Superbowl XXVII last winter was unremarkable except for Michael Jackson’s halftime extravaganza. The climax of the performance was Jackson’s “Heal the World” anthem, which he dedicated “from the children of Los Angeles to the children of the world.” Much like the early 80’s hymn “We Are the World,” which Jackson composed with Lionel Richie, “Heal the World” is a weepy testimonial to the power of love, dreams, and fraternity:

Heal the world

Make it a better place

For you and for me

And the entire human race

There are people dying

If you care enough for the living

Make a better place

For you and for me.

In the Superbowl halftime show, these lyrics were accompanied by children (the usual United Colors of Benetton) swaying back and forth and balloons floating up into the Pasadena sky.

But Jackson’s plea for human charity and compassion did not end at the commercial break. For his love-and-songfest was followed by an equally sappy advertisement for his new Heal the World Foundation. Featuring clips of starving and suffering tots, this spot urged viewers touched by the secular revival they had just witnessed to call Jackson’s toll-free number and make a donation to an organization “devoted to improving conditions for children throughout the world.”

Intrigued, I called the foundation at 1-800-HEAL-123 (the number itself made me question if this was all for real). Football fans must be a charitable bunch, since all circuits were busy. Trying again later, I managed to get an answering machine. The recording went something like this: “This is Michael Jackson. Thank you for calling the Heal the World Foundation. . . . To make a $35 donation by credit card, please press one now. To make a donation of a different amount, or to talk to one of our representatives, press two now.” I pressed two, in the hopes of talking to a real person who could give me the lowdown on the organization. Instead, my call was directed to another machine, which instructed me to leave my name, address, and message—and a credit card number to which my donation could be charged. Insulted at this impersonal system of dial-a-good-deed, I left what I hoped was an ironic expression of my “curiosity” about the foundation and a request for further information.

Over two months later, I received a slick brochure that describes the foundation’s beginnings last fall with relief missions to Romania and Sarajevo, as well as its plans to focus in the short term “on helping the children of Los Angeles, America’s most diverse city, and the site of last year’s civil disturbance.” Complete with a customized logo (a black hand and a white hand holding a globe with a Band-Aid over the crack running down its middle) and a photograph of Jackson holding and kissing a smiling baby, the pamphlet urges its reader to “help Michael heal our children.” The brochure came with a letter, which gives extra incitement to charge a contribution by offering a Heal the World T-shirt to donors of $35 or more and a Heal the World sweatshirt to donors of $60 or more.

Like the Chicago radio station that asked listeners to call in and donate ten dollars by credit card to the children of Cabrini Green last Christmas, Jackson and his foundation are basing their plea for charity on the assumption that we Americans are incurably shallow, even in our desire to help others. Our demand for instant gratification apparently extends even to our humanitarian instincts: pictures of starving Somalian and neglected American children stir us to want to “do our part” (and relieve our guilt), but we are only willing to rouse ourselves from our daily routine if no hassle is involved. Charity has become as easy as dialing an 11-digit phone number and giving a 16-digit VISA number from the comfort of our armchair. Like telephone sex, whereby callers pay money for sexual stimulation, telephone charity allows us to feel good without requiring any commitment or expenditure of time and energy. More importantly, we send our money across town, across the country, or around the world without working to alleviate, or even acknowledging, the problems in our own neighborhoods—or even in our own families.

In Michael Jackson’s case, the man who sets himself the immodest goal of “healing the world” blames his parents for robbing him of his childhood by forcing him into show business and discountenances his sister LaToya, who smeared her entire family a year or so ago in a much-publicized book. While Jackson’s activities and appearances during recent years (opening his Neverland Valley ranch to children suffering from life-threatening illnesses; visiting a Washington, D.C., girl who was mauled by four dogs; and creating Michael Jackson Productions Ltd. to “harness the mass media for the improvement of this troubled world”—to take just a few examples) appear to demonstrate genuine concern, they are acts of a lonely man groping for some kind of purpose. His statement at the Grammy Awards ceremony (at which he was presented with a Grammy Legends Award by his sister Janet), “I want to thank all the children of the world, including the sick and the deprived. . . . I am so sensitive to your pain,” is the desperate cry of a man who is himself sick and deprived.