The death of liberal order: On Michael Jackson's 'Black or White' and our changing political, cultural landscape

While the other pop stars of the 90s were far less political, Michael Jackson's songs showed a clear political arc.

Suharsh Sinha June 16, 2020 13:35:01 IST
The death of liberal order: On Michael Jackson's 'Black or White' and our changing political, cultural landscape

Released in 1991 as part of the album, Dangerous – ‘Black or White’ by Michael Jackson was one of the greatest chartbusters of the 90s and I remember watching it over and over again as a kid. 1991 was a time when cable TV had just hit our shores and MTV used to still play music. Transitioning from a staid Doordarshan era when Prasar Bharti babus DJed the weekly Chitrahaar, MTV was a like a hurricane inside our primitive TV sets. Madonna, Guns and Roses, MJ, Queen and Aerosmith exploded in our drawing rooms with glitsy music videos. While the other pop stars of the era were far less political, MJ’s songs showed a clear political arc. Music videos like 'Bad' and 'Beat It' touched on race and class conflict in urban America in the 1980s. But in the early 90s his videos went beyond domestic strife and addressed a global audience. Revisiting the 'Black or White’ video in 2020, it is difficult to ignore its benign yet strong political undertones. It serves as an accurate reflection of the liberal world view of the tectonic shifts taking place in global affairs.

The prevailing political climate of that time was electrifying. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and euphoric images of German unification appeared in our black and white newspapers, followed by glossy colour editions of the India Today magazine. This was followed with a wave of democratic governments mushrooming in the satellite states of the USSR in Eastern Europe. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to infuse a heady cocktail of perestroika and glasnost in a hitherto sterile political climate and signed a historic nuclear disarmament pact with Ronald Reagan. Soon thereafter the global counterweight to the American empire – the mighty USSR spectacularly collapsed under the inefficiency of its centralised economy, the arms race and the laboured attempt to mould diverse racial and linguistic groups with a hammer and sickle. With the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, the European Union came into being which would be the precursor to a continent size monetary union with no trade barriers. In South Africa, after decades of subjugation, apartheid was abolished and vast the black population was finally granted equal civil-political rights and suffrage by law. The Israel-Palestine conflict — one of the greatest fault lines created by the post-war Allied scramble for power — seemed to be headed towards a negotiated settlement with the Oslo accords between the PLO and the Israeli government.

The death of liberal order On Michael Jacksons Black or White and our changing political cultural landscape

File image of Michael Jackson. Reuters/Russell Boyce

The global discourse was characterised by optimism and goodwill. Communism with its elaborate infrastructure of surveillance, disregard for individual rights and command economy had been interred. Racial integration and equal rights for all no longer seemed utopian. Self-determination was no longer a dirty word symbolising treachery with the motherland – but was seen as a genuine expression of distinct cultural, linguistic or religious identity. 90s promised dawn of a new era where all nations would move towards liberal democracies with free markets, universal human rights and enlightened internationalism. So dominant was the liberal that the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama boldly proclaimed that this was the end of history. It felt that this was the appointed era towards which the long march of human history was destined to culminate. Liberty, equality and fraternity – the clarion call of the French Revolution seemed to be upon us.

The music video of Black or White is a pop star’s commentary on those times. After an extended introduction, the song starts with MJ jiving in Africa amidst wildlife and Zulu dancers. The scenery soon shifts to an onslaught of native Americans engaging in a choreographed attack formation on horsebacks with MJ performing on an elevated podium. It is followed by MJ dancing with Asian dancers in traditional Thai attire. What remained etched in my mind was the short clip of MJ dancing with a classical Indian dancer performing Bharatnatyam on a busy Manhattan street. At a time when liberalisation was exposing our sedate middle class to cosmopolitan culture, it found itself in a collective crisis of self-confidence. In this backdrop, it was exhilarating that an Indian dance form was felt to be worthy enough to be part of this sexy international ensemble. Like kids in the playground, we excitedly chatted about the five-second clip which put India on the world stage. A similar sentiment could well have been felt by kids in other enclaves of the global south. The video then shifts to MJ dancing with Russian folk dancers in red attire in the backdrop of the Kremlin and the Red Square. The image of an American pop star dancing in Moscow (albeit studio created) made for much stronger PR than NATO tanks rolling down Gorky Park could ever have achieved. The video ends with a montage of men and women of various skin tones merging into one another while singing the chorus.

The symbolism of a black (born) pop idol crooning these lyrics from the flame aloft the Statute of Liberty was massive. It showed how western democracy successfully co-opted the self-expression of varied peoples by offering them a fair political system. It showed how all cultures and races could retain their unique identities while co-mingling in the great melting point of liberal societies. It showed how capitalism, free movement of people and ideas had defeated the flawed ideals of Soviet collectivism. It signalled an era of peace, profits and prosperity where neo-liberalism would stitch together a new world order to which there is no alternative.

Observing the world in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, Jackson's (against whom the allegations of sexual abuse resurfaced yet again in 2019) 'Black or White' offers a compelling juxtaposition. Liberal democracies have failed to uphold the independence of institutions, separation of powers and a truly free market. Electoral politics the world over has descended into brute majoritarianism and the space for minority rights and political dissent has shrunk. Populist leaders on both the far left and right are gnawing at establishment parties. The rise of ‘strongman leaders’ in large democracies and their divisive politics has been a rude awakening. What is even more alarming is the rise of far-right parties in the traditional bastions of western liberal democracy – Sweden and Germany. Economic protectionism is rising with all major economies diluting free trade agreements, raising tariffs and subsidising domestic players. A parallel development is the rise of nationalism based on ethnicity, religion and language – a phenomenon which the new world order had presumed to be a pre-modern anachronism.

There is a rampant transgression of human rights with liberal democracies using mass surveillance technologies through facial recognition and digital footprints at a scale which would have made Stalin envious. Sham democracies in Central Asia, Latin America and Russia have created gangster capitalism and billionaire oligarchs cornering sovereign resources. The global multilateral institutions are cash strapped and delegitimised. In this vacuum, the Chinese lust for markets and influence has manifested in a no-strings-attached cheap debt spree creating a sort of ‘leveraged imperialism’. European unity is faltering and the Brexit referendum showed us the unbridled power of the mob. Race riots and polarisation are eroding the myth of American exceptionalism. Vast sections of the news media have turned into mini Radio Rwandas, with TV anchors openly demonising minorities and inciting violence in the garb of journalistic freedom. One finds eerie similarities with politics in the lead up to the first world war.

Fall of communism was a distinct exogenous shock which spurred a new ideological movement. What is truly baffling is the lack of any clear trigger point for the reversal of the liberal project and the descent into authoritarianism, protectionism and nationalism. One may conjecture that the seeds of its destruction were inbuilt in liberalism and a laissez-faire outlook towards free speech, individualism and trade would inevitably be misused by extremist elements while the decent citizenry would stand by naively reposing faith in institutional checks and balances. This is most evident in perversion of online social media — a tool meant to propagate free speech but which has ultimately sabotaged it. Another possibility is that we are witnessing a rebellion against elites having captured disproportionate resources, power and influence at the cost of what Nixon coined the silent majority. Conservative hate mongers like Rush Limbaugh in the US have branded liberals as the ‘art and croissant’ crowd. Closer home in India, liberals are branded as the ‘Khan Market gang’ and ‘Lutyens crowd’.

Gradually, this contempt against elitism has morphed into the erosion of liberal values at the core of individual rights and our constitutional scheme. Modern messiahs of disgruntled masses have appealed to the most basic instincts to insidiously channelise their justifiable rage against a rigged system which failed to deliver social and economic justice. Or maybe, the key non-state institutions of liberal democracy – the civil society and mass media – were just too susceptible to manipulation to be able to offer a bulwark against the creeping incrementalism of extreme politics. It hasn’t helped that liberal leaders and influencers are too caught up in trumping and shaming each other in demonstrating their ideological purity – a phenomenon Obama recently called the ‘circular firing squad’. It is an exercise in intellectual vanity which has made them even more remote and inaccessible to the electorate. Arrogantly branding anyone with less than an uncompromising commitment to every fringe liberal agenda, as bigots or village idiots, is destroying any common ground for engagement. Whatever the reasons may be for the decline of the new world order, it is clear that the world is increasingly seeing intractable issues in black and white. I am sure MJ wouldn’t have been amused.

Suharsh Sinha is an insolvency lawyer qualified in New York, England and India and currently based in Mumbai.

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