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The Cordon Sanitaire

June 27th, 2009 - 4:33 am

Neil McCormick’s piece in the Telegraph on Michael Jackson’s death describes the concentric layers of retainers that stood between the late entertainer and nearly everything. He had lawyers, accountants, spokesmen, personal physicians, bodyguards, servants and hangers-on of various kinds. The King of Pop never actually touched the world. It was interpreted to him through buffers. And though this was ostensibly to protect him, the stark fact of Michael Jackson’s corpse lying in a sealed crypt in an LA morgue rather suggests that more was not better. Ironically, he may have gotten worse financial and medical advice from his expensive assistants than we would from the town accountant or general practitioner. The Daily Mail wrote that his ‘enablers’ may soon even be under investigation:

Los Angeles police detectives are conducting a separate inquiry into the death and Harvey said they have requested a hold on any further information being released to the public. As the police inquiry was launched an inner circle of ‘enablers’ was blamed for Jackson’s death.Long-time family lawyer Brian Oxman accused personal physicians, businessmen and media agents of helping the singer abuse prescription drugs to prepare for his gruelling 50-concert London comeback.

The coming days promise to be the mother of all media freak-shows. Only minutes after Jackson’s death was announced, domain names linked to his death were already in business. Retailers can hardly keep up with the huge resurgence of interest in his music. Business analysts are gleefully saying that Michael Jackson was worth more dead than alive, a fact which any homicide detective must now be taking into consideration. There are even pictures showing an unseemly glee in people who should be bereaved, which only seem to prove the adage that every dark cloud had a silver lining. There were even conspiracy theories suggesting that given the difficulty of the aging Jackson fulfilling his performance schedule that things are better this way. McCormick comes closest to it when he writes:

So did the concert promoters do for Michael Jackson? They certainly have some questions to answer. It is pretty clear that he was, in some respects, a reluctant participant, driven back to the stage as a last resort to pay off overwhelming debts, whatever promoter Randy Phillips, head of AEG Live, has said about Jackson wanting to do it for his kids, while he still could. Dismissing rumours of Jackson’s frailty and ill health, Phillips declared on 21st May: “I would trade my body for his tomorrow. He’s in fantastic shape.” I think this particular medical expert will probably be trying to keep a low profile for a while.

Jackson’s need to caper on stage at age 50 recalls the pathetic spectacle of Isaac Hayes, who driven to financial hardship after resigning from South Park after it came into conflict with Scientology, forced himself to continue performing even though he was physically incapacitated,  even if “performing” consisted of pretending to play the keyboard, speaking songs or stumbling through interviews.

The process through which a principal is captured by his servants is familiar to students of bureaucracy and even business. Once capture is consummated, the master and servant exchange places. The enterprise is run thereafter not for the benefit of the principal, but for those of the agents, such as when a country is run for the benefit of a government, or when a government is run for the benefit of its officials. In the case of Jackson, he may have been working — and made to keep working — for the benefit of the vast swarm of creditors, suppliers and hangers-on who attached themselves like parasites to failing host.

But the most deadly aspect of having ‘enablers’ is that they throw a veil over your eyes. A cordon sanitaire tells you everything you need to know. How you look; what people think; what foods are good for you; what “medicines” will make you well; what your prospects are. It tells you everything you need to know; but tells it all wrong. Take Adolf Hitler. Up to the very end he was being treated by the good Dr Theodor Morell, “well-known in Germany for his unconventional, holistic and alternative treatments”, another way of saying he kept Hitler drugged to his eyeballs. But Morell was not alone. Hitler’s decision-making processes were ably informed by soothsayers, mountebanks, toadies and certified maniacs. They collectively did more to mess up the Third Reich’s decision making processes than any Allied disinformation plan. Hitler was “destined” for victory the way some companies are “too big to fail”.

But how many people, reflecting on the King of Pop’s fantasies, will ask themselves whether subprime mortgages, unfunded social security or borrowing our way out of debt makes any more sense than that last shot of Demerol? On a day when the House has passed the climate change bill, wouldn’t it be good to ask how much of what the public is being made spend is for the public’s own benefit, and how much for the continued livelihood of the armies of special pleaders who surround society with their policy pills and needles?  Good, but unlikely. It is far easier to believe in promises and rely feel-good nostrums than it is to look in the mirror, even though we know what it will show.  Jackson’s death when it came, wasn’t a surprise; probably not even to him. And the crash of public policy fantasy, when it arrives, will not be wholly unexpected.


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