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The Power of His Art: a Call for Papers

Willa: This week I am very happy to be joined by Toni Bowers, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of four books and dozens of articles, including a fabulous article in our Reading Room, “Dancing with Michael Jackson: Baltimore and Its Discontents.”

Toni: Hey, Willa – thanks for this invitation. I’m a big admirer of your blog.

Willa: Thank you, Toni. It’s wonderful to have you here with me, especially since we have some very exciting news to announce! Toni and I are planning to publish a book on Michael Jackson as an artist, cultural figure, and agent of social change. It will be a collection of essays, and we’re hoping writers from many different disciplines and perspectives will contribute to it. Here is our Call for Papers:

Call for Papers

And here’s a link to the posting at Academia.edu.

Toni: I am so excited about this collaborative project, Willa, and honored to be working with you.

Willa: Oh, I was honored that you asked me to participate. This seems like such an important and timely project.

Toni: Definitely. I think that it is the right time to recognize what Michael Jackson really achieved artistically and what a prescient voice his was when it comes to the civil rights emergency that our country is in right now. We hope to include voices from around the world in this collection of essays, but at the same time the project has a particular agenda in our US context – not only because of the specific civil rights issues that are erupting here, but also because this is the place where Jackson’s reputation and influence have suffered so much, and so unfairly.

Willa: I agree. I don’t think it’s coincidental that #BlackLivesMatter activists keeps turning to his music. As you wrote in your article, “the same structures of injustice that are permitting civil authorities to murder unarmed American citizens right now also hurt Jackson.” And also “Jackson achieved more than irresistible, superbly marketable tracks, or even magnificent music. His work also remains politically potent.” So in that sense, this is a good time to go back and take a close look at his work, and explore why it continues to speak to people so powerfully to this day.

But also, I think this is a good time because perceptions of him have changed radically in recent years. Scholars, especially, have gained a deeper appreciation of his work, but I don’t think those insights have filtered into popular opinion yet. Public attitudes have softened, it’s true, but I don’t think the public at large really understands yet the cultural significance of his work, or what was so extraordinary about him as an artist. So a volume of essays that brings those insights to a larger audience is important, I think.

And maybe the fact that public opinion about him is starting to shift, or at least soften, means that readers will be more receptive now to different ways of looking at him.

Toni: Well, I hope so. I know what you mean about the softening of opinion, but it is important also to recognize that there’s not really a single “popular opinion.” I think that many “black” Americans (again, not a single community, not a stable racial marker – these are the myths that perpetuate racism) never did turn against Jackson the way many “white” Americans did. Or more accurately, many “white” Americans had long looked askance at him out of embedded racist notions, and that simmering resentment, distrust, and even hatred were able to roar out in the context of the molestation set-up. I think that in a way, when we work on editing this collection we are helping to balance out the lagging and misinformed interpretations of his work that still often prevail in some communities, correcting them with more rounded, generous, and informed interpretations, based on actual thinking and evidence, like those that have long prevailed elsewhere.

Achieving that balancing act seems to me to have something in common with the delicate position of “white” Americans in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I fall into the “white” category, and I have no doubt that I can and must be an active ally. But I have also started to recognize that it is “black” Americans who are at the front of the line, who best understand what is going on, and whose voices must be heard. That community – or set of communities, which I think is more accurate – is leading the way, and should lead the way.

(I’m going to stop with the scare quotes, by the way, because they’re visually distracting. But if I say “white” or “black” again, I hope you’ll still hear my scepticism toward the fiction that those terms denote unchanging, clearly defined, tidily separate categories.)

Willa: I agree, though sometimes whites use that as an excuse to do nothing. It should not be up to blacks to solve racism. After all, it is white attitudes, for the most part, that need to change. So I agree that whites should take guidance from black leaders and writers and thinkers, but then we need to look within – both individually and institutionally – to help bring about the changes necessary to end the racism that continues to pervade American culture.

Toni: You’ve said it so eloquently. To paraphrase a wise man, we as privileged citizens need to “take a look at ourselves and make a change.”

I really want to find good ways to practice this balancing act with my white friends, who express real heartache and rage about what’s happening across the country right now. How to respond? I tried to get at this in “Dancing with Michael Jackson” (I don’t like the subtitle, by the way, and didn’t write it; I’d have suggested something more positive like “Learning from Baltimore” if it had been up to me) when I said that it is a pity that those already privileged expect the very people they are oppressing to educate them – or words to that effect. That’s really more than a pity, it’s a disgrace.

Willa: It really is, and one of the many things about your article that caused me to say, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” as I was reading it. So Toni, what led you to write your article?

Toni: It was a strange experience. To give any kind of accurate narrative, I’d have to begin by saying that I seem to have been one of only a few people on Earth who wasn’t especially aware of Michael Jackson in the 80s and 90s. There are complicated reasons for that, which may or may not interest you and your readers; I’m happy to expand, if so. But the bottom line is that when someone said “Michael Jackson,” I thought of “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” and “I’ll Be There,” songs I loved as a child. I heard Jackson’s music everywhere, I now realize, but I didn’t really listen to it, didn’t identify it as his or focus on him in any way at all.

It may have been because when I was small, my parents were very wisely grieved about his experiences as a child star with the Jackson 5. I did like J5, but when my parents looked at it they saw a re-run of the exploitation of their contemporary Shirley Temple, and they were horrified. I guess I picked up their disapproval and sadness, and just turned my attention elsewhere. Anyway, even though I was actually living in Pasadena when Jackson first danced “Billy Jean” at the Motown anniversary concert – I could possibly have bought a ticket! I’d move mountains to have that possibility again! – he just wasn’t on my radar screen.

Until the tabloids in the grocery store, of course, and all the “wacko” stuff. I’m glad to say that I’ve never purchased a copy of The National Enquirer or People, and didn’t read those stories that were all over the place. But even I, though pretty colossally oblivious, could not remain oblivious to Michael Jackson at that time – the headlines and pictures were everywhere, even on the TV. I’m sure I sat through some of the southern California “news” reports that he quotes in “Breaking News.” They sound eerily familiar.

I am ashamed to say that I didn’t much question the narrative I was being fed, either. It was very easy, too easy, just to accept that this person, this human being, was the worst kind of monster. I just believed it – still without giving it a lot of attention – based on absolutely nothing except those crazy headlines. It disturbs me now to realize that I participated in the injustice and character assassination leveled at Jackson during those years by not questioning what I was hearing. I cared a lot about Rodney King; I chose a job in Philadelphia in order to live a diverse city; but I didn’t connect the dots. I was the walking personification of unselfconscious white privilege. If I thought about it at all, I think I would have tended to link Jackson with OJ Simpson – two rich celebrities who got off. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to think about the racial piece, or about my own racism in conflating those two very different men.

Fast forward to 2015. Yeah really, 2015! That’s how long it took me to think this through at all. In January of 2015, I heard “You are Not Alone” after many years, and it was a revelation. I recognized the song, had surely heard it before, but didn’t know it, really. This time I was struck by its beauty as a piece of music, moved by the lyrics, and really, really impressed by the subtlety of the voice. Lo and behold, it was Michael Jackson.

That got me looking for more Jackson songs on YouTube. It surprised me that songs I already liked but hadn’t paid a lot of attention to (“Human Nature,” “We Are the World”) were all performed by this same guy! I was blown away by his version of “Come Together,” which I knew from John Lennon (who didn’t do it nearly as well, in my humble opinion). I listened again and again to “Smooth Criminal,” “They Don’t Care About Us,” “Fall Again,” “Don’t Walk Away.” And of course, because this was YouTube, instantly I was watching him dance – another amazing, astounding revelation. Then I watched the Bucharest concert and found that I was just sitting forward in the chair with my mouth open. I really had had no idea.

My response to being interested in something is always to do research, one of the great joys of my life. I just love to uncover and learn and put the pieces together. So I dove in really deep, and learned a lot fast.

Willa: You really have. I would never have guessed you were such a recent convert! I’ve been a Michael Jackson fan most of my life – since I was nine years old – and you’ve taught me some things I didn’t know.

Toni: I am still learning. I’ve read a lot, and watched and listened a lot, and memorized a lot, and corresponded with a lot of people. (Even John Branca very graciously wrote back to me.) I wrote that LARB essay, and – this makes me very proud – I’ve started learning to dance.

It was also in January that I returned from an extended time abroad, and began to catch up on the racist horrors that were happening here. And for once it all just came together in my mind. In fact, I’d like to make clear that I think of the LARB article not as something primarily about Jackson (though that’s how it’s been received, and being welcomed by the huge variety of communities of people who think about Jackson has been a really great experience) but about the racism and brutality that persist in the United States. Jackson is not only a representative for me – he matters in himself, as a person, for his brilliance, his courage, and the careful, responsible uses he made of his gifts. But he is representative, too. His experience seems to me to clarify the suffering that majorities inflict on minorities, the cruelty so easily practiced against anyone who draws outside the lines, and the degree to which we who have (entirely unearned) racial privilege are willing to put up with all kinds of ugliness in order to protect it.

Willa: I really like the way you explained that, Toni – that he’s “not only a representative for me – he matters in himself, as a person … But he is representative, too.” I feel that way also. His story is important because he matters – as an individual human being and as an artist – but also because it provides insights into larger cultural issues as well. His story forces us to take a hard look at race and difference and the American judicial system, as well as the media and public perception. What was it exactly that allowed perceptions of him to be so distorted for so long? That can really take you down the rabbit hole, raising questions about how we conceptualize black and white, masculine and feminine, adult and child, and a whole host of other rather artificial binaries – and also why we as a culture are so uncomfortable with those who dare to challenge or blur those distinctions.

So Toni, listening to you talk about your own shifting perceptions of Michael Jackson – your childhood love for “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” and “I’ll Be There” (three of my favorites as well), your drift away in the 80s, your acceptance of the dominant narratives about him in the 90s, and then your rediscovery of him recently – helps explain something that really struck me while reading your article. Academics like yourself seem to be increasingly drawn to his work – drawn to explore the depth and power and complexity of his work – and that’s a fascinating intellectual exercise. I can see why academics are so intrigued by him. But the best new articles not only engage with his work intellectually but also emotionally and even physically. I really sensed that in your article – that you feel a deep connection to his music and his dancing. For example, I love the way you talk about the sheer joy of his dancing. And now you’re learning to dance! Is that related to your interest in Michael Jackson?

Toni: Yes, entirely. It’s the joy and exuberance of his dancing that hooked me, fully as much as the artistic and intellectual excellence. It just looked like so much fun! Even though it was work for him, he obviously loved it. I liked that he experimented and practiced really hard, and that encouraged me to experiment and practice. Dancing at all was a totally new experiment for me, which I know is weird. I’ve found Michael Jackson’s music and dancing to be one of the most joyful places (as it were) on Earth. I’m grateful I finally got there.

Should I explain my background?

Willa: Yes, please.

Toni: Well. I was raised in an evangelical Christian home, and there were lots of rules designed, basically, to tamp down physical pleasure, confidence, and spontaneity. One major rule was No Dancing Ever. I never went to a high school dance, never danced at a party (no parties), never saw dancing at a wedding (if there was any, I guess we left first), never went to a concert that wasn’t classical music or something at church. I had to check with my parents to be sure it was okay to learn square dancing in gym class. All my socializing was at the church, and dancing was out for the kids there, too.

I was a serious violinist, gave piano lessons, loved music theory and how music is put together – how it works – and all that was approved at home. I loved, and still love, Protestant hymns, ethnic folk music (Jewish, British, Spanish, Mexican), spirituals and gospel; I’ve sung in a lot of choirs, first at church and then madrigals and renaissance music, Welsh music, much more sophisticated liturgical music in Episcopalian churches, lots of stuff. I deeply appreciate all the music I’ve had in my life, and I wouldn’t be me without it.

But a lot was missing, too, especially dance. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t lived in a subculture like that, but it probably never even occurred to me to dance. My world was a (softer) version of the Mennonite community Miriam Toews describes in her wonderful recent novel, All My Puny Sorrows. A lot more children than most of us recognize are growing up in repressive worlds, and those places tend to be especially repressive toward girls.

Anyway, by the beginning of 2015 when I noticed Michael Jackson at last, I’d long listened to lots of kinds of music, and though I still try to be a person of faith, my evangelical upbringing was firmly in the past. Even so, actually listening to Jackson changed something: it made me dance for the first time. I found that I could not watch his concerts (those I’ve been able to find on DVD) or even listen to his music without dancing, even though I knew nothing about dancing and had never danced. It was just impossible not to. So, I gave in. Now, many nights I spend an hour in front of the mirror trying to teach myself to dance a little bit more elegantly, with the volume way up. I’ve rediscovered Motown, and have found Stax and Chess records, and a lot of more recent voices that I won’t name-drop, but really, it’s mostly Jackson. He’s the one who gets me dancing. His is such a wide, deep corpus, and the recordings are of such amazing musical complexity, creativity, and craft. It’s just beautiful stuff.

Willa: It really is.

Toni: I do sometimes wish he’d used more time signatures, though. Anyway, I’ve been taking ballroom classes for a few months now, and am lined up for tap toward the end of the year. My ballroom teacher has even promised to teach me to moonwalk!

So yeah, Michael Jackson “taught” me to dance! (Ha ha, if only)

Willa: That’s awesome! So it sounds like, for you, dancing is truly an expression of personal liberation – from your own past, the repression you internalized in childhood that continued into your adult life. But in your article, you also suggest a number of times that dancing is a communal act, and a powerful political act. For example, I love the way you end your article:

To dance with Michael Jackson, to take his outstretched hand, is about more than honoring a difficult, extraordinary life and immense gifts — though it is high time we did that without grudging, judging, or telling lies. It is something we must do for ourselves and for each other — not in an attempt to keep ourselves safe from the present pain and danger, but to move farther into the most perplexing aspects of our own lives, and confront them with joy. It is a way of choosing the kind of future we want, and the kind of people we want to be.

Dancing with Michael Jackson will mean letting go of hatred and fear, acknowledging beauty in what seems strange to us, and being willing to take a chance. It will demand that we deal with other people imaginatively, empathetically, in what we think of as our own space, and with respect. In these ways, the dance Jackson invites us to dance is a kind of ethical practice. It is a way of living up to our creeds and professions, and of taking responsibility for our privileges.

Got the point? Good. Let’s dance.

Toni: Yeah, you’re right, I’ve learned that dancing is an “us” thing, not an “I” thing. It’s a leveller and a way of welcoming difference. As soon as I realized that, I became less self-conscious and found a whole new kind of joy.

And thanks, by the way, for giving the article so much space in your blog. (The quotation, apparently, is not quite correct: it should be “Get,” not “Got.” The commenters on the LARB site let me know that, so many thanks to them.)

The truth is that when I started watching/listening to Jackson, I wasn’t sure I could accept his ideas about popular music’s potential as a social catalyst for change. It wasn’t that the idea itself seemed wrong or untrue – as a materialist literary critic I am absolutely convinced of the power of art to change attitudes and practices, and I had no trouble accepting that popular music is indeed art – but there was a kind of quantity problem for me: all those thousands of waving arms, and where was the change? Also in terms of scale, there was the grandiosity of some of the productions, which it took me a while to realize were not designed for my little TV, but for stadiums seating 90,000 people. Still, I wondered: was dancing on stage, in these mass venues, for millions of dollars, really a political act?

So of course, time for more research. I found Jackson’s own words – in his books, songs, interviews – very helpful. But reading his writing also made me realize that in his case, words are only part of the picture: the meaning is in the whole thing – words, music, dance, his mysterious, perfect-pitch physical language of gesture and restraint. Critical writings like your close readings in M Poetica and Joe Vogel’s essay on Black or White demonstrated more than I had imagined, and were responsible to the whole picture in a really productive way.

Then getting into the biography, it became clear to me that Jackson didn’t just claim to be a political agent; he was really perceived as a threat to white supremacy in this country. Here he was, a young, working-class black man with epic-scale musical gifts and never-before-seen professional success. He was richer than Paul McCartney, for goodness sake, and he was so young! The very smart business decision to buy McCartney’s songs as part of that ATV catalog is still an affront to many people, even though Jackson first took the unusual step of making sure that McCartney and Yoko Ono weren’t buying. I had to ask myself: where does such violent and lasting resentment and disapproval come from? Does anybody blame other businessmen for making stupendous coups? I learned that the problem is not what Jackson did, but the racism that was always harbored against him, and the danger lurking in his really pioneering challenges to the identity categories that organize and limit our lives (as you mentioned above) – gender, race, age. Only that peculiarly combustible combination, I think, can explain the level of malice directed at such a gentle man.

So it dawned on me – I, a person who wanted to see a reorganized and more just world, was doubting the power of Jackson’s art to bring it about, but those who didn’t want their own supremacy to change understood very well that they were threatened by his work, and they really, really wanted to hurt him.

Willa: Exactly. Perhaps the strongest empirical evidence of the power of his work is the howling reaction it provoked …

Toni: … again and again.

It’s instructive to notice, in visual footage, how open Jackson was to people stepping up spontaneously to dance with him. I’m not talking about the selected fans who had those staged moments of closeness at concerts. (Those scenes have different kinds of significance that I would like to examine in an essay sometime.) I’m thinking now of tiny moments when somebody just steps up to dance with him, not to grab him or shout at him or demand something. Jackson looks simply delighted, and does everything possible with his body to welcome and include these ordinary people and their happy-but-not-brilliant dancing.

It’s similar to the delight he showed when Diana Ross struggled to keep up with him at the 1981 Diana Ross special. Here’s a video of the entire show, and their dancing begins about 8 minutes in:

Ross was obviously self-conscious about dancing next to him on this show, but he was just so happy to dance with her. (Yes, he is in love with her, but that’s part of the point, I think. He loves all the happy amateurs as well, and he just loves, loves, loves to dance with other people.)

I think that Jackson’s joy in dancing and his welcome to others are connected – mutually generative – and I think they’re political. What I’ve experienced has been a kind of political process – Jackson’s art changes me; it makes me think in new ways and risk new undertakings. And of course my experience is not unique: lots of people have had it, and will have it in the future, I think. So, yes – I’ve learned something new about an idea that I already believed in, but perhaps in a too-abstract way – that art has a peculiar potential to make people more complete, more accepting and imaginative. It offers new ways to experience and communicate joy with other people. I saw dance’s joyful welcome enacted by one of the most accomplished and imaginative dancers ever, without snobbery or calculation. The political potential of that kind of gesture is just immense.

Willa: It really is, and Toni, I love the way you phrased that. It was beautiful. I agree completely – in part because I’ve experienced the same kind of awakening through him – and it’s really wonderful to see that in action.

For example, just think of how he inspires communal dancing. A friend was planning a wedding a few years ago, and the DJ for the reception strongly advised her to include some Michael Jackson songs in the playlist. As he said, “No one gets people on the floor like Michael Jackson!” And then there are the Philippine prisoners dancing to “Thriller” – hundreds of prisoners in their orange jumpsuits dancing together. Through his spirit of dance, they were able to find joy and a creative outlet, even in prison. And of course there are the flash mob dances that continue to break out around the world, such as this enormous one in Mexico not long after he died:

Toni: Another thing that has taught me that the power he claimed for his art really is there is the truly amazing international reach his work has achieved, and how his songs continue to motivate and accompany and encourage political action around the world. I have been thrilled to be corresponding with people in Spain and Germany who saw and translated my essay, and to see #BlackLivesMatter marchers blasting out “They Don’t Care About Us.” Maybe it’s really only in mainstream (a.k.a., white) USA that we have all this tabloid baggage distancing us from the solidarity and beauty and joy that Jackson made available.

Willa: Maybe, though the British tabloids have been pretty awful as well – after all, they’re the ones who coined the phrase “Wacko Jacko.” And there have been tabloid articles printed about him in Moscow, Australia, Asia, … But I get your point – the way his work has touched people around the world is truly awe inspiring.

Toni: I see what you mean. It would be interesting to actually test my impression that people in this country are particularly reluctant to honor Michael Jackson. The British tabloid press is, if anything, even slimier than ours; maybe I’m being too categorical about the US. But even if it’s just as bad elsewhere (qualitatively; I doubt it could possibly be as bad as it was here in quantitative terms during what you elegantly call “the allegations” and I just think of as “the set-up”), it’s still true that Jackson remains noticeably without honor in his own country.

Willa: That’s true – tragically, shamefully true.

So thinking about your statement that “Michael Jackson taught me to dance” suggests another way in which his dance is political. The way he invites us to dance, almost compels us to dance, reconnects us with our own bodies, as you pointed out in your own story, Toni. And that can have profound implications.

For example, Eleanor Bowman feels that many of the most entrenched problems facing us today can be traced back to the way the Judeo-Christian tradition privileges mind over body, the spiritual world over the material world, as she explained in a post with us a while back. So by reconnecting us with our own bodies, and with materiality more generally, dance could fundamentally alter our relationship with the physical world – not just as a source of resources to be exploited, or carnal enticements to be overcome, but as something to be honored and celebrated and revered.

Toni: I’m familiar with that posting and Eleanor very graciously contacted me not long ago. It’s interesting to watch her thinking about dance, and about Jackson, through the old platonic split. I love the spiritual dimensions she explores, and how she shows Jackson’s work to be a challenge to the hierarchies and losses that kind of bifurcated thinking necessitates.

Willa: I agree, and I wonder if this disconnect with our own bodies is part of what’s behind that “odd furtiveness” in the way many people – especially people of privilege – react to his music, as you describe so well in your article:

On the same day as Reeves’s first videotaped dance, I was pacing around an expensive “specialty” grocery in Philadelphia. The muzak must have been buzzing away unnoticed until suddenly there it was: the air filled with an ageless, raucous beat, and “Thriller” came on. In an instant, everyone was moving. The man slicing the meat swayed ever so slightly left and right. The face of the armed guard at the entrance (the only person of color in the store) softened; he began to nod. A woman near me paused and gazed away. Feet tapped. For a mysterious instant, something that we needed and had lost became present again.

It was a great moment, but there was something missing, too. Though everyone responded to the music, it was with an odd furtiveness — not openly, communally, or with the infectious jubilation going on in Baltimore. No eyes met, no one laughed or sang, no one moved without restraint or melted into the beat. Another song came on. We went back to shuffling behind our carts and examining artisan cheeses. Nothing changed.

I immediately recognized what you were talking about, Toni, though I had never conceptualized it into words – and certainly not as evocatively as you did here. But you’re absolutely right – there is something “furtive,” almost shamefaced, in the way many people respond to him, as if they have been caught in a guilty pleasure.

I imagine partly that’s because of the allegations. (As the young friend you quote in your article told you, “Great music … but when someone got up to what he did with little children, he’s better forgotten.”) But I wonder if that “furtiveness” also arises from conflicted feelings about our own bodies – if too many of us have been taught that our own bodies are “better forgotten.” And his music insistently reminds us that, yes, we do have bodies, and they want to dance …

Toni: Right, yes. Though I still think it matters that there is a special kind of hesitation when it comes to Michael Jackson. People can’t resist the music, but as I saw in the Philadelphia grocery store, the joy is weirdly stifled and directed inward rather than outward to the world, as it was in Baltimore. The healing available in Jackson’s work so often is not shared, and that’s a way of diminishing it, or taming or denying it.

I think there’s a lot to be said about why it’s so difficult for so many Americans to look straight at Michael Jackson, and recognize and celebrate what he gave us – there are lots of reasons. But for me, our peculiar, venomous American racism is at the bottom of all the other explanations even when they’re right. Racism is just so hard to kill. It keeps morphing like a virus just when you thought it was conquered. Who is it serving, at this point? We need to ask that in this country.

One more thing, as far as the political functions of Jackson’s music goes – as you’ve mentioned already, we’re witnessing his voice’s power and ubiquity in the #BlackLivesMatter struggle. His work lives in public space, at this moment, more than it has in many years, and it is making a difference. To me, that’s just so, so great!

Willa: Absolutely. Well, thank you for joining me, Toni, and for allowing me to join you on the big adventure of collecting and selecting essays and assembling this new book. I sincerely hope it will awaken a much larger audience to the power and importance of his work.

Citizen Journalism: You Can Change the World

Willa:  This week I am so excited to be joined by D.B. Anderson, author of two of the most popular articles in our Reading Room. “The Messenger King: Michael Jackson and the Politics of #BlackLivesMatter” is an opinion piece published by The Baltimore Sun that places Michael Jackson’s activism within the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And “Sony Hack Re-ignites Questions about Michael Jackson’s Banned Song” is a self-published article that went viral, becoming the most popular independent post in all of Gawker Media for 2014 – and it wasn’t even published until mid-December. Thank you so much for joining me, D.B.!

D.B.:  Thank you so much for having me, Willa! I’ve been reading Dancing with the Elephant for a long time and I always walk away with new insights, so it’s quite an honor to be here myself.

Willa:  Oh, it’s an honor to talk with you. And your Baltimore piece seems especially timely right now, with the Freddie Gray protests rocking the city. As you point out, #BlackLivesMatter protesters have been drawing on Michael Jackson’s work from the beginning of the movement:

On Twitter, #TheyDontCareAboutUs is a hashtag. In Ferguson, they blasted the Michael Jackson song through car windows. In New York City and Berkeley last weekend, it was sung and performed by protesters. And in Baltimore, there was a magical moment when the Morgan State University choir answered protests with a rendition of Jackson’s “Heal The World.”

We see that trend continuing in Baltimore, with protesters singing “They Don’t Care about Us” and recent videos of one resident, Dimitri Reeves, responding to both the police and the rioters with performances of “Beat It” and “Man in the Mirror.” Here he is dancing on a truck, with sirens in the background and a police helicopter swooping overhead:

And here he is in front of police in riot gear:

He talked about the experience in a National Post article:

Reeves, who has been dancing since age five, said a particularly nerve-wracking moment came during “Man in the Mirror,” which he performed in front of a line of riot police. To his amazement, after a while the cops slowly backed away. “It was beautiful.”

D.B.:  This was fantastic, and what really made me happy was the number of media outlets who covered it, even Billboard.

Willa:  Yes, and NBC, Fox, USA Today, Rolling Stone, Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, and a lot more, including the newswire service United Press International.

D.B.: I’ve heard that this gentleman actually does this regularly, and it wasn’t a one-off performance. And maybe it was just filler content, but I have a tiny hope that some media featured it because they understood a political significance.

Willa:  I hope so. I know some of the articles I read focused on the fact that he was trying to calm the violence while giving voice to the frustrations of the rioters. That’s a difficult assignment, and Michael Jackson is one of the few artists whose work is up to the task – who can provide an impassioned cultural critique while promoting nonviolent solutions.

So D.B., today we’re going to talk about strategies for effectively engaging with the media, something you’ve accomplished with both of your recent articles. But maybe we should begin by talking about how you came to write these articles. What’s the story behind them?

D.B.:  I suppose everyone who writes about Michael does so because he deeply touches them in some way, and I am no exception. No, let me rephrase that – everyone who writes thoughtfully about Michael. You know what I mean!

Willa:  Yes, I know what you mean …

D.B.: Anyway, I’ve been reading extensively about Michael for several years, and I’ve been so deeply impressed by works like Remember The Time (Whitfield) and Man in the Music (Vogel), as well as many websites and blogs like yours. And I have had great and not-so-great conversations with people all over the world, and learned so much from them.

After a while I began to feel strongly that I had something to say about and on behalf of Michael to the world, but I didn’t know what it was, if that makes any sense. I started and then stopped writing several things because I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Did the world need another blog about Michael? I couldn’t figure out a way to add value. So I had ideas about Michael swirling around in my brain wanting desperately to get out, but I wasn’t sure where to put them.

Meanwhile, on a parallel track, I live near Washington DC, which is sort of ground zero for the media. You can’t avoid news and talk shows, and by listening to NPR and CNN all day – which I do just to have company – you become educated on how the media thinks of itself. I noticed some commentators being very critical of other media people. And there’s a giant divide between the cable news networks – they are always talking smack about each other. In particular, I started to study Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, who have developed media criticism into an art form. This became a bigger and bigger idea for me, that somehow this fit. So these two tracks started converging in my mind and I was pretty sure that “Michael and the media” would be my focus.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, D.B. Michael Jackson criticized the media for years, both in interviews and in songs like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Leave Me Alone,” “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” “Tabloid Junkie,” … In fact, it seems every album has at least one song taking on the media. And of course, many cable news personalities seem to take great delight in “talking smack about each other,” as you pointed out. But I hadn’t put those two threads together before, or considered that the way the media criticizes itself could provide an opening for Jackson’s supporters to join in and get their views across.

D.B.:  Michael certainly did criticize them, and for good reason. And the one constant you find is utter frustration at the journalistic malpractice that was committed with no accountability, and as far I know there has never been a loud enough, satisfying, and sincere mea culpa.

So as I was listening and studying the media it dawned on me that there is a new generation of journalists out there, ones who have no reason to be invested in covering up what happened before, and who are willing to challenge each other. So the environment is ripe for revisiting Michael’s whole story.

Willa:  And that’s an important point. Many of the commentators out there are surprisingly young, and do seem more open to questioning conventional wisdom and seeing Michael Jackson in new ways.

D.B.:  Yes! But then there is still a subject matter knowledge problem, because how many journalists truly understand the facts? They learned about Michael through news, too. So, the other important development in my own thinking was realizing it was pointless to wait for some journalist to write what I wanted to read.

Willa: Yes, very few journalists really know the circumstances surrounding the allegations, and few seem to understand his true significance as an artist and cultural leader. I gradually came to that realization also. After he died I kept reading all these tributes, but to my mind even the positive ones seemed to miss the point about what was so special about him. It’s true he was an awe-inspiring singer and dancer, but he was so much more than that – he meant so much more than that – and none of the tributes I read seemed to get that. I kept looking for something that expressed what I felt, but it just wasn’t there. Nothing even came close. And finally I started writing about him, without really intending to, just to express what I was searching for and couldn’t find.

D.B.: I’m very glad you did. I probably owe you rent for the time spent on your pages! The pieces you’ve done on analysis and interpretation of his lyrics and imagery are the ones that stick with me the most. I’m sure that much of my understanding of “They Don’t Care about Us” was informed by your posts about the HIStory album.

In thinking about the media I came to appreciate that citizen journalism is widely practiced today – for example, most of the original reporting on the ground in Ferguson came not from reporters but from ordinary people who set up their own live streams and tweeted events.

CNN was literally days behind the activists in Ferguson. And everyone on social media knew it, and was complaining about it. The entire series of protests we’ve had over the last year – all of them – if you want to know what’s happening, you go on Twitter. Realizing this was a crucial turning point in my thinking.  It was one of those ordinary citizens on the ground in Ferguson who first posted a clip of protesters blasting “They Don’t Care about Us” through open car windows. And it got passed around on social media among protesters, and then among fans, and that clip was really the first spark in what became “The Messenger King.”

The protesters continued to embrace and expand their use of “They Don’t Care about Us” throughout the fall and it was so energizing to me, that these young people found meaning in a song that was released when they were toddlers or maybe not even born yet. And I could not stop thinking how understood Michael would feel, that someone finally gets it, what this song was all about. To me, it was a vindication in many ways. You know, Michael always played a long game.

Willa: That’s true, he did. And “They Don’t Care about Us” does seem to be a perfect channel for expressing the cultural zeitgeist right now – especially among young people – at this pivotal moment in history. For example, 2Cellos just released a video of their reinterpretation of “They Don’t Care about Us,” and it blew me away. Here it is:

Even without lyrics, this video superbly captures the underlying idea that we are just pawns in a game between superpowers who “really don’t care about us.”

D.B.: By now I’m convinced that Michael understood that “They Don’t Care about Us” was a critical piece of art. It explains why he fought so hard for it. He wanted it to live, and it is living. I suspect that Michael knew The New York Times would not have the last word, you know? He was a really long-term strategic thinker.

The protesters just organically reached for this music over and over through the months. So when “where are all the celebrities?” became a topic of conversation, and Questlove held up the Dixie Chicks as an example, I got angry, to be honest! I mean, I didn’t see any clips of Dixie Chicks songs at the rallies! Are you kidding me? No. Just no. Now Questlove had a very valid point – that it is very risky to speak out – and I totally agreed with his point. It just felt to me that he had opened the door with an excellent example, but if you want to talk about brave risk-takers, let’s get down to real. He was exactly right, and he set up my premise perfectly. But at first it made me mad, and that was the juice.

Everything finally gelled after an event on December 5, and that night I sat down and wrote “The Messenger King” in about four hours. The context was, Rolling Stone had just acknowledged that their “Rape on Campus” story had serious inaccuracies, but their statement did not accept responsibility and they said they’d been misled by their source.  And then this happened:

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A media professional calling out other media for not verifying the source’s story. Publicly. In writing. With profanity for emphasis, no extra charge. When this clicked into place, I knew: The world is open to receive. This is the right moment; this is Michael’s time. Go.

And so I did. Well I didn’t write it, so much as channel it. Wrote it on Friday, spent the weekend figuring out where to submit it, submitted it on Monday, and it was published on Tuesday.

Willa:  Wow, D.B., that’s amazing.

D.B.:  I am as amazed as anyone else, really!

And then just days after that, the Sony hack happened and there was another opportunity on a silver platter. I would never have recognized Bernard Weinraub’s name had I not just fact-checked myself for “Messenger King” by re-reading Vogel. He is mentioned in Joe’s commentary on “They Don’t Care about Us,” so when I saw Weinraub in the early hack coverage, his name was fresh on my mind. I was blown away because here was a chance to go deeper into the meaning of “They Don’t Care about Us” and answer Weinraub and put that whole controversy into the “ridiculous” department where it belonged. I knew I had to write it while the iron was hot. It was a very frenzied December! I never got my Christmas things out of storage, at all.

Willa: And I’m so glad you seized the moment like you did. It obviously struck a nerve – just look at all the attention it received! So it seems like, for you, one key lesson from all this is timeliness. To have impact, “citizen journalists” as you put it, have to get their message out at just the right moment – when a relevant story is a hot topic, and news outlets are receptive to what they’re trying to say.

D.B.: Yes. Neither story would have had as much impact without the timing. Sony and the protests were in the news, and I didn’t want to write just for fans. I wanted to reach the protesters and the media and the music industry and regular people. There was only a short window to catch a wide audience.

But just as crucial is to be ready when the opportunity comes by being prepared – you never know when it will appear. So all the thinking and writing and reading prepared me for the moment. The opportunity was there for anyone to take, but no journalist got either story, because they were not prepared.

First, they just don’t know all the history. Second, they don’t know that they don’t know it. And third, they’re already very busy. But I got some great comments from members of the press after they read my pieces. So contrary to popular wisdom, I feel like the press now generally has open minds to Michael.

Willa:  And that’s a really important insight, and an important opportunity. But you have me very curious, B.D. What were some of the comments you received? And who sent them?

D.B.:  After “Messenger King” was published, I got a phone call from a popular columnist. And he asked me, “did you really just say that Michael Jackson was framed by a white prosecutor? That he was a victim of police brutality?” And I thought he was going to rip into me. But instead he told me, “You have said what everyone else has been afraid to say.”

Willa:  Really? He actually said that?

D.B.: He did! Willa, I was shaking, because you don’t get calls like this every day. And you know, his remark was so profound. A lot of journalists know there is something rotten in Denmark. They know it. Oh, they know – it’s saying it out loud that’s the problem. But as I say, the younger journalists, they are not invested in the old status quo. Changes will be made.

The biggest compliment I got was the estate posted a link to “Messenger King” on Michael’s official website. That will always be special to me. But for purposes of this discussion, their doing so has a message: “We endorse and agree with the position. This is who Michael was.” I think they’re telling us how we can help them.

Willa:  That’s interesting. So you took the initiative and wrote that first article and got it published, and at just the right time when it would garner a lot of attention. But then once it started gaining momentum, the Estate helped push things along?

D.B.:  I’m not sure how it occurred exactly. I just know that after, maybe 4 days or so, someone contacted me and said, go look at Michael’s Facebook page. The estate had seen the article – whether they are always scanning the media or whether someone sent it to them, I don’t know – they had seen it and posted about it on his website and then promoted it through his social media. And I was just stunned because I haven’t ever seen them do this before.

Since then, the estate has taken the social justice theme and run with it several times. They posted about Michael’s work during Charlie Hebdo attacks, when people were singing “Heal The World,” things like that. And, Willa, since we began this conversation yesterday, the estate has just done a post on the Baltimore dancer we spoke of! So it’s clear to me, this is where they most want the global conversation to go, in terms of his image, and well it should, because it’s absolute truth about him as a person.

Willa:  And as an artist. It’s moments like these when the power of his art really shines through.

D.B.: Oh yes. This is why he did what he did. Exactly for this.

Willa:  So what about your second article?  Did you receive feedback from the press about it as well?

D.B.:  On the piece about The New York Times, I’ll let them speak for themselves. Here’s S.I. Rosenbaum, Senior Editor at Boston Magazine:

Then there’s Wesley Lowery, national reporter covering law enforcement and justice for The Washington Post:

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And Bomani Jones, sports journalist at ESPN:

Willa:  Wow, D.B.  Reading these just does me a world of good! It’s like a tonic. And it’s really motivating.

And I see what you’re saying … it does seem like some people in the media are open to taking a closer look at the controversies surrounding Michael Jackson, and at the media’s complicity in perpetuating them – and even creating them, as in the Weinraub case.

D.B.: It was a very eye-opening and encouraging experience. You know, how many times have people said, “when are journalists going to write the truth about Michael?” And there has been a perception that the media is united in its intent to give MJ a bad rap. But this really taught me this isn’t the case nowadays. My articles were news to them!

The journalists who read the pieces – and there were more of them than I have named here – are now, I hope, more likely to consider Michael thoughtfully in the future. Over time, I think if Michael’s advocates continue to take ownership on getting the history out, the press will delve deeper and do the parts that only they can. So I really hope that more of your readers will step out into citizen journalism too, speaking to an audience beyond the fan base, because they have the power to effect change. We can be the “live streamers” and point the way.

Willa:  I agree, and this idea of citizen journalism is really exciting. Did you have any worries or concerns?

D.B.: I did have some real trepidation about doing the Weinraub/“They Don’t Care about Us” story. I was concerned that people would think I was attacking Sony – it wasn’t my goal. It’s about Weinraub, and what he was possibly up to with David Geffen, and lack of professionalism in journalism, and the very self-centered, dare I say racist, view that Weinraub took. Sony was not my target but I rode the wave. I felt slightly uncomfortable about that, but I knew that’s how the headline game is played. I was a little nervous too about taking on The New York Times, and I obsessed over making the story as bullet-proof as I could.

Willa:  So have you heard from anyone at the Times?

D.B.:  Not a word! I never expected the story to take off the way it did. It was helped greatly when Max Read, the editor at Gawker, included it in the Sony Hack pop-up blog, which was an enormous source of new readers. It had gotten, I think, a couple thousand page views already, so I emailed Max cold, and he said (I’m paraphrasing) “Fantastic; stories like this are exactly why we are publishing the emails. I am adding your story and apologize in advance for the trolls you will get.”  And this is not to be believed, but I swear it is true – I got virtually none of the usual MJ haters. Interacting with readers in the comment section at Kinja was my favorite part.

Willa:  That’s wonderful! Perhaps I’m being naive, but I really hope that we’ve moved past that intense stage of the hysteria, with all the mindless name-calling and saying terrible things without any sort of substantive evidence. It does seem that, in talking about Michael Jackson now, the conversation tends to be a little more restrained, and a little more nuanced and open-minded. But I’m very worried that the Robson-Safechuck allegations could set off a whole new round of hysteria. I worry about that a lot, actually.

D.B.:  Willa, my experience shows that the majority of people believe he is innocent, or want to believe it. There is an awakening. What people still need in order to seal the deal in their minds, are facts. And when they are reading a reasonable story, they respond in a reasonable way. Michael’s story becomes a much less complicated one when you see the obvious – that he was a rebel and a social justice fighter in the style of Gandhi, and that he was persecuted by racist law enforcement. No voodoo in sight. It’s an easier thing to believe.

I think a good strategy is to completely ignore Robson/Safechuck. Don’t feed that beast. Instead, I would like to see advocates creating their own content, really good content that calls attention to the true issues: his philanthropy, or the use of his music in times of trouble, like in Paris – or interview ten children who were assisted with their medical issues by Michael. Write about how MJ put on the 9/11 concert but no one knew it. Write about AIDS. Write about South Central LA and school shootings. Lots and lots of possibilities. But with Robson, it’s different. In my opinion the current tabloid stories need to be starved of oxygen. No clicks, no commenting, no yelling at the author, just … radio silence. That is the kiss of death for a story and a reporter.

Willa:  I see what you’re saying, but it also feels risky to let false claims go unanswered. Some pretty wild rumors have been circulated about him, and sometimes they get a lot of attention – even when there is concrete information contradicting them – because that information doesn’t get out. But I understand your point that giving those stories attention helps perpetuate them. It’s complicated.

D.B.:  Robson’s lawyers are intentionally leaking stuff to the tabloids, as a strategy to get the estate to settle.

Willa:  It does seem that way, especially with the timing of how they’ve announced the allegations. The Robson accusations were made public during the AEG trial, and the Safechuck allegations came out the day before the release of Xscape. And then there are all the really lurid leaks to the tabloids. It seems to me that Robson and Safechuck’s law firm – and they have the same law firm working for them – is engaged in a pretty sophisticated media campaign to embarrass and harass the Estate and force them to settle, as you say.

D.B.:  Exactly. I’m not buying. No one believes Wade Robson. And I have more faith in journalism than I did before.

But never underestimate tabloids. So if it does get to the state where hysteria goes around, that is the moment when one of us needs to pounce on it with a story, which I hope someone is already working on right now, about Robson not getting the job at Cirque du Soleil which apparently caused his “remembering.”

And I would go for it right out of the gate with an opening sentence like “It’s widely believed that Michael Jackson was the victim of malicious prosecution by a zealous and bigoted district attorney in 2005. Now another has tried …”  That story should be ready and waiting to be published at the critical media time, with last minute edits where needed, no matter which way the case ends up. In other words, I’d love to see a citizen journalist with a story on why Wade lost. But either way, a citizen journalist story can give the rest of the press some factual nutrition. Otherwise they’re just looking at a giant void filled with tabloid trash. Citizens are the anti-tabloid. We give the press choices.

Yes, now that you mention it, it would be very strategic to do a victory lap story, one that drives the final stake into the heart of this nonsense forever.

Willa:  Sounds like you’ve already started writing it, D.B.! … at least in your head. And I hope you do.

D.B.: I enjoy thinking about strategy but don’t think the Robson story is in my wheelhouse.  I am certain there are others more qualified to do a Robson story. Maybe we will get some volunteers in the comments section!

Willa:  Maybe so – you’ve certainly motivated me to think about new ways to work within the media. And I hope you’ll join me again to talk more about citizen journalism. This has been so enlightening as well as inspiring. I feel like you’re helping to chart a course for how we really can change the world. Thank you for joining me and sharing your insights!

D.B.: Thank you very much for having me, Willa.  I enjoyed talking with you.

We’ve Had Enough

Willa:  In response to recent high-profile cases of white police officers killing unarmed black men – a terribly familiar story whose latest victims include Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City – #BlackLivesMatter protesters have been organizing demonstrations and staging protests across the nation, including shutting down roads in cities and towns from Massachusetts to California, Illinois to Georgia. And as D.B. Anderson pointed out in an insightful article in The Baltimore Sun, many of these protesters have been singing Michael Jackson’s anthem giving voice to the voiceless, “They Don’t Care about Us.”

However, as our friend Eleanor Bowman pointed out in a recent email, there’s another Michael Jackson song, less well known, that speaks directly and powerfully to this abuse of power. It’s “We’ve Had Enough,” whose haunting lyrics tell stories of innocent people killed by men in uniform. For example, it begins with this story:

She innocently questioned why
Why her father had to die
She asked the men in blue
“How is it that you get to choose
Who will live and who will die?
Did God say that you could decide?
You saw he didn’t run
And that my daddy had no gun”

Eleanor, you’re right – this song could have been written today. It’s chilling how closely the stories it tells parallel recent events. But then, this is a very old story, as Greg Carey, a professor of theology, posted in an article on The Huffington Post.

Eleanor: Hi Willa, and thanks for inviting me to join you in this discussion of “We’ve Had Enough,” one of Michael Jackson’s most powerful protest songs.

Willa: Thank you for joining me!

Eleanor: And thanks for linking to D.B. Anderson’s great column about “They Don’t Care about Us,” which is so closely related to “We’ve Had Enough.” I was glad that D.B. pointed out that the protesters were singing Michael’s song, because nowhere else in the news media did I see Michael’s name or “They Don’t Care about Us” mentioned in relation to the protests.

Willa: Actually, I saw it mentioned several times, though some reporters seemed surprised that the protesters were singing a Michael Jackson song. But D.B. wasn’t. And actually, if you know his history and how he was targeted by prosecutors – charged with crimes based on very shaky evidence, presumed guilty by the police and the media, forced to endure a humiliating strip search and very public trial, and ultimately driven from his home – it makes perfect sense that those protesters would be singing his music, especially “They Don’t Care about Us.”

Eleanor: I think the “they” in “They Don’t Care about Us” is the same “they” he sings about in “We’ve Had Enough” (“They’ve gotta hear it from you … me … us”), just as the “us” in “They Don’t Care about Us” is the same “us” he sings about in “Earth Song”: “What about us?” And possibly the “we” in “We’ve Had Enough” unites the “they” with the “us” – just a thought. But, no matter how you look at it, Michael Jackson gets a lot of mileage out of pronouns.

Willa: He really does …

Eleanor: “We’ve Had Enough” really gets to me, right from the start – that beautiful voice filled with sadness and outrage singing that incredible opening line:

Love was taken
From a young life
And no one told her why

Willa: Yes, and then we learn soon after that the “love” that “was taken” from this young girl was the love and protection of her father, who was killed in “one more violent crime.” But ironically and tragically, this “violent crime” was committed by the police. So the “men in blue” who should have protected him were the ones who killed him.

Eleanor: Right, and the lesson, the dim light, from that violent crime is what will give direction or misdirection to her life. Given recent events, “We’ve Had Enough” is a painful reminder that the more things change, the more they remain the same. In fact, just recently I received a link to news of a similar heartbreaking event. A life was not lost, but the love and care of a grandfather was taken from other young lives, hopefully only temporarily.

And, then there’s the son of New York Times’ columnist Charles Blow, who was accosted by a police officer at gunpoint as he was exiting the Yale library. In the case of Charles Blow’s son, both the young man and the officer were black, so the significant point was that the officer was wearing a uniform, and therefore, acting officially.

As Carey says in the article you linked to:

Race dynamics have indeed changed in our society. But the basic pattern: an unarmed but anonymous black man (or boy), a confrontation with law enforcement, something goes wrong, and the law enforcement officer empties his weapon. So familiar.

And soooo depressing … and so unjust. (Are we beginning to feel the outrage yet? Can you feel it?)

But the first verse of “We’ve Had Enough’ doesn’t tell the whole story – or at least the story Michael Jackson wants to tell. So he includes a second verse where another child, perhaps in Iraq or Afghanistan, is also orphaned, but this time the uniform is military. And this story, too, is depressingly familiar:

In the middle of a village
Way in a distant land
Lies a poor boy with his broken toy
Too young to understand
He’s awakened, ground is shaking
His father grabs his hand
Screaming, crying, his wife’s dying
Now he’s left to explain

He innocently questioned why
Why his mother had to die
What did these soldiers come here for?
If they’re for peace, why is there war?
Did God say that they could decide
Who will live and who will die?
All my mama ever did
Was try to take care of her kids

In “We’ve Had Enough,” Michael Jackson has described two tragic and all-too-familiar situations – an innocent man killed by police and an innocent woman killed by a bomb or a missile, both victims of “impersonal” state actions.

Willa: Yes, and that’s a very important point, Eleanor. By paralleling these two stories the way he does, Michael Jackson draws a connection between them – and forces us to see that connection also. Through juxtaposition, we are forced to see the similarities between the girl whose father is killed by a policeman on a city street, and the boy whose mother is killed by a soldier.

Eleanor: Right. And in revealing these similarities, he shows us that these events are not isolated incidents but part of a larger cultural pattern, a pattern of behavior in which an agent of the state takes an innocent life, apparently by mistake, and no one does anything about it. And the children left behind, also victims, bereft of their parents’ love and care, seem to be the only ones asking why.

But you know something interesting, Willa? In each story he deliberately leaves a critical piece of information out, brilliantly relying on us to fill in the blanks.

In the first story he doesn’t specify the little girl’s race – all we know is that love was taken from a girl’s life for an unknown reason. She could be any race; she could be anyone’s daughter. We all immediately feel for her. No race, no prejudice. But then the circumstances (an urban environment, a man killed by police – those whose job is to serve and protect) suggest that she is African-American.

And in the second, the song doesn’t specify the boy’s nationality – he only is a poor boy in a distant land to whom some unknown horror has happened. So we are drawn in and our sympathy is aroused. But again, the circumstances (a war zone, a woman killed by soldiers – peacekeepers – a Peacekeeper missile? – whose mission is to bring peace) suggest that this isn’t just any foreign child. He is Iraqi or Afghani, at any rate an inhabitant of some country that the US is taking an unhealthy interest in, and very possibly, he is Muslim.

MJ’s knowledge that he can rely on us to fill in the blanks, itself, speaks volumes  – revealing both his understanding of human nature and his knowledge of our awareness of these atrocities. These stories, or stories like them, are old news to us, and he knows it. He also knows that by not identifying the girl’s race or the boy’s nationality that we are more likely to identify with and sympathize with them, but that once the circumstances of their parents’ deaths are revealed, whether we are black or white, we will have a pretty good idea of the girl’s race and the boy’s nationality, which proves that we are well aware of the fact that both innocent black lives and innocent Iraqi or Pakistani lives are taken. We know who these people are by the way they are treated! We cannot claim to be innocent of this information. The reckless taking of innocent lives like these has become business as usual (or not our business).

Willa: I don’t know, Eleanor. I mean, a boy from my high school was killed by police our junior year, and he was white.

Eleanor: But you still remember it because it was not routine, the way the killing, and incarceration, of black men and boys has become.  I thought it was interesting that at the Oscar ceremony earlier this week, Common brought up the fact that there are more black men incarcerated in US prisons today than were enslaved before the Civil War.

Willa: Yes, and those incarceration rates are a national tragedy.

But I think I remember Brad’s death because it was so terrible. I mean, I had known him since third grade. He had a very lively sense of humor that got him into trouble sometimes, but teachers still really liked him. You could tell. And other kids liked him too. So he wasn’t mean or anything like that – just a really funny guy. But he was going through kind of a wild phase in high school and went out joyriding with a friend one night, and the police became involved and he was killed. There was an inquest and the review board determined that the police acted appropriately.

And a few years ago a young white man from my town – the father of a 2-year-old girl – was killed by police while stopped at a rest area on the interstate. He got into some sort of altercation with state troopers and had a gun in his hand and refused to drop it, and they shot and killed him. They later discovered the gun wasn’t loaded. I was talking to a friend who knew him well, and he said they called it “suicide by police” – that they thought he actually wanted to be killed by the police. And my friend said, as horrible as it sounds, he thought that might be true. He had known this young man since he was a kid and was just torn up by his death, but he said he’d been really depressed lately and acting kind of reckless, and he thought what happened really might be a kind of suicide.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s really complicated. The police have a very difficult job, and it isn’t just a black-and-white issue. As you mentioned earlier, the policeman who pulled a gun on Charles Blow’s son was black, and young whites – especially those who are poor or homeless or abused or struggling in some way – are killed by police, though blacks are much more likely to be targeted than whites are. Much more likely. And whites are not immune to bombs either – just look at all the innocent lives lost in northern Ireland. So while race is definitely a huge part of the picture, we’re all living in a very militarized time and we are all potential targets – though some are much more likely targets than others are.

Eleanor: But, Willa, it doesn’t sound like these deaths were in any way routine. And that’s the point I was trying to make, and that’s what I think Michael Jackson is trying to point out – that the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police in the US have become so routine that they have ceased to matter. #BlackLivesMatter indicates things haven’t changed, which is what all the recent protests have been about.

“We’ve Had Enough” focuses specifically on tragedies that are the result of the state taking actions against people who are not enemies of the state, but US citizens or citizens of other countries which we are not formally at war with. It tells the stories of gratuitous, careless killings of the poor and vulnerable, carried out by powerful state agents, armed to the teeth. The people in these stories are killed for no reason: the girl’s father is no criminal, and the boy’s mother is no enemy combatant. In fact, if he is referring to Pakistan or Afghanistan, we are not at war with her country, but only with the enemy combatants within it. MJ is telling us that from the state’s point of view, it doesn’t matter whether or not they represent any real threat because their lives don’t matter, and then he is asking us why.

Depending on the states, different groups are expendable. Which is another reason the song leaves both race and nationality out. Because, although in terms of the US, blacks are disproportionately on the receiving end of police action, and post 9/11, Muslims have become military targets, depending on who you are and where you live, you would fill in the blanks differently.

Willa: And we might fill in the blanks differently at different times in history also. At different times in American history, for example, recent immigrants from Mexico or Japan or Ireland or Italy or the Mideast or Korea or Poland or Puerto Rico or China or wherever have been discriminated against and treated as if their lives don’t matter. And American Indians have certainly been treated as if their lives don’t matter.

And I think Michael Jackson is speaking up for all those who are outcast, for whatever reason, though I certainly agree that a disproportionate number of police victims in the US are black, and a disproportionate number of bombing victims are somehow “Other” – other races, other religions, other nationalities and ethnicities. In fact, I’ve heard some very troubling discussions about the fact that the US dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities but never on a European city. If Germany or Austria or Italy had still been in the war in August 1945, would we have dropped atomic bombs on them? Or is that unthinkable to Americans?

Eleanor:  Interesting. And I am having a hard time imagining the US using drones to bomb targets in Europe, even if there was strong evidence of concentrations of Islamic extremists there.

Willa: Yes, it’s like American policymakers use different rules for those who they see as similar to themselves, and those they see as Other.

So I think the issue of race hangs heavy over these two stories that begin “We’ve Had Enough,” but I also think it’s significant that it’s left unspoken. In some ways, it makes racial prejudice an even more potent part of the story precisely because it’s unspoken, forcing us to work through that complicated history in our own minds.

Eleanor:  Exactly. But I would say race is the issue in the first, but nationality is the key to the second.

Willa: Yes, or religion or ethnicity or some combination of those divisions. But however we interpret it or mentally picture it in our own minds as we hear these stories, Michael Jackson just sounds heart-sick as he sings these verses, and I think he would be just as saddened by a child who lost a parent in northern Ireland as by a child who lost a parent in Iraq or the Sudan or Serbia or Israel or Southeast Asia. From the child’s perspective, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the loss of the mother or the father – and “We’ve Had Enough” encourages us to consider the perspective of that child who’s lost a parent.

Eleanor: Of course, he would. But I think he’s trying to get us to look at the loss of these two lives as representative of specific types of situations – where lives are taken recklessly and casually – as if they don’t matter, because to so many of “us” they don’t.

Willa: Yes, I would agree with that. And I think that’s the message of “They Don’t Care about Us” as well, as you mentioned earlier.

Eleanor: And to focus our attention on these events, he shows us just how much they do matter to him, singing each story in a voice loaded with sorrow and loss and telling each story from the perspective of the child whose life has been destroyed – a child who has not yet been programmed to unquestioningly accept her or his fate as par for the course or the natural order of things. His voice reflects their pain and confusion.

These children, understandably, want to know “Why?” (Even if we don’t, even if we think we know why.) Why would a policeman (whose mission is to serve and protect) shoot an unarmed man – and deprive a little girl of a loving father? Why would soldiers (whose stated mission is peace) take the life of a poor boy’s mother, a woman who spent her days taking care of her kids, leaving his father devastated, “screaming and crying [as] his wife’s dying”?

And, he wants us to focus on a second question, which the children also raise: who or what gives these men in uniform the right to take their parents’ lives? What role does God or religion, if any, play in these events? Has God decided that these lives don’t matter?

Willa:  Eleanor, I think you’ve just zeroed in on the key issue at the heart of this song:  what gives one person the right to kill another person? And Michael Jackson’s answer seems to be that nothing does. Nothing gives them that right. As he sings, “Did God say that they could decide / Who will live and who will die?” He seems to be saying that only God has the right to make that decision, so only God can confer that right – not the state, not a badge, only God. If that soldier and that policeman weren’t given the right to kill directly from God – and they weren’t – then they don’t have that right.

Eleanor: Well, I agree, he certainly seems to be saying that. But I’m not convinced that’s where he’s going with this. For one thing, we don’t know whose god the children are talking about or even if it is the same god. Is it the god of white supremacists or the god of the black church? Is it a Christian god or a Muslim god? Is it your god or mine?

And, so far, all he’s given us is questions, not answers. But, by having the children ask these questions, he both raises some very serious issues and ups the emotional ante, arousing the outrage most people would feel when innocent children are victims.

Willa: That’s true, it is children asking these questions, and children are among the most defenseless and voiceless. So the image of a small child asking a towering man in uniform “Why?” – why did you kill my father? why did you kill my mother? – is incredibly moving.

Eleanor: Yes, it is. And it works. We are moved and we are outraged, at least for the moment and for the fictional children in the song, who, through Michael Jackson’s artistry, are brought fully alive. But once we get into grappling with the questions they raise, we get into the area of blame and we get into trouble.

Hearing either story by itself, we might place the blame on the policeman who fired the shot or the soldier who released the missile or dropped the bomb. But, showing us that these stories are part of a larger pattern characterized by the repetition of violent acts resulting in the taking of innocent lives carried out by agents of the state, Michael Jackson begins to redirect our rage away from the police or the military, who in the larger sense didn’t make the fatal decision, and toward the states they represent, the states who have apparently decided that these lives don’t matter.

And then he complicates things even more: through the children’s questions about God, he opens up the related questions. If God said that the state “could decide who would live and who would die,” then does that make the state God’s agent, and does being an agent of the state imply that one is an agent of God? And if God said that the state “could decide who would live and who would die,” does that mean that God allows the state to decide which lives matter and which ones don’t? Who or what bears the ultimate responsibility for this insanity?

Willa: I think I see what you’re getting at, Eleanor. So when the children say, “Did God say you could decide?” you think they aren’t just questioning the men in uniform but the idea of a loving God also, for letting this happen. That’s interesting – I hadn’t thought about it that way.

Eleanor: Well, their questions do introduce the topic of God and raise the issue of the relationship between God and the state. The little girl seems to assume that the state acts without God’s blessing. She is issuing a challenge:

How is it that you get to choose
Who will live and who will die?
Did God say that you could decide?

While the little boy seems to be asking the more philosophical question:

Did God say that they could decide
Who will live and who will die?

Willa: I see what you’re saying. I only saw one interpretation before – the girl’s implied statement that the police didn’t have the right to take her father’s life. And I saw the boy as simply repeating that. But you’re right, there’s a subtle but important difference between them.

For one thing, the girl is challenging the police directly (“Did God say that you could decide?”) while the boy is asking his father to explain what happened (“Did God say that they could decide?”). And that subtle shift in pronouns from “you” to “they” really changes the situation and how we interpret it. So once again we’re back to pronouns … And like you, I think Michael Jackson’s sophisticated use of pronouns to shift perspective is nothing short of brilliant – and something we see throughout his work.

So as you pointed out, Eleanor, the girl is standing up to the police in the heat of the moment and asking them to justify their actions, while the boy is genuinely struggling to understand, perhaps days or weeks or even years later, and is asking his father to help him understand.

Eleanor:  Yes, and the mental image of his poor father, who was powerless to save his wife’s life and who is left to explain the unexplainable to his now motherless son, is so heartbreaking.

Willa:  It really is. My father lost his father when he was five years old, and I know from personal experience that it can take a lifetime to come to grips with that loss. Few things are more devastating to a child than the loss of a parent.

Eleanor:  That’s so sad, Willa. I can’t even imagine it.

But let’s distance ourselves from the emotional content of these stories for a minute and look at the underlying logic. Both stories make clear that the men in uniform, agents of the state, are directly responsible for the deaths of the children’s parents, and both children seem to assume that only God has the power to decide who will live and who will die, so it appears that the only explanation is that God gave the state permission to take their parents’ lives. Which makes no sense at all to either child.

If their parents are innocent, then either God is evil or the state has somehow usurped God’s power, both of which are theological impossibilities. The only other logical explanation is that the children are lying and their parents are guilty of something. But this is Michael Jackson singing this song, and in MJ’s world, children don’t lie and children see clearly. It is this quality of wise innocence that MJ cherished and that these children represent. These children are the real deal.

Although adults may rationalize evil into good, the deep wisdom of children allows them to get to the heart of the matter.  No matter how you look at it, in this song, they are telling us, something is rotten, something doesn’t make sense, something doesn’t add up. If “God” gave these men the right to take these innocent lives, what kind of god is that? (With friends like these…??) The children see an inherent contradiction. They are not confused by convoluted political – or theological – sophistry that turns good into evil and evil into good, such as arguments that might claim that merely being black or being born in a distant land, now defined as enemy territory, makes their parents guilty, and justifies their killing. They are not calloused or inured or jaded or brainwashed. They are truly innocent. And they know, when things like this happen, something (our understanding of the nature of reality or even our understanding of the nature of “God”) is “out of joint.”

The children’s heartbreaking stories and their simple, straightforward, and perfectly natural questions reveal inherent contradictions in conventional assumptions about the nature of God (at least the God of the Abrahamic religious traditions) who is conventionally assumed to be both all good and all powerful. And, these contradictions suggest that this God is not God, that the God of most organized religions, is not what it is cracked up to be.

Willa: And that brings up a question people have struggled with for millennia: why would a loving, all-powerful God allow terrible things to happen? Why would a loving God allow the Holocaust to happen, or war or famine or disease or torture?  We see Michael Jackson grappling with this question in his talks with Rabbi Schmuley Boteach – for example, in a chapter of The Michael Jackson Tapes called “Karma and Justice”:

MJ: I don’t believe in karma. I think that is a bunch of crap, because so many mean-spirited, evil people are on top of the world and doing well and people love them, no matter how evil they are.

SB: I love it when you make strong statements like that.

MJ: Well, I’m sorry, it’s crap. Karma is a theory like any other theory that some human made up.

SB: Well, “what goes around comes around” is ok, because there’s great truth to that. But karma could actually be evil because karma says that handicapped children did something bad in a previous life.

MJ: That’s a fine line and I’m sorry for talking like that. But I hate whoever says something like that. A child did something in a past life so God is going to handicap them? There were all these orphans in this one country coming to America to be adopted. The plane crashed. Every child on the plane died. Why? If you could save those kids, if you were in Heaven, you would say, “This one is not going down. Maybe another one, but not this one.” I know I would.

Eleanor: That’s a really interesting exchange, Willa. It clearly shows Michael struggling with these issues and shows that he wasn’t willing to accept “off-the-shelf theology.” If we believe an all-powerful god is responsible for everything that happens, and we are morally outraged by many things that happen, as MJ was, then we are adopting a position that says humans are more moral than God, which in conventional religious thought is a no-no.

But regardless of the flaws in theo-logic, someone’s god is often given as an explanation for those things which otherwise are inexplicable, and someone’s god generally is thought to have the power of life and death, and someone’s god’s will has often been invoked as the reason behind state actions. And I think Michael Jackson really wants us to focus on and question the assumption many people make concerning the relationship between state actions and the will of God, how an assumption of such a relationship, even if unconscious, seems to paralyze our will and absolve us of personal responsibility. I think he wants us to think about exactly who “the state” is, whose will the state is really carrying out – and how anyone could believe that any lives don’t matter.

Willa: I agree. While “We’ve Had Enough” talks quite a bit about God in a way that may lead us to question conventional wisdom and even our own beliefs, I don’t think the focus of this song is on the concept of God – not really. I think it’s on us, and how people have appropriated the concept of God to advance their own ideology, whatever it may be.

Eleanor: And there is certainly a long history of exactly that.  In ancient Greece and Rome, the emperor often was worshipped as a god, so his will in the arena of state actions was viewed as the will of a god. Then over time, this idea of the emperor-god evolved into the divine right of kings, which pretty much gave free rein to European monarchs and covered a multitude of sins and has fueled endless religious wars. And even today, there is plenty of evidence that suggests that states continue to believe, or act as if they believe, that they are instruments of divine will. Some god or other is a very convenient authority to appeal to for self-serving (in)human actions.

An argument could be made that the gods of organized religions, which have traditionally worked hand in glove with states, are actually thinly veiled “agents of the state” – a psychological construct that states have used for millennia to justify their actions and manipulate their citizen/subjects – especially in the area of sorting out the lives that matter from those that don’t.

Willa: Wow, Eleanor, there’s a lot to think about here. I think it’s true that “some god or other” is often “a very convenient authority to appeal to for self-serving (in)human actions.” In other words, nations or religions (or even football teams) frequently like to claim that God is on their side, and that their actions, no matter how violent, are carrying out God’s will.

Eleanor: And, don’t forget races. White supremacy and Christian fundamentalism often go hand in hand.

Willa: Unfortunately, that often seems to be the case. But I think you’re raising a very important point about the tendency for nations or other groups based on religion or race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or whatever to appropriate the idea of God and God’s will to justify their actions – especially when those actions are violent and repressive.

That’s something we see Michael Jackson struggling with in “All in Your Name” as well, as Joie and I talked about in a post last March. According to an article in The Guardian, “Jackson showed up at [Barry] Gibb’s doorstep with the unfinished song … about three months before the United States invaded Iraq.” In that song, he isn’t just questioning the looming war but all the things that are done “in Your Name.” He is so angry and upset with the terrible things that are being done in God’s name that he questions the very existence of God. But the idea of living his life without his strong belief in God deeply troubles him also, as he and Barry Gibb sing in the dual choruses:

So what is my life
If I don’t believe
There is someone to watch me?
Follow my dreams
Take all my chances
Like those who dare?
And where is the peace
We’re searching for
Under the shadows of war?
Can we hold out
And stand up
And say no?

Only God knows
It’s all in your name
Follow me to the gates of paradise
They’re the same
It’s all in your name

It seems to me that Michael Jackson’s belief in a loving God was one of the foundations of his life. He grew up in the church, and his religious beliefs helped guide him and keep him sane through all the craziness he went through. He can’t imagine life without it – as he repeatedly sings, “What is my life / If I don’t believe?”

But at the same time, such horrible things have been done and continue to be done in God’s name: “where is the peace / We’re searching for /Under the shadows of war? … It’s all in Your name.” And we continue to see the spread of religious intolerance and holy war throughout the Mideast, and in other parts of the war. That’s intolerable to him also.

Eleanor:  So interesting, Willa….“Where is the peace?” is similar to a line out of “Earth Song” (“What about all the peace/That you pledge your only son?”), which was written years earlier. He had been dealing and struggling with these issues for such a long time.

Willa: Yes, I think so too. And so he finds himself at a crossroads, trying to understand what he should believe and what he should do. And in “All In Your Name” he seems to resolve that conflict by deciding to rise up and take a stand against religious wars and religious intolerance, while still maintaining his belief in a benevolent God. As he and Barry Gibb sing,

Can we hold out
And stand up
And say no?

Only God knows

Eleanor:  I remember that discussion well, Willa, and that song so perfectly expresses the terrible dilemma he found himself faced with, given his own deep compassion and his deep feeling of connectedness to a power that he often referred to as L.O.V.E. It shows how deeply troubled, how desperate he felt at that time – and remember, he was in New York on September 11 and had witnessed that horror.

The song, and the accompanying story, also show that the “God question” and the problem of evil was an abiding concern of his. And his dilemma is exactly the dilemma faced by the children in “We’ve Had Enough.” At the core of their being, they know that their God, understood as love and a force for good, couldn’t be responsible for the evil that has befallen them and their parents; and God, understood as all powerful, wouldn’t allow such terrible things to happen. And yet they do happen. So what is the answer?

I think Michael Jackson found the solution to his dilemma in the clear-eyed innocent wisdom of children, like those in “We’ve Had Enough.” There, he found the evidence for the existence of, not an imperial god out there backing state actions and calling the shots and deciding that some lives matter while some do not, but what in some circles is called the god within – a powerful force for good, for the common good –  that is accessible if we seek it, and that is all powerful if we unleash its force. But what a big “if.” Because we adults can, and in most cases do, choose to ignore it.

Unlike the rest of us, who in adulthood lose touch with our own wise innocence, MJ kept the channel wide open, keeping every emotion, every nerve ending alive, giving emotional depth and power to his work, and through this power, he was able to reach deep into our souls and touch our own innocence – the love and compassion which binds people together, rather than the fear and anger that drives them apart, and which he continued to believe was still there somewhere, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.

Willa:  I agree, Eleanor, and I think he beautifully expresses this idea in “Heaven is Here,” a poem from Dancing the Dream. Here’s a wonderful reading of it:

There’s actually a whole series of these readings and I don’t know who’s creating them, but I love his voice. Anyway, as Michael Jackson says in the opening lines of this poem:

You and I were never separate
It’s just an illusion
Wrought by the magical lens of
Perception

There is only one Wholeness
Only one Mind
We are like ripples
In the vast Ocean of Consciousness

Come, let us dance
The Dance of Creation
Let us celebrate
The Joy of Life …

Eleanor: And that beautiful poem speaks to another recurring theme in his work, the idea that we are not separate beings, that “You’re Just Another Part of Me.”

Willa:  Exactly.

Eleanor:  Like the children in “We’ve Had Enough,” Michael Jackson was in touch with that inner power, that tie that binds. It informed his vision, giving him the ability and wisdom to see clearly and recognize the cruelty, the barbarity and utter senselessness – the insanity – of the type of acts described in “We’ve Had Enough.”

The children feel the deep wound of their losses – and the injustice – and so does he … and so should we all. But, as he points out in the next lines of the song, we don’t.  Instead,

We’re innocently standing by
Watching people lose their lives
It’s as if we have no voice

If we are watching people lose their lives, how could we be “innocently standing by”? He could be using irony, or he could actually see us as innocent victims of religious and cultural brainwashing. My guess is that he means it both ways. That we are both innocent bystanders and guilty as sin.

And the outrage aroused at the beginning of the song, which seemed at first to be directed at the police or the military, we now find directed at the systems that have brainwashed us, and at us for allowing ourselves to be brainwashed. After all, we do have a voice, but we choose not to use it. It is our responsibility to put a stop to these acts, but we are shirking it.  As Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Willa: He also seems to be suggesting that if we stand idly by “watching others lose their lives” then that disempowers us as well. It silences us: “It’s as if we have no voice.”

Eleanor: If we are standing by, believing ourselves to be innocent bystanders, while people lose their lives, clearly something is seriously wrong. To paraphrase “Earth Song,” “we don’t know where we are / but we know we’ve drifted far….”  In other words, we’ve lost our moral compass.

On the other hand, we could do something instead of nothing, and MJ is telling us it is long past time for us to act:

It’s time for us to make a choice
Only God  could decide
Who will live and who will die,
There’s nothing that can’t be done
If we raise our voice as one

They’ve gotta hear it from me
They’ve gotta hear it from you
They’ve gotta hear it from us

We can’t take it
We’ve already had enough
Deep in my soul, baby
Deep in your soul and let God decide

I think he is suggesting that we need to recognize that we are the medium for the expression of “God’s” will, and so he implores us in a voice filled with urgency and desperation to make that choice to open our hearts to that power “deep in [our] souls” and “let God decide.” And note the change from “only God could decide” to “let God decide” – putting the ball in our court.

Willa: Yes, and that’s an important distinction. It reminds me of the famous line by Abraham Lincoln that Barack Obama has quoted a number of times: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” In other words, he’s saying we should look within and try to use our understanding of God to guide us to do what’s right, rather than using God as justification to do what serves us best.

Eleanor: If we look deep in our souls and consult and access “the god within, the life force, the drive for the common good,”  a global, rather than a national or a racial common good that includes us all, that does not sacrifice the good of one group to benefit another – if we “let God decide” – it will restore our moral compass and unleash all the power that has been blocked by our inner conflicts. I think Michael Jackson sincerely believes that this energy exists, and if we let this energy guide us, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.

And the title of the song suggests that once we get our heads on straight and restore the connection between heart and brain, we should feel these injustices as if they were happening to us. Because they are; we all suffer as a consequence of these actions. And he wonders when we will decide “We’ve Had Enough” and do something.

Willa:  I agree, and I think that’s the meaning he’s trying to convey in the ad libs near the end of the song, beginning about 4:10 in:

They’ve gotta hear it from me
They’ve gotta hear it from you
They’ve gotta hear it from us
We’ve already had enough
(He’s my brother)
We’ve already had enough
(Dear God, take it from me
It’s too much for me
That’s my brother
It’s too much for me
That’s my brother, baby
That’s my lover)
We’ve already had enough

When an unarmed man – a father – is killed on the streets by a policeman, or a wife is killed in her own home by a bombing raid in a distant country, Michael Jackson doesn’t want us to think of it as something distant that doesn’t affect us. Instead, he wants us to take it personally, as if “That’s my brother” or “That’s my lover.” It’s happening to all of us.

Eleanor: And in choosing not to act, we are dooming ourselves.

Willa:  Absolutely.

Eleanor:   I don’t know when “We’ve Had Enough” was written, but it was released with the Ultimate Collection in 2004, during that period leading up to his trial, a trial that could have ended with his imprisonment and the loss of his children – an intensely painful period that had begun ten years before, and it has the same feel – anger and desperation mixed with deep sadness and compassion and frustration – of much of his later work.

And something about the level of desperation in his voice leads me to believe that not only does he feel the pain of these children and thousands like them, but he views himself – and all of us – ensnared in the same vicious pattern, a pattern that in one way or another diminishes all of us, a pattern that he believed could be broken and must be broken.

But, tragically, shockingly, we still haven’t had enough. Years after this song was first recorded, the innocents continue to die in confrontations with police and military – especially since police forces have become increasingly militarized and military actions become more and more impersonal, young soldiers sitting at consoles, playing video games that take real lives.

But perhaps the stakes are too high. Speaking up can exact a high price, which he alludes to late in the song: “It’s up to me and I’m still alive.” But, tragically, today, he isn’t. Like the children in the song, he knew the difference between right and wrong, he confronted the state with incredible strength and courage, he opened his heart and let the power of the life force come through, and he encouraged us in his life and in his art to raise our voices against injustice.  He never gave up. He never backed down. And, he paid the ultimate price.

Willa:  Yes, and that’s something D.B. Anderson talks about as well, in that article we mentioned at the beginning of this post:

Michael Jackson was never afraid to put himself out there for the truth as he saw it. We could always count on Jackson to be the global leader of the band, to give voice to everything we were feeling. His adult catalog is a trove of social activism. Starvation. AIDS. War. Gang violence. Race relations. The environment. It was Jackson who put on concerts for war-torn Sarajevo. It was Jackson who put together a group charity song and concert after 9/11. It was Jackson who used every ounce of his global celebrity to make a difference. He was there.

What happened to Jackson for his politics was so much worse than losing sales. For in speaking truth to power, Jackson made himself a target …

And D.B. Anderson is right. He did make himself a target, and he paid a terrible price for it.

Eleanor: But he left us with that powerful truth that the stakes are too high not to act, and that desperate call to action:

They’ve gotta hear it from me
They’ve gotta hear it from you
They’ve gotta hear it from us

We can’t take it
We’ve already had enough