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Salon on Michael Jackson's Trial

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The man in America's mirror

Believe it or not, the Michael Jackson trial is more than a freak show. Yes, it's a celebrity-sex wallow -- but it's also a crucible for our unresolved questions about crime, fame, race and punishment.

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By Farhad Manjoo

March 26, 2005  |  To most people, taking the Michael Jackson case seriously is a contradiction in terms. As much as Jackson is known for having once been a great performer, he is now known for being a freak. With his chimp, hyperbaric chamber, mysterious illnesses, dangling baby and, most of all, ever changing face, Jackson has become a regular player in the Bat Boy brigade of tabloid media. His trial is one of those media spectacles that stand as yet another reason to be ashamed of America, and arguing that it is some sort of social, cultural or legal landmark seems as silly as arguing that "The Wiz" marked a compelling turn in American cinema. Really, it's understandable why you'd want to look away.

But I'm here to tell you that Jackson's trial on charges of child molestation is more important than you think it is. The case presents us with a rich seam of American obsessions, a combustible cocktail of celebrity, sex, race, mass media and the administration of law and order in our society. It gives us an opportunity to understand the method to Jackson's apparent madness, to examine the ways in which he has, throughout his career, mined freakishness for its utility to him as a star. Here's a musician who hasn't recorded a great album in more than a decade and nevertheless remains, for better or worse, a cultural obsession, a national figure to be mocked or cried over, lamented or prized.



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