Fighting the Michael Jackson culture

Posted: Jun 22, 2005 12:00 AM

Last week, Michael Jackson was cleared of all charges in his child molestation case. As the verdict was announced, Jackson's fans cheered. Four days later, 400 Jackson fans gathered at the Chumash Casino in California to celebrate the pop star's acquittal. One of those fans, Pauline Coccoz, was a juror in Jackson's case; she cried as the casino blasted "Beat It" over the loudspeakers. Meanwhile, rumors continue to fly that the King of Pop will attempt a world tour and/or a brand new album. His trial once again raised his musical profile; according to Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems, Jackson's radio spins went from 197 the day before the verdict to 1,171 the day of; over 18.8 million people heard a Jackson song the day the verdict was announced.

 Seventy-two years ago this month, former silent movie star Fatty Arbuckle died in his sleep at the age of 46. Twelve years earlier, Arbuckle had been accused of raping a young woman, Virginia Rappe, using a foreign object; supposedly, this had ruptured Rappe's bladder, killing her. Despite the fact that Arbuckle was later acquitted of manslaughter after two hung juries, he was essentially blacklisted from Hollywood. His career was over.

 Clearly, Arbuckle was the victim of injustice. Evidence strongly supports his innocence. But that was a different time and a different place: It was a place where even the suggestion of impropriety was enough to cause public scandal. It was a place where immorality was not tolerated. Judgmental? Yes. But was it better than today's no-standards society, where known child molesters like Michael Jackson are celebrated after their acquittals? Absolutely.

 Americans have always been fascinated by celebrity, but it is only in the past few decades that scandalous celebrity behavior has been accepted by a willing public. For years, Hollywood covered up the private lives of its biggest stars. Most people now realize that Judy Garland was addicted to drugs, but MGM went to great pains to cover it up at the time. And few people know even now that the married Clark Gable sired a child by unmarried Oscar-winning actress Loretta Young -- and that Young subsequently "adopted" her own child to avoid scandal.

 At the same time, public disapproval of celebrity immorality extended to the content of films themselves. The Hays Code was voluntarily implemented in 1934 by the movie industry in response to public outcry over the antics of the sultry Mae West. The Code stated, "No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." The Code remained in force until the early 1960s. The Hays Code has been derided since its demise as quaint and oppressive, but it is no coincidence that the greatest movies ever made were filmed during this period.

 For a long while after the demise of the Hays Code, Americans accepted celebrity scandal and movie immorality. The erosion of traditional moral standards in the 1960s made Americans more tolerant of immoral behavior on screen and off.

 But perhaps Americans are beginning to wake up to the degradation of our culture by celebrity worship and Hollywood's social liberalism. Most Americans now think Hollywood movies and the celebrity culture are out of touch with traditional values. A recent poll by AP/AOL showed that "most Americans think movie stars are poor role models and almost half say movies generally aren't as good as they used to be." Seventy-three percent of Americans would prefer to stay home and watch a DVD rather than go out to a movie.

 Some movie critics have gone so far as to re-endorse the Hays Code itself. As Neil Minow of the Chicago Tribune penned back in March 2004, "The Hays Code said, 'The MORAL IMPORTANCE of entertainment is something which has been universally recognized. It enters intimately into the lives of men and women and affects them closely; it occupies their minds and affections during leisure hours; and ultimately touches the whole of their lives. A man may be judged by his standard of entertainment as easily as by the standard of his work.' Maybe that's not as outdated and quaint as we thought."

 This could be the beginning of a true cultural conflict -- a conflict that has been too long in coming. It's the Michael Jackson society versus the Fatty Arbuckle society. Both have their drawbacks: In the Michael Jackson society, we allow celebrities to get away with anything, while in the Fatty Arbuckle society, we punish even the appearance of impropriety. But after living in the Michael Jackson society for 40 years, Americans are becoming nostalgic and with good reason.