March 11, 2005

Ambiguity and responsibility: Michael Jackson and children.

Tunku Varadarajan, in the WSJ, theorizes about why Americans "loathe" Michael Jackson:
Michael Jackson offends--and offends spectacularly--against this principle of clarity, of decipherability. He is not so much opaque--for that is a quality America can live with--as deeply fuzzy. Opacity, of course, is clarity of a kind, and an American is thought to have as much right not to show his hand at all as to reveal it in full. What he must not do, however, is to be indeterminate....

Transparency of word, overtness of execution--these are American characteristics. One can see them in President Bush's assertion made to the world after Sept. 11: "You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror." One can see them also in the drive by America's gay activists for the legal recognition of same-sex marriage: a penumbral state, that of civil unions, is simply not conspicuous or clear enough--and therefore not good enough.

Where did this national aversion to ambiguity come from? ... Definition and precision are the stuff of business, and in a materialist society like America's their absence becomes the basis of profound unreliability.

From there, as the Michael Jackson case has shown, it's only a short hop to opprobrium.

It's interesting to meditate on the love of clarity and the fear of ambiguity, and maybe we do need to have more appreciation for ambiguity -- especially as we look to art and artists. The real problem with Michael Jackson, however, is not the general ambiguity of his looks, his music, and his fantasyland ranch. It is the very specific ambiguity about his relations with children. There is a special value to clarity -- a special responsibility to be clear -- when an adult deals with a child. I think we Americans accept and indulge many inexplicable eccentricities in our artists, but if we can't understand what you are doing with a child, it sets off our sense of responsibility to the child.

UPDATE: Mark Daniels has some thoughts about Americans' acceptance of ambiguity in artists.

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