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Jackson Wasn't Normal. So what?


The concept of "normal'' was born among astronomers. Observatories once were plagued by small discrepancies in different people's measurements of the same object, until, early in the 19th century, the mathematician Karl Gauss discovered that those errors occurred in a predictable pattern: Most came just above or below an average. And the further an answer was from that average, the rarer it was. That pattern in the data has proved useful throughout science. It's the famous "bell curve,'' or normal distribution.

For almost a century, the statistical concept has also been applied to measurements of populations -- heights, birth rates, tax payments, body mass indices, and so on. But a strange thing happened during this transfer from stars to people: The idea became loaded with moral and political meaning. For Adolphe Quetelet, the Belgian astronomer who first applied the "normal distribution'' concept to social issues, the "average man,'' at the center of any bell curve, wasn't just common. He was also best: "the type of all which is beautiful -- of all which is good.'' To be normal, average, and typical, was to be right.

This assumption became a part of social science and then a part of middle-class common sense. Today, we think, to be normal is good; to be abnormal is bad -- unhealthy, immoral, less than adequate. Unlike our medieval ancestors, who wished to live up to the extraordinary example of saints and emperors and holy fools, we've set the bar in the middle.

This prejudice in favor of the typical is on full display this week, as the world reacts to the death of Michael Jackson. Amid all the acknowledgments of his talent and drive is a steady, persistent strain of smugness: This pathetic guy wasn't normal. He had weird tastes, bizarre self- indulgences, and of course he'd been accused of a loathsome crime that -- never mind his acquittal -- normal people never are never charged with. One of his songs was about a rat, one of his friends was a chimp. Poor guy. So not-regular.

"Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender,'' Andrew Sullivan wrote last week, "you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.'' Approvingly, Sullivan linked to an essay by Michael Kinsley from the 1980's, which blamed Time magazine's Jackson coverage for suggesting "that there is something wonderful about being an incompetent human being.'' Why, Kinsley added, "the only truly normal thing Time describes Jackson doing is listening to the soundtrack of Oklahoma.'' The theme had come to a crescendo when Jackson was on trial on the molestation charges, when the public learned just how weird he was as it pondered whether he had committed a truly despicable crime. The crime was quickly conflated with the weirdness, as if feeling free to have a pet giraffe necessarily meant feeling free to abuse children. Cave-man style, a New York Post headline summed it up in a headline describing the wait for a verdict: "SWEAT, FREAK.''

Now that the man has been buried, the drums beat more in pity than anger (except for Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who called Jackson a "lowlife''), but the spirit is the same: pundits weigh extraordinary talent and achievements against averageness, and decide that being average was more important. Some blame capitalism for Jackson's strangeness. Some blame pop culture. Many agree, though, that Jackson was bad -- the bad bad, not the good bad -- because he wasn't normal. "By the end -- and in fact, long before the end,'' wrote the columnist Rod Dreher, "the poor man ceased to be a person, and became instead a pathology.''

Suppose we were to honor the statistical origins of the word "normal'' and consider what Michael Jackson's life would have been like had he not been a "freak.'' What, in the stats, could we predict about an average African-American man from Gary Indiana, born in 1958?

For one thing, he wouldn't have that much longer to live. Life expectancy for African-American men is just over 66 years in the United States, and Michael Regular Guy Jackson would be about to turn 51. Given typical fertility rates for African-Americans, he'd have kids. Maybe a legal breakup in his past (as the Census Bureau estimates that four out of every ten marriages end in divorce). If he'd followed his father into Gary's steel mills he'd have years ago lost his secure job as the industry there shrank. Given Gary's rates of poverty and crime, he be more likely than an average American to have struggled financially, and more likely to have been the the victim of a crime.

Or perhaps Michael Regular Jackson would have found an average-guy job at one of Gary's big employers, like Bank of America, Sara Lee or Oracle. He might have considered himself lucky, especially given the current downturn (Gary's unemployment rate is 15.6 percent compared to a national average of 6.9 percent). He might well have trouble making ends meet (Gary's average annual salary is $33,000) and might well also be sitting tonight at the table in his workaday normal kitchen, wondering how he could make it all work in this sick economy (SWEAT, NORMAL GUY).

Now, this typical life of scrimping and worrying and working at what you can get -- well, it's perfectly O.K. But think -- no time for music, no drive to do what hasn't been done before, no trips down into the mysterious wells of fantasy, where you can't always tell the inspirations from the traps. In this alternative universe, we get a middle-aged, respectable black guy of whom Andrew Sullivan might approve -- a man you might comfortably share a few beers with, who won't get stares when he walks down Main Street. Is that better than finding and using his powers to the fullest, to re-invent pop music? Does Michael Typical Jackson do more good for the world, or himself? That typical life is perfectly OK. But the apostles of normal claim it would have been better than the life of the Michael Jackson we knew. Sure doesn't look like a slam-dunk case to me.

But maybe I'm being unfair. Perhaps the praisers of "normal'' would have preferred Michael Jackson to be culturally conventional, not necessarily statistically average. Maybe their ideal is a guy doing what most people do because we've learned over the ages that these standards make for the best sort of life.

In that case, let's not imagine the hypothetical Jackson as a middling cipher, but instead assume his talent and drive remained. We see them now channeled into a "normal'' career, fit for a serious, typical man of Jackson's generation. Suppose he applied himself and became someone who wore a tie to work instead of a rhinestoned glove. Who went to church, preached family values, had three or four nice normal children and a normal wife. Someone like, say, Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina.

Oops. But then, that's the trouble with normality -- no amount of it can protect anyone against his own passions and fears. Everyone's life has moments that feel very far from normal, and those moments just happen to be when we feel most human, most alive, and most ourselves. The statistics that define "normality'' can serve as a predictor of how likely you are to live in Antarctica or weigh 500 pounds; the conventions of being a regular guy can make you look reassuring and trustworthy to others. These concepts have their uses. But they are no guide to life.

So, if you really think being normal was a better fate than being Michael Jackson, all I can say is: have a nice life.

Follow David Berreby on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidberreby