Tragic Deaths of Jackson, McNair Stir Reflection The guys in this week's Barbershop — Jimi Izrael, Ruben Navarrette, Arsalan Iftikhar and Lester Spence — reflect on pop superstar Michael Jackson's final sendoff and disturbing news surrounding the murder of former NFL star Steve McNair. Also, as the NAACP prepares for its annual meeting and the guys debate whether civil rights organizations still have a place in society. Host Michel Martin eavesdrops on to hear more from this week's Barbershop.
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Tragic Deaths of Jackson, McNair Stir Reflection

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Tragic Deaths of Jackson, McNair Stir Reflection

Tragic Deaths of Jackson, McNair Stir Reflection

Tragic Deaths of Jackson, McNair Stir Reflection

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The guys in this week's Barbershop — Jimi Izrael, Ruben Navarrette, Arsalan Iftikhar and Lester Spence — reflect on pop superstar Michael Jackson's final sendoff and disturbing news surrounding the murder of former NFL star Steve McNair. Also, as the NAACP prepares for its annual meeting and the guys debate whether civil rights organizations still have a place in society. Host Michel Martin eavesdrops on to hear more from this week's Barbershop.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for our shape-up this week are freelance writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, political science professor Lester Spence, and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette. I may jump in here or there, but for now, take it away Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Writer): Thanks, Michel. Hey, yo fellows, what's up? Welcome to the shop. How are we doing?

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Contributing Editor, Islamica Magazine): Hey, hey, hey.

Professor LESTER SPENCE (Political Science): Hey, what's up?

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Syndicated Columnist): Doing good man. Hey.

Mr. IZRAEL: Hey, well, you know what, pop music icon Michael Jackson was eulogized at a televised memorial watched by 31 million viewers in the U.S. alone. That was this week. Now, there were 6 million viewers in the U.K., 20 million in Germany, and 10 million in France. And in front of the stage was Michael Jackson himself. He was inside his $25,000 gold-plated casket that he picked out himself not long ago. He was inspired by the, well, the godfather of soul, James Brown. It is the exact same model that James Brown was buried in. Do we have some tape?

MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, it was a two-and-a-half-hour service, and there were many, many moments that we could pick. You know what, I'm sort of conflicted because on the one hand, you know, there were some - as you would imagine in a memorial service, there were some funny moments, some funny stories told which we would all agree with. And then I think - I have to say I think the most emotional moment was when we heard from Michael Jackson's daughter unexpectedly, I would have to say, since he made such efforts to protect their identities...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...over the course of his time with them. But here she decided to, I believe, on her - it seemed to be on her own, she decided she wanted to say something, and this is what she had to say.

Ms. PARIS JACKSON: I just wanted to say...

Ms. JANET JACKSON (Singer): Get real close.

Ms. P. JACKSON: Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine.

(Soundbite of crying)

Ms. P. JACKSON: And I just wanted to say I love him so much.

(Soundbite of crying)

Mr. IZRAEL: Wow. That never gets any easier to hear. I'm the father of a daughter and I just...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

Mr. IZRAEL: ...when I heard that, Michel, I fell off the couch in tears. I couldn't believe it. It's just like, it just really struck me. Thanks for that.

MARTIN: Did it change your - how you thought about him?

Mr. IZRAEL: Not me personally. I guess my job as a culture critic - you know, I take potshots at a lot of people. But I'd always known that he was a - I mean, he's a pop star but he's also a father. But to hear his daughter just come down like that, it just a - just to break down, it just, it really tore me to pieces. Dr. Lester Spence, you know, how should we remember Michael Jackson? How is he best remembered?

Prof. SPENCE: It's funny because I - what stands out to me is Al Sharpton's speech. And although usually I - there are a lot of ways that Sharpton carries himself, a lot of his politics I don't agree with, I think that...

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Dr. SPENCE: ...he hit the nail on the head. Michael Jackson was one of the most seminal figures as far as bringing black and white populations together, right? And I think that it's going to take some time because there's a moment right when he passes where he becomes larger than life, and people want to ignore the more controversial aspects of his life. But I think in talking about what he contributed to the American fabric, that's how he's going to be remembered, and that's how he should be remembered. You know and not - I'm sorry, not fully how he should be remembered, but that's the thing that stands out to me.

Mr. IZRAEL: I hear that. You know, and this was Al Sharpton on message, on beat, give him his props for his pastoral moment for sho'. A-Train.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I mean, springboarding off of what Lester said, you know another thing that I think can not to be underscored enough is the fact that not only did M.J. bridged the divide between black and white here in this country, but he really was a transnational, transracial, transreligious figure who really captured our inner global Zeitgeist. You know, from the Sultan of Brunei to the lowest slumdog millionaire anywhere in the world, everyone had some sort of connection to Michael Jackson. And I think that, you know, I don't think that there's any person in modern history who can actually say that. And I think that that really is a testament to the effect that he's had on our global Zeitgeist.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, his hometown of Gary, Indiana, they're holding a memorial today. The father, Joe Jackson, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson are expected to attend. You know, I think his legacy is kind of a story of tenacity because people forget that he had four solo albums that flopped before "Off The Wall." And he dared to dream that he could be the greatest there ever was, and he hit it. The R -

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Hey, you know for me, it's been interesting to sort of think about how this has all impacted me. Michael Jackson has impacted me more in death than he did in life. Even though I was a fan like a lot of people, you know, he had left my orbit. I'd gone on to other things, and I'd taken on other types of music that I like. But, really, the memorial service reminded me that he's had an impact on me since he's gone because we've been able to get to this great paradox. This was somebody who was as we know very successful but he was tormented, he was an unhappy figure at various times, but he was also somebody who nobody really knew.

Nobody really knew Michael Jackson. Even Michael Jackson arguably didn't know Michael Jackson. And so you begin to see glimpses of it in his memorial service. That's why the - I'm with you Jimi. I mean, obviously as the father of two little ones - a little boy and a little girl - I was balling when I got to the part about his daughter because it reminded us no matter what else you say about this person, no matter how the public so unjustly ridiculed him and mocked him over the years...

Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: ...this was probably a very good father.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: And nobody can stand and say he wasn't a good father because only his three kids can tell us what kind of father he was and they vouched for him, they cosigned him, to use Jimi's word. And that was really, I think, impactful. Lastly, the big tragedy of this story is as we are about to find out, this was a guy who, enormously talented, had these leeches all around him...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: ...who were trying to suck up all his money, and they included people who were prescribing these drugs, you know, people who wanted to take his money from him. And we have learned now - we're going to get into the long and uncomfortable discussion in this country about prescription drug abuse. But we've learned that rich people often have very poor health coverage - health care services because they can get whatever they want, even stuff that can hurt them.

Prof. SPENCE: Oh, wow.

MARTIN: That's so true. And that's such a good point. If you're just tuning in, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and we're speaking with Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Ruben Navarrette, and Professor Lester Spence. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop. Back to you, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. You know, in other sad news, death of former NFL star Steve McNair and his girlfriend, Sahel Kazemi, has been ruled a murder-suicide by authorities in Nashville, Tennessee. Now, the married father leaves four boys to mourn his loss. And I'm sure I speak for all the boys in the Shop to say that we'd like to extend our condolences to both families at this really tough time.

Lester Spence, man, what's the deal? I mean, it's, you know adultery - these past couple weeks, it's broken up marriages, it's separated kids from dads and here it's taken two lives. Man, I don't know what to say about a story like this that just leaves two families in pieces.

Prof. SPENCE: So the way I think about this as far as covering this in a manner that can lead to understanding and lead to more - lead to better relationships is to focus on the impact of economic stress on marriages, right? And on people in these relationships. So it's clear - so Steve McNair was a multimillionaire, but the woman he was involved with had a significant amount of economic stress in her life. That - at least that's what the police are saying. And then when she found out that he was not going to leave his wife and that he was seeing someone else, she felt so...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Oh, man.

Prof. SPENCE: Yeah, she felt that all the plans that she had...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Prof. SPENCE: ...in front of her were like dashed, right? So she kills him, tries to arrange the death in a way that she lays on him and is unable to do that. I mean, so what you focus on in this story is the economic stress that causes her in that moment to think that she has nothing left. Right?

MARTIN: You know, that makes sense to me but I tell you what - part of what occurs to me too is part of what this is about is the loss of fame on McNair's.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah. It is.

MARTIN: And I have to wonder, what was McNair thinking?

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: And I have to wonder, like, what was - and there's all kinds of jokes that obviously one is tempted to make about this.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: What was in the thinking? Right on.

Prof. SPENCE: Yes.

MARTIN: But that it's more that you know these guys, they're so famous, so young.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Prof. SPENCE: No that's right.

MARTIN: And then when they lose that...

Prof. SPENCE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...and your life as a professional athlete lasts a very short time.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And I think it's kind of to trying to regain that, the thrill of being the focus of so much attention.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: And I just I, you know, obviously people are responsible for their own behavior, but it makes me wonder whether - isn't there something that these leagues could do to help these guys transition better out of that lifestyle?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: No.

Prof. SPENCE: Oh, that's so excellent.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: No. No.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: And you know actually Michel brings up a good point. Eddie George, who is a former Tennessee Titan running back and teammate of Steve McNair said that, you know, after he retired he didn't really know what to do with himself anymore. I mean, you know this was a guy who was a star quarterback at Alcorn State, a Division 1-AA school, and was one of the first Division 1-AA people to be considered for the Heisman Trophy, which eventually went to Rashaan Salaam. You know, but again, at the end of the day these guys are multimillionaires. You know, they have no need for want and so...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: You guys are reaching.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: No. No. What...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: You guys are reaching.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: No, what I'm saying is...

MARTIN: You think?

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh-oh.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yes.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...I don't buy the fact that, you know, this multimillionaire you know needed to have some sort of counseling in order to, you know, make that transition. I think...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Here's what we have. This is Ruben.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...he...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Ruben, I'm sorry. I just want to clarify that report suggests...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Go ahead.

MARTIN: ...that McNair was seeing somebody else and the mistress apparently believed that he was. I'm not sure that it's confirmed.

Prof. SPENCE: Yeah. Thank you.

MARTIN: I just wanted to clarify that.

Prof. SPENCE: Yes. (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: Go ahead, Ruben.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I'm sure people all over America are thinking, you know, first the fact that she found out he wasn't going to leave his wife. Hello, they never leave their wives, okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I mean, she convinced herself this was going to happen. So far we've had these theories that he couldn't transition out of, you know, fame to nobody status, that it was economic stress on her and whatever. At the bottom line is this happens to members of Congress, to senators, to governors, presidential candidates because of weakness, because of temptation, and because all men feel that temptation, and because all men have to learn how to overcome that temptation.

Why is it that somehow because he's a football player or because he's a senator, or a congressman, or a governor, we bend over backward to try to figure it out and put it in context, but when it's any one of the guys in the Shop, you know, that falls off and suddenly cheats on his wife then it's - we don't have that excuse.

This is about basic weakness and about basic, you know, giving in to temptation that the lesson here, it's almost kind of a fatal attraction thing because men are drawn to women on a very physical level, you know. But you don't know what's in there. You don't know what's in that head. You don't know how she's -you know, how functional is this person? And obviously he picked the wrong person.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: And there's a moral lesson in there. I know women all over America are saying, you know what, I'm going to get around to mourning McNair later, okay…

MARTIN: I hear you.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: …because this is a guy who brought this on to himself.

MARTIN: No. No. He certainly did.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Absolutely.

MARTIN: But I do think...

Prof. SPENCE: Yeah, we're not saying...

MARTIN: ...this whole culture of celebrity thing, I just think there's something about these people's lives...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think it's the reach.

MARTIN: ...that it's just different. I mean, this whole thing of walking down the street and have everybody want to, like, look at you and touch you. You go to the, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...you go to Dave & Busters and everybody's like in your face, wants your autograph, and you're like 22.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: So he found this woman and said…

MARTIN: I just think that's difficult.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: …touch me. Look at me. Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah. I just, that gets - no I don't, I'm not excusing his behavior, but I just think that there's something about being a celebrity at such a young age in this country that can be overwhelming and could just mess up your judgment.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: That's all I'm saying.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what, Ruben? You know what, Michel? This really is just kind of a tragic situation for everybody involved. And again, you know, I think we should extend our condolences. You know what, but let's look forward and look ahead to the NAACP Convention. You know, it's always a good time to talk about what the future holds for the civil rights organization - civil rights groups in general. Now the NAACP kicks off its weeklong centennial celebration tomorrow in New York City. We got some tape of Ben Jealous. Is that right?

MARTIN: No. I think we're just going to go into the conversation. And Arsalan, I guess I'm particularly...

Mr. IZRAEL: All right.

MARTIN: ...interested in what you have to say because you did work in a civil rights organization yourself.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: You're not at the moment. You're working, you know, as a writer and a commentator and so forth.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: But I'm curious to know what you think in this new age - in the Obama age, what role an organization like the NAACP has?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I think it continues to play a very important role. I think that all civil rights organizations, whether they're based on racial, ethnic origin or religion I think are extremely important. And I think that, you know, what we saw this week when, you know, the Valley Swim Club in Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania, you know, kicked out 60 young African-American kids who just went to the swimming pool to swim.

Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: And so, you know, they obviously the...

Prof. SPENCE: Right.

MARTIN: For which they had paid.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right. For which they had paid, so I mean...

Mr. IZRAEL: I think that's bad example.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well no, the Valley Swim Club gets the ridunculous award this week. I think it's going to be a major civil rights lawsuit and I think that we're going to continue to see major civil rights legislation, you know, past the administration of Barack Obama.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, A-Train, not to get too off on that particular incident, but I wonder if that's more like a clash of cultures than it is like a class of culture, I mean, class of colors, you know what I mean? Because I wonder if some young white kids from the same economic strata had come to this hoity-toity private club and, you know, I think it's a culture shock that's involved here.

Prof. SPENCE: Yeah. I'm with you.

Mr. IZRAEL: I think color complicates it. But I think there's a culture shock that's playing - that has played there, you know? But, you know, as it involved NAACP, they're involved with that, you know? And this might be a time - yeah, I mean I agree that, you know, that they need to look into that, but I think the organization has had some challenges being relevant. And I like what Ben Jealous has said recently about the organization focusing on education and criminal injustice. And that's what this organization - that's what the NAACP has needed for years, focus. You know, you can't just chase every fire, and you have to be more relevant than just boycotting the N-word every five or six years.

MARTIN: Lester, what do you think?

Prof. SPENCE: I think the NAACP has two challenges going forward, besides the economic crisis. One is their executive board is still too bloated and skews on way too old. The second is that individual chapters don't necessarily have the freedom to pursue the goals that they're interested in pursing which makes it really difficult for them to speak to local constituencies. I think that Ben Jealous can talk - and it's good that he's there. It makes me feel kind of old that he's younger than me. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SPENCE: ...it's good in a way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: He's got to go to a lot more meetings than you.

Mr. IZRAEL: I know. Right? Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SPENCE: It's good that he's there. You know, he's saying the right things, but those are structural issues that having the right guy in aren't going - that having the right guy in there won't do much.

MARTIN: Ruben, we only have about a minute. What - you want to weigh in?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, very quickly. One of the best things the NAACP has done recently is when it came out in favor of No Child Left Behind, because it said even though it was proposed by a Republican president it really does help black and brown kids by raising expectations and some standards. And so, if it gets beyond sort of the ideological bounds that sometimes it gets wrapped up in, I think that's great. But you know, the lesson of the swimming pool story is this is the best of times. This is the Dickens era for black folks. This is the best of times and the worst of times. You have a black president, but you also have a resurgence of racism because people aren't ready for that. So I think this is a really critical time for the NAACP to do a better job than it has in terms of making this a promise a reality, so…

Mr. IZRAEL: All right. Well, back to you, Michel.

MARTIN: All right. Thank you all. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist who writes for the Root.com and TV1 online. He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Ruben Navarrette writes for the San Diego Union Tribune and CNN.com. And he joined us from San Diego. Lester Spence is a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Arsalan Iftikhar is the founder of themuslimguy.com and a civil rights attorney, and an author. And they were both kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington. Gentlemen, I thank you all.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.

Prof. SPENCE: And thanks.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thanks.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yep. Yep.

(Soundbite of music)

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