they’ll …” They who? It starts with us. It’s us, or else it will never be done.

Lisha: Michael Jackson made this statement back in 2009 as a part of “Earth Song,” urgently sounding the alarm about climate change. He warned this was going to require our participation if it was ever going to be solved, and he knew time was running out. So I can’t even imagine how he might have felt now, over seven years later, knowing that a climate change denier is about to be nominated as head of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Willa: I’ve been thinking the exact same thing. It feels like, at a time of great environmental peril, we’re about to take a huge step in the wrong direction. One small ray of hope is that Ivanka Trump arranged a meeting between her father and Al Gore, and afterward Gore called it “a lengthy and very productive session” and said it would “be continued.”

Lisha: Yes, it’s at least a glimmer of hope.

Willa: But I don’t know that we can just sit back and hope it all works out. After all, Michael Jackson never put much faith in politics.

Lisha: True. When Ebony magazine asked him about his political views back in 2007, he said:

To tell you the truth, I don’t follow that stuff. We were raised to not … we don’t look to man to fix the problems of the world, we don’t. They can’t do it. That’s how I see it. It’s beyond us.

Willa: That’s a great quote, Lisha. But while he was skeptical of politics, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t socially engaged. He believed passionately in the power of art, specifically, to change people’s perceptions, ideas, and emotions.

Lisha: He was willing to step up to the plate and do what he knew to do. And I think he made some amazing contributions that we still benefit from today.

Willa: Exactly. In a 1980 interview on 20/20, he described how audiences would respond when he and his brothers performed on stage, and then he linked that response to important cultural changes – the kind of deep emotional changes artists can evoke but politicians can’t. Here’s what he said:

When they’re all holding hands and everybody’s rocking, and all colors of people are there, all races, it’s the most wonderful thing. Politicians can’t even do that.

Lisha: Wow. He was so young when he said that. But it sums up so much about his life’s work and what was yet to come.

Willa:  It really does. And we see that focus on deep cultural change not only in his concerts, but in his song lyrics, short films, poems and essays, and other art as well.

However, some of his art didn’t announce itself as art, and often we don’t think of it as art. But this other kind of “art” was also very important at bringing about social change.

Lisha: That’s so very true.

Willa: For example, his meetings at the White House with Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush can be seen as a type of public theater, as we talked about last time. There’s staging and costumes, photography and cinematography, and the distribution of the resulting images around the world – all elements of an elaborate, globally released theatrical production.

And those images of Michael Jackson being treated as a respected guest at the White House, like an honored dignitary, had a political as well as an artistic effect – they helped change public perceptions about the “proper” position of a black man in America. Those images of a black man walking with confidence through the White House may even have helped Americans visualize what it might be like to someday have a black man living in the White House, and in that way may have helped pave the way for Barack Obama.

Lisha: This is such an important point, Willa. Those were very powerful images that helped loosen up old, unconscious ideas about the great white male as being uniquely qualified to lead.

I think a lot of Americans hear the word “racism” and instantly try to disown it, thinking it exclusively means the kind of hateful prejudice expressed by David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. We know from experience that most Americans aren’t like that, although I will say there has been a shocking degree of tolerance for these groups in this election cycle.

Willa: There really has. That’s one of the most disheartening realizations of this election – that a large percentage of Americans are able to ignore racism, misogyny, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and other kinds of prejudice in exchange for promises of economic gain.

Lisha: This has been so painful for me to come to grips with. And I feel like there’s just so much denial about it. For example, even without harboring any kind of racial animus, racism is still a part of all of our lives in the US, whether we want to admit to it or not. The term “racism” isn’t just about hate groups or hate speech. It also refers to a caste system based on race, where the dominant white culture enjoys a distinct advantage. And that’s something we desperately need to address.

Willa: Absolutely. That’s such an important point, Lisha.

Lisha:  But as you said, Michael Jackson used his art to upend that system back in 1984, at least for a moment, when he put on a glitzy military costume and commanded the White House lawn. He upstaged all involved, President and Mrs. Reagan included. I think that was such a smart, bold move that challenged how power operates in a very clever way.

Willa: Yes, and those images of him with President and Mrs. Reagan, and later with President Bush, were widely broadcast and I think they had a powerful political effect around the world.

You know, we began our last post with Frederick Douglass, who was one of the first to realize the power of images in overcoming racism. We also mentioned Douglass visiting Abraham Lincoln, so I thought it was interesting that Dave Chappelle talked about that in a moving monologue on Saturday Night Live after our recent election.

At 9:50 minutes in, Chappelle describes going to a party at the White House a few weeks ago and says this:

Now I’m not sure if this is true, but to my knowledge the first black person who was officially invited to the White House was Frederick Douglass. They stopped him at the gates. Abraham Lincoln had to walk out himself and escort Frederick Douglass into the White House. And it didn’t happen again, as far as I know, until Roosevelt was president. When Roosevelt was president, he had a black guy over and got so much flak from the media that he literally said “I will never have a nigger in this house again.”

Lisha: I have to say that Chappelle’s words hit me hard. How shameful – how utterly disgraceful – that a group of Americans have been thought of and treated in such an abominable way.

Willa: Yes, and by President Roosevelt of all people, who along with his wife Eleanor is often considered a champion of civil rights. In fact, Michael Jackson includes Roosevelt’s picture in the prison version of They Don’t Care about Us.

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He also mentions Roosevelt by name in the lyrics, singing these powerful words of praise:

Tell me, what has become of my rights?
Am I invisible because you ignore me?
Your proclamation promised me free liberty, now
I’m tired of being the victim of shame
They’re throwing me in a class with a bad name
I can’t believe this is the land from which I came
You know I really do hate to say it
The government don’t wanna see
But if Roosevelt was living
He wouldn’t let this be, no no

Michael Jackson repeats these last two lines in a later verse, substituting Martin Luther King’s name for Roosevelt’s, which suggests he sees them in somewhat parallel ways. Specifically, he implies that neither Roosevelt nor Martin Luther King would tolerate injustice – they “wouldn’t let this be.”

But if Dave Chappelle is right, that may not be true. Maybe Roosevelt would have bowed to political pressure after all, as presidents often do, and as he himself did when “he had a black guy over” to the White House and capitulated to all the criticism he received for it in the press.

Lisha: Ok, well, let’s stop and think about that. Clearly, there was a limit as to how far he would go in defending the racialized “Other.”

Willa: That’s true, or how far he felt he could go. If politicians get too much beyond the people who elected them, they run the risk of losing their constituency. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he reportedly told an aide, “We have just lost the South for a generation.” And he was right. With a few minor exceptions, the South has gone solidly Republican ever since, though a few states like North Carolina and Virginia seem to be tilting back.

But your point is well taken, Lisha. In general, politicians simply can’t move people the way an artist like Michael Jackson can. If they push their constituencies further than they want to go, they may lose what power they do have.

Lisha: Michael Jackson wrote “They Don’t Care About Us” more than twenty years ago, but it’s just as relevant now as it’s ever been. The song has continued to show up when needed, for example as protesters take to the streets to defend this simple claim: “all lives can’t matter until black lives matter.”

It’s crucial right now that we try to hang on to those lofty ideals we just never got around to carrying out, things like “liberty and justice for all.” Michael Jackson envisioned them in artistic ways that bypassed our rational mind and hit at deeply buried, unconscious ideas and attitudes. It’s up to us to recognize these as meaningful sites of resistance and keep moving forward.

Willa:  Absolutely. He talked about this explicitly in films such as They Don’t Care About Us, Black or White, and Can You Feel It, but also in numerous more subtle ways as well. We see some of these more subtle explorations in Thriller and Ghosts, and more radically in the changing color of his skin. We also see it in unconventional art such as the political theater of his visits to the White House.

But there were times when he explicitly used the power and spectacle of politics to draw attention to causes he cared about.

Lisha: One example I’ve been inspired by is the 1993 inaugural gala for then President-elect Bill Clinton. Although Michael Jackson was previously honored by two Republican administrations, when a Democrat was elected, Michael Jackson was again on center stage. He used the opportunity to draw attention to an issue that he deeply cared about, paying tribute to Ryan White with “Gone Too Soon.” It’s worth taking a few minutes to re-watch this and really take it in:

Willa: This is such a powerful moment. And you’re right, Lisha. It’s also a clear example of Michael Jackson using the political theater surrounding the American presidency to raise awareness about a cause he believed in – in this case, AIDS – as well as a person he cared about.

Lisha: I can’t help but notice how moved both President and Secretary Clinton are by this performance. As we all know, they later established a charity foundation that now supplies life-saving medication to over half the world’s AIDS population.

Willa: Yes, and that’s really important to remember. I don’t think Bill Clinton expended much political capital on the AIDS epidemic before Michael Jackson championed the issue during this inauguration performance. And that artistic act has had a long-term effect through the Clinton Foundation, as you say, saving thousands of lives worldwide.

We see a similar focus on raising awareness for specific political issues when Michael Jackson teamed up with former President Carter for the Heal LA Project, which was later expanded to Atlanta also. Michael Jackson talked about the LA project during a speech about his upcoming 1993 Superbowl halftime show, and he cites both President Carter and President Clinton as inspirations:

And of course, he incorporated these themes into the halftime show itself, especially in the grand finale performance of “Heal the World”.

President Carter actually came to Neverland as they worked on the project. Here’s a picture taken during his visit:

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Lisha: I love that photo!

Willa: I do too! And there are quite a few photos from the announcement of the Atlanta project in the Omni. Here’s a video slideshow of some of those:

Lisha: Those are wonderful, Willa. Michael Jackson certainly did hang out with the presidents, didn’t he?

Willa:  He really did – another trait he shared with Frederick Douglass.

Lisha: Well, we still have more to cover on this topic. To be continued…