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American Absurdity

June 30, 2009


Beat me, hate me

You can never break me

Will me, thrill me

You can never kill me

Jew me, sue me

Everybody do me  

Kick me, kike me

Don’t you black or white me


All I wanna say is that

They don’t really care about us

All I wanna say is that

They don’t really care about us.

(“They Don’t Care about Us,” Michael Jackson, 1996, Epic Records)


The “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, wrote this angry song in 1995 and released it in 1996 along with two videos by Spike Lee, helping it become a top ten hit across Europe. The anti-Semitic lyrics caused controversy in the U.S and helped limit the song’s sales as it only reached Billboard’s Number 30. In the media’s nonstop blitzkrieg following the death of Michael Jackson at age 50 before his 50-date European tour, this song was skipped in favor of popular videos of Motown’s Jackson Five, “Thriller,” and all the other big hits over Jackson’s 42-year-career. As Mitch Albom wrote (“We’re Wacko in How We View Jacko”, Detroit Free Press, June 28, 2009) “Four days ago—when he was still alive—Jackson was perceived as a desperate, grotesque, off-the-radar, once-great-performer turned weird, pathetic, possibly criminal and unable to sell records the way he did. A day later, he was a world-healer, a joy-spreader, a one-of-a-kind man of magic.” Fellow celebrity, 62-year-old Farrah Fawcett, who died of cancer the same day, was nearly forgotten in the endless-Michael-media-buzz. Governor Sanford leaving his South Carolina Governor’s Mansion for five days to be with his Argentina mistress was yesterday’s news. And TV pitchman Billy Mays, who was seen on more stations and commercials than anyone else, had a day or so before his death from a sudden heart attack, also at the age of 50.

The Monday morning after Michael’s death began with more media excited consternation. Bernie Madoff testified in a New York court that he couldn’t explain his “mistake” and his “error of judgment” in defrauding unsuspecting investors of billions of dollars and said he felt ashamed and miserable about it. This didn’t dissuade the judge from giving Madoff the maximum sentence of 150 years in prison. Yet, the money Madoff stole from investors will almost certainly not be returned to them this year, next year, or at all in the next 150 years. And while Madoff rots in prison, the other crooked fraud purveyors including mortgage brokers, bankers, and other financial wizards who garnished trillions of dollars of losses for millions of people and nearly brought down the entire financial system won’t be put in prison anytime soon. Madoff turned himself in while many of the other crooks are back to work, not concerned about their questionable financial tricks of the past. The beat goes on, or as Michael might have said to all of the harbingers of financial destruction, “Beat it! Just beat it!”

We live in an absurd, paradoxical time. The economy is supposedly getting better because the stock market has stabilized and the University of Michigan reported three consecutive months of improved “consumer confidence”. Yet, over 600,000 jobs were shed again last month as the national unemployment rate surpassed 9.4% and Michigan’s surpassed 14%. As Bob Herbert pointed out (“No Recovery in Sight,” New York Times, June 27, 2009), “There are now more than five unemployed workers for every job opening in the United States. The ranks of the poor are growing, welfare rolls are rising and young American men on a broad front are falling into an abyss of joblessness.” Counting the unemployed, part-timers who want to work full-time, and those who stopped trying to find work, the “underutilized” workers in May amounted to 29.37 million. According to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, “Nearly 30 million working-age individuals were underutilized in May 2009, the largest number in our nation’s history.”

No wonder Detroit councilwoman Monica Conyers, wife of Congressman John Conyers, must have felt desperate enough to avoid poverty by accepting bribes in the $1.2-billion Synagro sludge-hauling deal (“Conyers took cash and jewelry, ex-aide says,” Detroit Free Press, June 29, 2009.) Who could blame her if she had to break some laws to get a $10,000 “finder’s fee” from Greektown entrepreneur, Dimitrios Papas, and some cash and jewelry from the owner of a Southfield pawnshop who wanted to relocate and expand his store? And who could blame her husband, Congressman John, from suddenly supporting a controversial hazardous waste injection well in Romulus that Papas’ company was seeking to operate? Coleman Young had to be smiling up above, knowing the legacy of Detroit corruption he wallowed in was still alive and well, even after the reign of Kwame Kilpatrick.

While we talk about absurdity, it’s stunning to know that the largest decrepit building in the country, the 3.5-million-square-foot, 43-building Packard Plant complex, which hasn’t made a Packard in over 50 years, burns every week or so, causing Detroit firefighters and their rigs endless hours of battling the blazes from expanding (“Tallying up Detroit’s absurdities,” Bill McGraw, Detroit Free Press, June 29, 2009.) “We’re here about every week,” said Deputy Chief Reginald Amos while Battalion Chief Greg Best said, “This place is a death trap.” Who owns this complex “filled with collapsing ceilings, crumbling walls, gaping holes, tons of garbage, tens of thousands of dumped items, two-story-tall roof trees and loads of graffiti?” A company called Bioresource which hasn’t paid city taxes since it bought the plant in 1987, hasn’t filed an annual report since 2000, and was declared dissolved by the state in 2003.

The entire economic calamity in our state doesn’t stop Michigan’s universities from raising tuition rates again by over 5% while the state’s economy decays. They are as out of touch as the United States government which continues to print trillions of dollars and spend even more, with no limits. Nothing stops the spending spree which accelerated in the Bush years and has grown even more astronomically since Obama’s election in January. All of the TARP, TALF, stimulus packages, automotive company buyouts, Cap and Trade bills, and health-care-for-all legislations add more and more debt while attempting to fix the economy short term. Yet, the housing and auto markets have barely budged and the impact on employment has been negligible so far.

No matter how bad it is in the rest of the country, it’s worse in Detroit. In an excellent article in Sunday’s New York Times (“G.M., Detroit and the Fall of the Black Middle Class,” Jonathon Mahler, June 28, 2009), Mahler visits the Pontiac Assembly Center in Pontiac, Michigan (Plant 6) and employee Marvin Powell, a church-going auto worker, before we learn that the plant will be closing around October 1st. The article is about the decline of the American automotive industry and its affects on the middle class, especially the black middle class.

Michael Jackson, of course, didn’t have to worry about economic survival as his family made lots of money in Motown and Jackson made millions more in the disco era and then in the MTV 80s. He worked for Motown in its later years of glory and then made history in the music industry’s most lucrative years, becoming the best selling pop star of his generation. Like GM, Michael was king then, while the auto and music world were dominated by just a handful of companies. Then, the years of Neverland came and the skin color changes and the physical pain doused with prescription pain killers, then the trials of child abuse and eventual acquittal of charges. The last few years didn’t get any better for Jackson.

Like Madoff, Michael lived in glory and torment. Today, Madoff tells the judge, “How do you excuse lying and deceiving thousands of investors? I live in an almost tormented state now thinking about all of the pain and suffering I've created.” Madoff, like Michael before him, was supposedly tormented from the shame of his incredible fraud but his suffering came because he caused so much pain for thousands of people.

The absurdity is beginning to ease. Conyers has quit as Detroit Councilwoman, Governor Sanford is still clinging to his Governor’s office, Madoff is set for 3 more lives in jail, pitchman Billy Mays (viewed on television 400 times a week) is dead, and Jackson is gone but certainly never forgotten. The world has changed so fast in the last 50 years but it seemed to change even faster in the last week.  

When I was on a European cruise last week with my family, I didn’t know that Jackson was scheduled to tour there. But I knew that Spain’s unemployment was higher than Michigan’s and that pick-pockets and thieves were everywhere. I felt like I was back in Detroit as we bought two door alarms and a special pick-proof wallet to wear. After three days in Italy, we docked in the Southern Riviera in France and walking around a street market near the shore, Kyle found three old postcards from the heyday of Detroit, when postcards cost one cent each. I bought the General Motors Building on West Grand Boulevard, the Michigan Central Station, and the “Heart of Detroit” for a combined 14 dollars (or ten euros.) On the back of the “Heart of Detroit” postcard was written, “In the heart of the city is Campus Martius surrounded by the most modern of Detroit’s office buildings—the Penobscot building, the Union Trust Building and the National Bank of Detroit with the City Hall in the foreground.” Imagine a time when Detroit was a thriving metropolis and GM its invincible leader.

I felt saddened that I had to find the glory days of Detroit in France. It is stunning to see how far that Detroit has fallen in my lifetime. Today, as one of Powell’s co-workers told Mahler of the New York Times, “People are worried about everything right now.” When Powell was asked how to prepare for the paralyzing notion of losing the one job he has known, Powell said, “You’ve got to have the mind-set that you can achieve greatness.”

I would take quiet, courageous survival rather than greatness. I’d be happy for a simple quest for normality instead of absurdity. In the midst of all of this decay and death, I’m afraid it’s as good as we’re going to get.   



Michael Jackson then and recently
Monica Conyers
Madoff in New York



GM old headquarters
Michigan Central Railroad station

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