Sunday, February 01, 2004

The Jackson Trial: Oscar Wilde on trial again?

Posted by AmishThrasher at 1:34 pm
Okay, I know that there are many more important things in the world than whether or not Michael Jackson is a paedophile. However, as it will end up being perhaps the biggest news story of the year, I'm going to post my opinions on the case here. This will be a big post, and I'll probably end up posting it in bits and pieces rather than in one big chunk; as well as posting other things.

Don't worry, I won't quit posting about the corruption and injustices of the music industry; I encourage anyone reading this to check out my archives for the truth. However, I think it might be an interesting excercise to understand what's really going on in this trial, so time in this blog will be given to the topic.

After all, one of the great aspects of history is to use it as a tool to find out about what happend in previous, similar situations. Time to witness history in action.

To look at the Jackson trial, I'll use an analogical inference that compares Jackson's trial to an earlier one. The key premiss is this: Jackson is not the first (once) popular, arguably eccentric entertainer to have faced charges of sexual deviance in a conservative society; a trial that gets described as the "trial of the century". In fact, there are many similarities between the trial Jackson will face in the coming months, and the trials of Oscar Wilde.

In this post, I'll look at some of the similarities between Jackson and Wilde.

Oscar Wilde was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and later at Oxford--where he discovered the dangerous and delightful distinction of being different from others. Although he won numerous academic prizes, he eschewed the normal pursuits of academic life; his greatest challenge at University, he would frequently confide, was learning to live up to the blue china he had installed in his rooms.

While at Oxford Mr. Wilde fell under the influence of Walter Pater and the doctrine of art for art's sake. Mr. Wilde moved to London in 1879 and set about establishing himself as the leader and model of the aesthetic movement. He wore velvet coats with contrasting braid, knee britches, loose-fitting wide-collared shirts with flowing ties and lavender-colored gloves. He frequently carried a jewel-topped cane and was caricatured in the press flamboyantly attired and bearing an over-sized sunflower--an icon of the movement.

Part of Jackson's original appeal was his extravagent lifestyle, and outlandish dress sense. And, at first, it worked in his favor. In 1983, red leather jackets necame fashionable off the back of Jackson's wearing one, while Sears sold single white gloves covered in rhimestones. So, like Wilde, Jackson became a fashion trendsetter.

In both cases, we also see an underlying life philosophy, and other behavior in their personal lives, that deviates from normal behavior in that society. In contrast to Wilde's aestheticism, we see the arrested development of Michael Jackson. However, from the early '80s through to the early '90s, the public somewhat accepted him taking Bubbles the pet chimp to see President Reagan, the private theme park at Neverland Ranch, and some of the early plastic surgery.

The thing we learn is that, in conservative societies, it is still often okay for high profile entertainers to dress, and in some cases act, in a flamboyant and somewhat eccentric manner; especially at the peak of their success. In fact, it can be an endearing characteristic.

But it's a dangerous game, and a game that, in itself, has limits.

While endearing, it can also be threatening, or lead to an uncomfortable silence around it. It leads people to wonder whether said individual is a sexual deviant. And it's tollerable as long as the eccentricities are kept within the tollerable limits of the society.

Oh, and as both Jackson and Wilde have learned, tollerable social limits include both commercial success, and no open accusations of 'sexual perversion'. If this happens, it becomes a free-for-all, and any eccentric acts, or fashion choices, will be held against you in the court of public opinion, if not court.

In 1881 his collected poems were published. In 1882, short of money, Mr. Wilde accepted an invitation to embark on a lecture tour of America. The tour was an unmitigated smash and Mr. Wilde returned to London in triumph and richer by several thousand pounds.

Mr. Wilde married Constance Lloyd, the daughter of an Irish barrister in 1884. They had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan.

The eccentricities of both Wilde and Jackson were accepted because of the facade of their private lives. People saw Wilde with his wife and children, and (at least some) assumed that beyond the public persona lived a normal, Christian family man. In both cases, there were already rumors of sexual deviance. At the peak of his success, Jackson was often publically accompanied by "girlfriend" Brooke Shields.

Even after the first round of accusations, Jackson married and had (what some assume to be a series of sham) marriages (Debbie Rowe, Lisa Marie Presley) and 3 children. However, this was enough to convince at least some - with time - that Jackson may not be a sexual deviant, as did Wilde's marraige to Constance Lloyd.

What we see here is the utmost importance of maintaining a facade of what a conservative society deems 'normalcy', especially with other behavior and dress choices that push the limits on what a conservative society finds acceptable.

Neil McKenna puts down Frank Miles as the first man (perhaps the first person) to have had sex with Wilde, when Wilde was 22. This is perfectly possible, as Miles was definitely a sexual predator and was so close to Wilde that they later shared a flat. The most commonly reported view, however, is that Wilde first had sex with the 17-year-old (but very promiscuous) Robert Ross, at Ross's instigation, when Wilde was 31. McKenna has every right to challenge this position but he does not proffer any reference or evidence for his contrary view.,6121,1070373,00.html

In 1891 a guest of the Wilde's brought a young man to tea. Alfred Douglas--Bosie--was the foppish, poet son of the Marquess of Queensberry. They were immediately attracted to each other. Bosie was taken with the brilliance of Mr. Wilde's conversation and wit, and Mr. Wilde was entranced by young Queensberry's good looks and title.

It may be, as McKenna suggests, that Ross was the first man with whom Wilde experienced anal sex, and with previous lovers had engaged only in mutual masturbation and fellatio. If so, Oscar soon made up for lost time.,6121,1070373,00.html

This would be easier to enjoy as an epic of sexual liberation if Wilde and co really were arguing for the acceptance of love between man and man. In fact, as McKenna's extensive quotations make quite clear, many were standing up for the righteousness and desirability of sex between men and boys. McKenna exhaustively documents Wilde's relationships both with young men who were his social equals, and with the teenage working-class boys or "chickens" who were to his taste. One encounter at a hotel in Worthing was with a 15-year-old boy, an event which, if it happened today, would have Wilde castigated as a celebrity paedophile.,6121,1070373,00.html

I would like to point out at this point that Michael Jackson should be considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and that hasn't happend yet. However, accusations of paedophilia is certainly something both men share in common.

On the heels of the success and titillating scandal of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Mr. Wilde produced his best known plays. Among these timeless social comedies were: Lady Windemere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), Salome (1893), The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), and An Ideal Husband (1895). These were well received by the public and Mr. Wilde became the toast of London society--lionized for his brilliant wit, his gregarious charm and manner.

I won't argue the relative merits of Jackson vs. Wilde. However, I will point out that both men, even with gossip of their personal lives, managed to be quite succesful. Amist the gossip and innuendo about Jackson, we need to remember that Off The Wall, Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous are still amongst the biggest selling albums of all time, and that Jackson - for better or worse - has had an impact on pop culture in the past couple of decades. We certainly aren't talking about Joe Blogger here; we're talking about men at the peak of pop culture success.

On February 14, 1895, Wilde's new play The Importance of Being Earnest was set to open at the St. James Theatre.  Wilde learned that Queensberry planned to disrupt the opening night's performance and harrangue the audience about Wilde's alleged decadent lifestyle.  Wilde arranged to have the theater surrounded by police.  His plan blocked, Queenberry prowled about outside for three hours before finally leaving "chattering."

Certainly, the chattering has affected the success of recent efforts by Jackson in the decade since the first public accusation. HIStory, Blood On The Dancefloor, and Invincible have been significantly less successful - arguably - than they would have been if Jackson had never been accused of deviant behavior.

Four days later at the Albemarle Club--a club to which both Wilde and his wife belonged, Queensberry left a card with a porter.  "Give that to Oscar Wilde," he told the porter.  On the card he had written: "To Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite [sic]."  Two weeks later Wilde showed up at the club and was handed the card with the offensive message.  Returning that night to the Hotel Avondale, Wilde wrote to Douglas asking that he come and see him.  "I don't see anything now but a criminal prosecution," Wilde wrote.  "My whole life seems ruined by this man.  The tower of ivory is assailed by the foul thing.  On the sand is my life split. I don't know what to do."

Jackson has had a number of Albemarle Club moments, the most noted of which were the first accusations against him, a decade ago, by the Chandler family. Indeed, there is a self-righteous conservative man behind the accusations against Jackson; Santa Barbera DA Tom Sneddon. Many believe the song DS to be about Sneddon, though the official lyrics suggest a man named "Dom Sheldon", a man who holds the title of "USTA" (rather than "DA") is the subject of the song...

Tom Sneddon is a Cold Man...

On April 3, 1895, the first trial of Oscar Wilde--with Wilde in this case cheering the prosecution--began at Old Bailey.  Queensberry, wearing a blue hunting stock,  stood alone, hat in hand, in front of the dock.  Wilde, wearing a fashionable coat with a flower in his button-hole, chatted with his attorney.  Meanwhile, in another room in the building, a group of young men--gathered by Queensberry to substantiate his charge--laughed and smoked cigarettes.

Sir Edward Clarke delivered the prosecution's opening statement.  Clarke's address impressed even Edward Carson, Queensberry's attorney, who said "I never heard anything to equal it in all my life."  Clarke attempted to take some of the sting out of on key piece of evidence that Queensberry planned to introduce.  He read one of Wilde's letters to Douglas that might suggest to many readers the existence of a homosexual relationship.  Clarke admitted that the letter "might appear extravagant to those in the habit of writing commercial correspondence," but said it must be remembered that Oscar Wilde is a poet, and the letter should be read as "the expression of true poetic feeling, and with no relation whatever to the hateful and repulsive suggestions put to it in the plea in this case."

After brief testimony from Sidney Wright, the porter at the Albemarle Club, Wilde took the stand.  He began by lying about his age, which he said was thirty-nine (he was actually forty-one).  Under questioning by Clarke, Wilde, with easy assurance, described his earlier encounters with--and harassment by--Queensberry.  To Clarke's final question, "Is there any truth in any of these accusations [of Queesnberry]?", Wilde answered: "There is no truth whatever in any of them."

After lunch, Edward Carson--a rival of Wilde since their days together at Oxford College--began his skillful cross-examination. The cross generally broke into two main parts: a literary part and a fact-oriented part focusing on Wilde's past relationships.  In the literary part of the examination, Carson asked Wilde about letters to Douglas and two of his own published works, The Portrait of Dorian Gray and Phrases and Philosophies for Use of the Young.  Wilde defended the works against Carson's suggestions that they were immoral or touched on homosexual themes.  "There is no such thing as an immoral work," Wilde asserted in Dorian Gray, rather "books are well written, or badly written."  "That expresses your view?" asked Carson, "a perverted novel might be a good book?"  When Wilde replied, "I don't know what you mean by a 'perverted' novel," Carson said, "I will suggest  Dorian Gray as open to the interpretation of being such a novel."  Wilde answered indignantly, "That could only be to brutes and illiterates.  The views of Philistines on art are incalculably stupid."  Carson asked about a suggestive letter to Lord Douglas: "Was it an ordinary letter?"  "Certainly not," Wilde answered, "it was a beautiful letter."  "Apart from art?" Carson wondered.  "I cannot answer any questions apart from Art," Wilde replied.  And so it went.  Wilde did his best to turn the proceedings into a joke with flippant answers.  Always the artist, he seemed to be reaching for creative, witty answers, even if they contradicted earlier ones.  Though immensely interesting reading, the literary part of Carson's cross was not the most incriminating.  Rather, one senses that Carson enjoyed toying with his old rival.

When Carson began to ask Wilde about his relationships with named young men, Wilde became noticeably uncomfortable. The jury appeared astonished when Carson produced items ranging from fine clothes to silver-mounted walking sticks that Wilde admitted giving to his young companions.  Suspiciously, the recipients of the gifts were not, in Carson's words, "intellectual treats," but newspaper peddlers, valets, or unemployed--in some cases barely literate.  Wilde tried to explain: "I recognize no social distinctions at all of any kind, and to me youth, the mere fact of youth, is so wonderful that I would sooner talk to a young man for half-an-hour than be--well--cross-examined in court."  Soon after that confident response, Carson asked Wilde about a young man, sixteen when Wilde knew him, named Walter Grainger.  Did Wilde kiss him?  "Oh, dear no!" Wilde replied, "He was  a peculiarly plain boy."  Carson zeroed in on his prey.  Was that the reason he didn't kiss him?  Why then did he mention his ugliness?  "Why, why, why, did you add that?" Carson demanded to know.

That afternoon the prosecution closed its case without calling, as was widely expected, Lord Alfred Douglas as a witness.  No testimony that Douglas might give, no matter how forceful, could save Wilde's case.

When Carson announced, in his opening speech in defense of Queensberry, that he intended to call to the witness box a procession of young men with whom Wilde had been sexually associated, the atmosphere in the courtroom became tense.  Edward Clarke understood his client was in serious personal danger.  An 1895 Act, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, had made it a crime for any person to commit an act of "gross indecency."  The Act had been interpreted to criminalize any form of sexual activity between members of the same sex.

After trial that evening, Edward Clarke met with his famous client.  "When I saw Mr. Wilde," Clarke later recalled, "I told him it that it was almost impossible in view of all the circumstances to induce a jury to convict of a criminal offence a father who was endeavoring to save his son from what he believed to be an evil companionship."  Clarke urged Wilde to allow him to withdraw the prosecution and consent to a verdict regarding the charge of "posing."  Wilde agreed, and the next morning Clarke rose to announce the withdrawal of the libel prosecution.

The first trial of Oscar Wilde, where Wilde tried to clear his name, bears a striking similarity to a Jackson attempt to clear his name. The biggest difference, however, is that where Wilde chose court, Jackson chose the court of public opinion. I'm talking, of course, of the now infamous interview with Martin Bashir.

Fans of Jackson's were outraged at how editing and voice-overs made Jackson appear dangerously out of control, and a paedophile. Aside from one tabloid story that erroneously dubbed the episode the "The World's Largest Suicide Note" (though Michael hasn't committed suicide in the year since it aired), they most heavily promoted the parts that suggested he was paedophile.

As the general public enjoyed the wit of Wilde, many felt sympathetic to the story of Jackson's childhood. However, like the unusual silence when Wilde made the joke in court about not kissing a particular boy because he was far too ugly, a large section of the general public deemed Jackson defending the practice of sharing his bed with young children as either proof that Jackson was indeed a child molestor, or at the very least, a very naeve man.

Many also suggest Jackson was liberal with the truth with the ammount of plastic surgery he has had.

A poorly calculated move in both cases. And one that would come to land both men in further legal trouble.

Wilde, however, had lapsed into "a pathetic state of indecision."  Meeting with Douglas and his old friend Robert Ross at the Cadogan Hotel, Wilde wavered back and forth between staying and fleeing until, he said, "The train has gone--it is too late."  When Wilde learned from a journalist calling at the hotel that a warrant had been issued, Wilde went "very gray in the face."  He sat quietly in his chair drinking glass after glass of hock and seltzer.  Soon Wilde's name was removed from the ads at playbills at the St. James Theatre, where The Importance of Being Earnest was still being performed.

Similarly, Jackson still holds a large fan base in continental Europe. Similarly, there was speculation that Jackson was planning to move to the homesteading state of Florida last year, where he would be outside Sneddon's jurisdiction. Perhaps he, too, will regret not leaving before the train departs?

The jury failed to reach a decision at the first trial, but at a second trial Mr. Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years in Reading Gaol (pronounced redd-ing jail). He was forced to labor in prison and his meals consisted mainly of gruel, suet, water and greasy cocoa. While in prison Mr. Wilde was declared bankrupt; his house and possessions were sold to pay his debts.

Similarly to this, there have been two attempts at a criminal prosecution against Jackson, the first in 1992 began as a (settled) civil trial, the second is set to begin later this year. I wish Jackson luck in finding a fair jury.

Prurient Victorian England denounced Wilde and sentenced him to more than prison. Performances of his plays were cancelled. Wilde's wife changed her surname and with her two young sons, moved abroad to escape the scandal. On his release, Wilde lived in Paris. He was received into the Catholic Church on 29 November 1900, and died a day later.

I know there are certainly differences between the two men. To borrow a quote, history appears to always repeat to those who don't know the details. To my knowledge, Wilde never bleached his skin or had extensive plastic surgery. However, this is not (contrary to what the media will have you believe) going to be a unique trial; rather it's a trial of a public figure that a conservative society has already dubbed an eccentric. Again, I'd like to point out that Jackson is innocent until proven guilty.

In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if, in a century, some group holds up Jackson as a trail-blazer, as the gay community now holds Oscar Wilde. But Jackson has already been deemed guilty by many in our conservative society, and a large part of it has been due, perhaps, to his outlandish excess elsewhere.

Thanks to Sara for proof-reading this post.