When I was a kid, all I knew about Michael Jackson was that he was crazy. He had a monkey named Bubbles and some kind of oxygen chamber and he used to be black but he made himself white and he was nuts. That was Michael Jackson in full. Wacko Jacko.
After all, as a kid, you know you are changing, but the world seems static. If Michael Jackson is crazy it is inconceivable that he was ever not crazy in the same way it’s hard to imagine your parents as children because they’ve always been so old. One of the hardest lessons of childhood is reckoning with the instability of the world. And the earlier it comes, through death or divorce or whatever upheaval that can be visited on children, the harder it is to take. Maybe that’s all it is to grow up in the end.
This is what I was thinking about, anyway, when Michael Jackson died: not what he meant to me but what he became to us. I realized that I had never stopped thinking about him the way he seemed to me in elementary school; that he wasn’t immutably crazy, but a sick man getting sicker: a weird, possibly demented and heinous man, falling apart over many years, wrecking his face and body, all the while a subject of fascination and ridicule.
We made it a joke because it became normal. The trials. The surgeries. The accusations. The scandals. Michael Jackson’s insanity stopped being insane to us and it turned us coarse and awful.
Yes, there are two types of public insanity. There are the breakdowns. Amanda Bynes. Charlie Sheen. Britney Spears. Eruptions of paranoia or mania or rage that spill into view and elicit a balance of concern, scorn, judgment, pity. We don’t handle these moments well, let’s not kid ourselves, but never do these events fade into the scenery. We see it and we point to it. That is broken. That person needs help. This can’t go on.
But then there is the more insidious crazy. The slow-boil crazy. The Michael Jackson crazy. The crazy that we accept as routine, that changes so slowly that we fail to recognize when we have accepted what should be appalling, when we have desensitized ourselves to something dark and horrible: when we have become insane ourselves.
The same happens in our politics. There are of course the psychotic breaks. Fits of idiocy, depravity, zeal. When a president takes advantage of an intern in the Oval Office or makes false claims about enriched uranium in the State of the Union. When a block of cash is found in the freezer of a congressman or the Supreme Court stops a vote count and says, “Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances.”
These are events that stop us in our tracks. But the stopping matters. The stopping saves us from ourselves. Then there is the other crazy, the crazy that creeps up on you, like a messy house that fills with junk until one day you’re a hoarder.
The proliferation of horserace political coverage is of this brand of lunacy, where the presumption is that a political act will be described on the basis of how it will be perceived, and this in turn determines how it is perceived because it’s the only way it can be perceived. “Will the president’s statement hurt him?” Yes, if the coverage asks that question, as the question about the hurt is the hurt, which is how we know it hurts.