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Jackson, Enhancement and the American Dream

What can we learn from Michael Jackson's tragic premature death? The autopsy will be performed later today which may reveal the immediate cause of death. But whatever the immediate medical cause of death, the ultimate cause is clear: death by social malfunctioning.

Jackson was a music prodigy – an immensely talented musician and performer. He made hundreds of millions from his music and rose to realise the American dream – the son of a steel worker rising to very top of the music industry on the basis of sheer talent and hard work.

Despite this success and his achievements, the last years have seen Jackson as a recluse, removed from society, hunted by sexual molestation charges, housing a menagerie of bizarre exotic animals, sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber designed to stave off aging and death. Jackson appeared to have lost his place in the world. He no longer seemed to fit.

In my sphere of academic research, Jackson was often held up as the poster boy for opponents of human enhancement. How many times have I seen his image portrayed in presentations criticising cosmetic surgery and attempts at human enhancement. He became the bottom of the slippery slope of human enhancement.

But Jackson is not a failed experiment in human enhancement. He appeared as a sad, lonely man disconnected from the fabric of society. His character and brilliance could not be accommodated by society and he found himself almost a pariah. What is his death represents is not the failure of human enhancement but the importance of being a part of society, of being supported in vital ways by other human beings. It is a banal truism that humans are social animals. But it was Jackson's inability to find his place in society that caused his final demise.

He embodied the American dream – poor disadvantaged kid rising to the top, making millions, a complete individual, quirky and eccentric. But he died because there was not the right place for this unusual individual within the social fabric. And that is the great threat to American Dream. I am great defender of individual liberty, originality and difference. I admire many aspects of the way Jackson chose to live his life. But his death teaches us that we depend vitally on the respect, love and support of others. That bit is missing from the American Dream. And, as we come to live in a global community, one of the facts of utmost importance to the future of humanity. As individuals, we must find a place in our society. And as nations, we must find a place in the world.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. This seems to be a comment about the last years of his life, rather than about his death. He was pitiable at the end for the reasons you say, but I’m not sure it counts as the cause of death. Is this not simply another underscoring of the cliche that ‘money can’t buy happiness’?

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