There have been other events where a California wrap of celebrity and crime was rolled-up to make a long lasting meal nourishing our entertainment and curiosity needs. But the O.J. Simpson saga (maybe by now “yarn” is a better word), although resolving itself for the time being, is the one that is ours in our time, now and forever. Whether we like it or not.
And to be honest with you, I don’t like anything the Simpson saga has yielded. I found it deeply troubling that during the first trial, the murder trial, progress on race in America took a hit from the deployment of “the race card.” Not by a racist politician or the attackers of some socially challenging Supreme Court decision, but by a former football player turned hack comic actor and his lawyer. Way before you got to any wrestling over the fairness of the justice system, there was the implication that with O.J., white people saw it one way and black people saw it another. That notion was, in contemporary terms, viral media cultivated rubbish, but it found traction. And away we went, back in time with human relations expert O.J. Simpson and the talented but suspect Johnnie Cochran leading the march.
Then there’s the legacy of how the Simpson saga, especially the chapter one murder trial, pushed the devolution of television news away from fact and event reporting toward the presentation of “stories.” We still hear “Our top story tonight…” at the beginning of broadcasts, rather than “And now the news, in order of actual importance…” . As a side dish to this overall decay, there emerged a kind of electronic textile industry wherein the fabric of TV news was loomed with opinions and conjecture from reporters; not authorities or witnesses or even the actual parties involved but rather the pretty heads that previously had the sole function of reading something handed to them. Something written by a smart, conscientious, less attractive person.
All this before you get to the tragedy of OJ Simpson himself. Of course we’ve seen award-winning athletes derail horribly before. And we’ve certainly become accustomed to discovering that under the thug-like performances of certain pro football players there lurks an actual thug. But O.J. was the first to really take the darkness all the way to goal line: Mutilating murder, not once but twice.
Still, let’s reframe this with an oddly calming reality about crime: Most criminals are not very smart. (Unless you expand this discussion to Wall Street and Dick Cheney, but I’ve only got room for one column here.) If O.J. Simpson did kill two people and then just a few years later he goes to a hotel room with a couple of morons packing heat to steal some footballs… and he gets caught both times… then maybe we’re free of any interpretation other than OJ Simpson has anger issues and he is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.
Society, white/black… Simpson’s inability to deal with life’s complications in any way other than overt physical assertion is never going to be a comment on anything other than the specific individual O.J. Simpson. It has nothing to do with America or the culture of professional sports or celebrity or theories of the LAPD conspiring against people. It’s not a printout on any event, “American” or otherwise. It’s just a dumb guy making enormous, heartbreaking mistakes during fits of rage, and consequently ending up in prison.
The beauty part is… it’s never going to be over. The Simpson saga will be held up for scrutiny in various documentaries and retro-news formats forever, many of them taking the tone of a reexamination of the Lindbergh kidnapping. It’s not a contest but it were a contest, regardless of what happens with the prison time… O.J. kind of wins. Because we’ll find ourselves paying attention to him again and again years from now, if only during pledge drives on PBS. That’s right: You’ll be begging KCET to run that Celtic Women concert instead.
O.J. is ours to carry and we have no say in the matter, but I will thank media for one thing. We now have a piece of video where Simpson is standing in court in Las Vegas, listening to each of the 12 guilty verdicts. In the new video, you see a man who might cry if only he were familiar with that process as a reaction to feeling any real emotions besides pride and anger. But O.J. doesn’t cry. Instead Simpson looks as though his face has lost its ability to communicate any of what’s going on inside; it’s offline. For a few moments, he’s a child at a fair who has just realized he’s lost. And regardless of the bright shiny carnival around him, the fun day has turned to something else entirely.