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Last month the devotees of talk radio and cable TV once again enacted the familiar ritual, brandishing their torches and massing for the assault on the ruined castle. Goaded by the usual agitators, they milled in the public square, muttering that the verdict in the Jackson trial marked some heretofore unreached nadir in national reason and morals. But the actual purpose of trials should be old news by now. Our society doesn’t stage legal contests because they reveal truth — or because we even expect them to. We hold trials because we require the tale, the ritual retelling of one of a half-dozen formulaic narratives, the re-enactment of a familiar drama that will hold at bay the moment’s worst cultural anxiety. Seeking legitimate cause for alarm, the rabble and its rousers might have focused less on the prosecutor’s evidentiary gaffes than on why, in 2005, America’s angry villagers so desperately needed a monster story. Litigators traditionally bristle at the suggestion that their historic function isn’t the dispensation of justice, but the staging of public stories. Yet trials are simply stylized narratives governed by the literary rules that bind both “Moby Dick” and “CSI” — linear presentations of accumulated details organized and interpreted according to format. That principle applies whether audiences — and the lawyers who attempt to sway them — recognize their complicity in the genre-typing or not. The narrative form a trial takes isn’t random; nor, surprisingly, is the particular genre a case assumes entirely dependent on its litigants’ unique situation. Rather, the facts of any courtroom saga are presented and processed according to the tensions of the day, becoming the precise kind of story a society needs to hear at a given time. If we can identify the story type we’re telling ourselves, we can learn something important about who we are. And who we are at the moment turns out to be an America eager to turn itself over to Mary Shelley.
For a formula so closely tied to the Industrial Revolution, the monster yarn remains remarkably current. Giving rise to the genre, Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1819) presents a wealthy entrepreneur who wants to create a product that will transfix the world. So he produces an imago that comes stunningly to life. But the creation is less a “real” being than a medically clumsy amalgamation of features that might once have been human. As might be expected, the creature’s deadened skin tone and freakish facial appearance permit Shelley to show exactly how a society so focused on ensuring compliance with middle-class norms deals with difference. Of course, the tech-savvy Frankenstein — like the protagonists who will follow him over the next two centuries — also builds into the creature some genuinely remarkable capabilities. Since the monster story is never coy about its relationship to capitalism, the creature’s idiosyncrasies relate directly to its potential to produce profit. Shelley’s creature offers a model for the dumb and docile English miner and factory worker upon whom industrialists counted to support 19th century capitalism. “Edward Scissorhands,” Tim Burton’s 1990 reincarnation of the Frankenstein monster, is a man-child whose emotional development is deliberately stunted in order to exploit his commercial output. Whatever the era, all goes well as long as the creature is seen by everyday folks as posing no threat to them. For the most part, the monster is segregated from the community, isolated on a remote estate or in institutional lock-down. Then the creature emerges, with wholly predictable results. While the usual reactionary cranks clamor to annihilate the ogre, mainstream culture exoticizes him; the preoccupation with oddity — the prurient interest that passes as “news” these days — is, after all, global media’s big-ticket commodity. “They say he’s a freak of nature. Well, isn’t that interestin’,” a neighbor says of Edward Scissorhands, and soon Burton’s unworldly oddball has created a sensation among the inquiring minds hooked into tabloids and daytime television. But the coexistence doesn’t last. The societies that create monster stories are profoundly fearful ones. As it happens, they have good reasons for alarm: One by one the convictions that have supported their status quo — of Biblical accuracy, of moral entitlement, of limitless consumption, of earth’s capacity to renew itself — have been called into question by science and reason. Monsters spring up when a society suddenly realizes that this time, the end really is at hand. Faced with the inevitable collapse brought on by its own self-interestedness, the mainstream does what it has always done best: it denies there’s a problem. The result is rigid orthodoxy, the suppression of dissent and the stigmatization of inquiry. The nation’s spinmasters don’t market denial as what it is, of course; instead, the vicious repression of anything that might expose the cracks in mainstream dogma — whether in art or commentary or the open display of sexual orientation — is heralded as the defense of fundamental values. But the words we’ve heard so often of late have themselves been spun: the origin of “normalcy” isn’t well-being, but adherence to convention; “decency” isn’t kindness, but what social practice bids us to do. Not surprisingly, all that bending of the individual to the conventional will exact a frightening cost. So monster stories function to show us — by demonstrating what our desperate efforts to “be normal” actually produce — how monstrous convention really is. What’s repressed by Dr. Frist inevitably returns as Mr. Hyde. It’s the role Michael Jackson was literally made for. In a society driven by what things look like — whether in the formatting of ideology as information, or in the creation of upbeat soundbytes at the expense of truth — our era’s most publicized monster is an embodiment of tweaking gone wrong. In Michael Jackson’s ruined face looms the Dorian Gray image conveying the nasty suggestion that time isn’t really conquerable, that life isn’t actually perfectable, that our world isn’t infinitely contaminable, that the leaders we choose because they “look presidential” are neither wise nor incorruptible. Jackson is reality after the cultural Botox has worn off.
Yet there’s far more than a nose job to unnerve us. Pathetically suspended between black and white, male and female, Jackson embodies our realization that, for all the democratic egalitarianism we preach, ours is a world where the way you’re treated depends on the two categories we’re told are nature’s: race and sex. Nor has any public figure ever more clearly exposed the extent to which those identifiers are not god-given demarcations, but social constructs arising from our worst ideological motivations. Jackson is the hideous troll who disrupts the day’s most popular bedtime stories: a nasty reminder that at the end of our fantasies of level playing fields and big tents, a desperate black man still tries to replicate the ideal childhood by becoming white; the creepy despoiler — decked out in mom’s makeup and the boys wear of the American ’50s (frontier sheriff, or astronaut, or military man) — of the idealized images sold by “Father Knows Best.” While primetime wife-swaps and the high jinks on Wisteria Lane tell new generations that those retro gender roles are pretty cool after all, Jacko evokes the unpleasant memory that, for many of us, looking the part has always been a masquerade of excruciating complexity. Nor were the allegations against Jackson new to the monster story. Repelled by their own sexuality, the societies that create fictional fiends invariably attribute to them stunning acts of sexual deviance, the more horrific because imagined rather than observed. Nonetheless, the precise kind of depravity attributed to the ogre is always particular to the times, with the scourging of the creature as the mainstream’s denunciation of the great sin it refuses to acknowledge in itself: racial prejudice (“Cat People,” 1942); or insatiable greed (“The Hunger,” 1983); or mass-market consumerism (“Hannibal,” 2000). Not surprisingly, the era that turned the American family into cheap political fodder has designated as its worst fiend an apparent seducer of children. Jacko’s domain has always loomed — at the north end of the Los Angeles corridor — like Disneyland’s dark twin. But Neverland is the Magic Kingdom stripped of its mouse costume and exposing the predatory impulse behind every pitch to Main Street mores. If the Jackson case seemed for awhile to be America’s only news, its scope was made to the measure of our enormous need to ignore the part we’ve played in history’s most sophisticated, full-scale exploitation of children: the culture of grotesque consumerism marketed as heartland values. So we railed against Jackson’s irresponsibility toward young Americans — even as we resisted paying taxes to maintain public service. We condemned Jackson’s penchant for wretched excess — while we scorched the earth to power our SUVs. We blanched at the number of Jackson victims — yet we renounced universal health care and abandoned every child in the public school system. We rushed to brand an ogre, willfully ignoring that the greatest threat to our kids is the bankrupting of their future. Cultural commentators like to query why the folks in Kansas don’t see the actual doom gathering behind the fa�ade of the monster show. But the answer is that they do. The People magazine and Fox News enthusiasts who have so willingly participated in their own diversion are the quintessential angry villagers — their response to the moment’s fiend so malevolent because their rage at the inevitable ruin they’ve brought on themselves is so great. Not soothed by simply denouncing the monster, they must anathematize him. Not relieved by removing the perceived aggressor, they must hunt him, trap him and burn him alive. “Sweat, freak!” a New York Daily News headline trumpeted above a photo of Jackson awaiting the verdict in his case. Occasionally, storytellers have looked at the role of courts in displacing the public demand for a monster show. The conclusions aren’t optimistic. Burton’s Edward is incarcerated, sent to court and released with warnings no less surreal than those upon which cable’s experts condition Jackson’s peace: that he maintain “a normal lifestyle,” establish “conventional relationships” and avoid “anything inconsistent with what a regular 47-year-old man ought to be doing.” At the close of Edward’s legal proceedings, a forensic psychologist is asked to sum up: “The years spent in isolation have not equipped him with the tools necessary to judge right from wrong. He’s had no context. Furthermore, his work � indicates that he’s a highly imaginative, uh, character. It seems clear that his awareness of what we call reality is radically underdeveloped.” “But will he be all right out there?” the film’s policeman asks, aware that whatever the official resolution, the criminal justice system will be stuck with the cleanup. Can this sad misfit adapt in society so fearful of difference, so intolerant of questions, so terrified of its own end? “Oh yeah, he’ll be fine,” Burton’s expert replies. It’s a prediction that’s no more assuring in Edward’s world than it is in ours. Contributing writer Terry Diggs teaches law and film at Hastings College of the Law and Golden Gate University.

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