I missed most of the original hoopla in the O.J. Simpson story because I happened to be spending the weekend in a televisionfree zone, as a house-guest in the Connecticut countryside. We all thought, before we secluded ourselves, that O.J. had probably done it; the widely publicised bloodstained ski mask (which has since mutated, as a piece of evidence, into the far less memorable knitted cap) seemed to seal his fate. But we remained ignorant of the escape, the threat to kill himself, the television highway chase, the eventual surrender and arrest, until one of my hosts, venturing out for some groceries, returned with the news. He had heard it on the car radio and then bought the paper to find out more.
‘O.J. must be the most famous person ever arrested for murder’ was the opening gambit in our lunchtime conversation. We were all eager to join in, but quickly discovered it was necessary to lay some ground rules. Committing a murder couldn’t be the reason for the person’s fame – which eliminated such likely winners as Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy. Nor could murder be seen as part of the famous person’s regular activities, his professional equipment, as it were. This let out people like Genghis Khan and Hitler – who were, in any case, only ‘arrested’ in the sense of being stopped. I proposed Louis Althusser, but was condescendingly told that an academic political theorist who strangled his wife hardly counted as famous in the terms we were using. (The first response of my tablemates was: ‘Who?’) ‘How about Fatty Arbuckle?’ someone said, but someone else felt that the charge against the Twenties movie star had been rape rather than murder, or possibly that no formal charge had been brought at all. In the end, we were forced to agree that O.J. Simpson was history’s most famous murder suspect.
This is partly because in the last few decades fame has reached different proportions. Football, television commercials and movies – all linked directly to the fame industry – have made O.J. Simpson a household name worldwide. People know not just his name, but his face and his voice. He is familiar to us in a way that more serious celebrities – heads of state, Nobel Peace Prize winners, novelists – are not. And this familiarity lends an added thrill, if also added distress, to his downfall. The thrill is, of course, linked to the distress: there can be no roller-coaster ride of the emotions without some corresponding feeling of loss. Our communal scapegoats must matter to us, if the displacement is to work.
Andy Warhol once famously promised that everyone would get his fifteen minutes of fame. But this promise is also a threat, because in a country as obsessed with media reporting as America, you’re only going to get fifteen minutes: after that, people will be so sick of hearing about you that they’ll blank your name out. The O.J. story went from fascinating to old-hat in about a week. I began by saying that I missed the original hoopla, but this is not to say that I missed a single minute of the coverage of the escape, because we were to see that videotape – the white car tootling down the highway, the press helicopters covering it from above – over and over again during the subsequent week. Not that watching it after the fact is the same as watching it when the outcome is still unresolved. It’s rather like watching a taped football game when the newspapers have already reported the results. But then, new football games come on all the time whereas there was only one O.J. escape.
Several commentators have already pointed out the curious similarity between the coverage of the highway flight and certain scenes in the movie Speed, which had been released only the week before. This involves a maniac (a ritual figure, effectively played by Dennis Hopper) who wires a Los Angeles bus so that it will explode if its speed drops below fifty miles an hour; as a result, Keanu Reeves and a lot of brave passengers have to keep the bus going nonstop, over a predictable variety of difficult terrains, for more than an hour of movie time. The main similarity between the film and the real-life O.J. coverage is that press helicopters monitored both vehicles throughout their runs. If the television news shots of that white car, seen from high above, reminded us of scenes from the movie, it was primarily because of their camera angle. We have become a nation not only of voyeurs, but of visual semioticians.
By the Thursday night after the arrest, the media frenzy had reached such a pitch that all three evening magazine programmes on the three major networks were running O.J. stories simultaneously. Such shows – Primetime Live, Dateline, Day One, 48 Hours, 20/20 – are the upmarket version of daytime shows like Oprah, Geraldo and Phil Donahue. They cater to the same yucky desire to know how other people are messing up their lives, but they don’t sluice quite as deep in the trough, so you get drug addiction, celebrity problems and corporate conspiracy rather than the wilder brand of incest/cross-dressing/obesity aired in the afternoons. The evening shows are extremely lucrative (Diane Sawyer, formerly of 60 Minutes, recently managed to hold up ABC for several million dollars as her price for staying with Primetime Live rather than going to NBC’s Dateline), and misbehaving celebrities like Julia Roberts, Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson are their meat. On the evening in question, Primetime Live had managed to get hold of a recent O.J. girlfriend – a pretty, big-eyed, unbelievably stupid model – who insisted that she knew he was innocent.
Innocence of some sort is O.J.’s own claim. He registered a not guilty plea when he was brought up for arraignment, and though this leaves room for a later modulation into ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’, he is thus far maintaining that he was absolutely uninvolved in the deaths of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. He has, however, a line-up of defence lawyers that would make any plea, or any combination of pleas, feasible. His original lawyer, Robert Shapiro, is famous for defending Marlon Brando’s son when he killed his sister’s lover several years ago (this was one of the first cases to be shown on the now very popular Court TV). To this shining example of legal virtue, O.J. has subsequently added the services of F. Lee Bailey, Alan Dershowitz and even Dershowit’s brother Nathan. No one I know had ever heard of Nathan before; Alan Dershowitz is famous as the lawyer portrayed in Reversal of Fortune, the movie version of the Claus von Bülow story, while F. Lee – known locally as ‘Flea’ – is usually the first lawyer to be hired in bigname criminal cases. That criminal lawyers can themselves be celebrities probably says something about either the American legal system or the American media, though it may just stem from the fact that 80 per cent of the privately educated college students in the Baby Boom generation almost went to law school. (The other 20 per cent did go to law school.)
Lawyer jokes aside (as a category of American humour, they take up a file of over seventy thousand bytes in the electronic network CompuServe), there is much to amuse the general public in l’ affaire O.J. My own favourite news item had to do with an educational video made when Simpson was still at the height of his popularity (a condition which, it is now hard to remember, ended less than a month ago). In this video, O.J. and three other celebrities sit at a table in a restaurant, urging impressionable young people not to take the wrong path. O.J. apparently surveys a menu of such disagreeable items as ‘shoplifting’, ‘marijuana-smoking’, ‘mail fraud’ (or whatever – I haven’t seen the videotape myself), and strongly cautions his youthful viewers to choose from another menu. The company that made the video is now offering to substitute an O.J.-less version for anyone who has bought the old one and wants to trade it in. But whereas three schools (Boy Scout packs, YMCA groups or whoever) have now exchanged their videos, many more people have suddenly called in to order the old version with O.J. His new fame has made it a valuable collectible.
For the next few weeks and months, the murder trial is destined to wipe out all other news; it will make the widely publicised Menendez brothers’ trial seem like a cake-walk. Even while trying to ignore the story. I’ve been unable to avoid picking up titbits from the pre-trial hearing: the stiletto sold to O.J. in May by a cutlery store owner; the blood-stained leather glove found in Simpson’s car; the phone records showing the time of Nicole’s crucial last conversation with her parents; the 40 hairs from various parts of his body that the suspect will be required to submit for forensic analysis; the curious instance of the dog that barked; the mysterious sealed package of evidence that even the judge isn’t allowed to open; the chauffeur’s damning testimony about O.J.’s alibi. Airborne like a virus, these events infiltrate the entire culture. At the small literary magazine where I work, we have begun receiving cover letters that say: ‘This short story is about a protagonist facing the same dilemma as O.J. Simpson.’ (The earliest of these was dated 18 June, only one day after the arrest.) Distant acquaintances mention in correspondence that they used to live in the Potrero district of San Francisco – ‘but long before O.J.’ An ancient grocer from his old neighbourhood recalls selling the youthful O.J. a pack of Bazooka bubblegum. We all share the same set of references, for a change. Normally we watch different television shows, read different periodicals, divide ourselves up into various subcultures. Now the nation has been unified, glued to a single programme.
One’s overwhelming impulse, when bombarded with this kind of material, is to convert it as rapidly as possible into game, story and joke. I take it as given that there is a serious side to the whole matter, however: two people are, after all, dead, and the issues raised by these deaths include those of domestic violence, racial conflict and the death penalty. As an opponent of capital punishment, I would like to see the prosecuting attorneys try to get the death penalty for O.J. Simpson. The standard operating procedure in death penalty cases is for prosecutors to do something called ‘nutting the defendant’ – that is, turning him into an object, an abstraction, a non-person. Tactics include referring to him always as ‘the defendant’ and never by name; objecting to any evidence that reveals a personal, vulnerable, pitiable side to his character; refusing to look directly at him when he’s on the stand; and so forth. Another part of the strategy is to fill the courtroom with bereaved relatives of the victims, so that the absent are made personally present, the effects of death made visceral. (This is the reason the Browns and the Goldmans, Nicole’s and Ron’s parents and siblings, have to sit through every minute of the ghastly trial – this, combined with their desire to ‘see justice done’.) But none of these tactics will work on O.J. No courtroom histrionics could turn him from someone we all know into an abstract, easily eliminable murderer.
In the course of refusing to send him to the gas chamber (and no jury in California, of any racial composition, would send O.J. to the gas chamber), the jurors – and the rest of us along with them – might be forced to acknowledge the built-in inequities in America’s system of capital punishment. For the flat truth is that murderers who have money and good looks and lead generally ‘nice’ lives almost never get the death penalty, whereas the poor and the sick and the lost do. Statistically, our execution rates lean unfairly toward black murderers of white victims. According to one expert who testified in a recent television debate about capital punishment, ‘if the defendant is black and the victim is white you are 22 times more likely to get the death penalty.’ (The response of the pro-execution side was that we should ‘execute more of the blacks who kill blacks’.) About 90 per cent of recent executions have taken place in the South, causing some analysts to refer to them as ‘legal lynchings’. But the other factor besides the victim’s race that counts heavily is the perpetrator’s class. And that explains why, in this singular instance, the pattern would probably be reversed. In other words, O.J. is more rich and famous and photogenic than he is, finally, black.
In the weeks succeeding the arrest, lots of newspaper columnists took up the topic of the ignored victim. ‘Don’t Forget Nicole’ was a common headline in the op-ed pages (they already seemed to have forgotten Ron). But the O.J. circus has shunted aside more than just his murdered wife. Everything in the news became back-page material compared to the extremity of the footballer’s downfall. In a way, this makes sense – we don’t have kings or even titled aristocrats, so for our Oedipus Rexes we need to look to the aristocracy of television. Like the original audiences for Greek tragedy, we need to feel that someone higher than ourselves is capable of making a big mistake and suffering the consequences. And even the degree of gory detail we wallow in – the knives, blood stains and body parts – is no worse than that in Jacobean tragedies or Flemish religious paintings.
This is not sleaze, but human nature: if we are going to see murder at all, we want to see it up close. What makes it sleazy is our willingness to confuse the O.J. story with the normal workings of our social and judiciary system – to derive any moral at all about guilt or innocence or integrity or falsehood from what has by now become only a media-created, hype-fed story.
Hundreds if not thousands of people in America stab then partners every year, and many of these partners die. Two weeks after the Simpson murder, a man in Northern california was arrested for stabbing his wife; he subsequently died in prison ‘of unknown causes’. I do not now remember his name, and in any case no one would have recognised it. His was just one of the many murders followed by a suicide – or attempted suicide – routinely covered by the San Francisco newspapers. But he may serve as an exemplary case, as the man who didn’t attract O.J.’s level of media attention, the murderer whose suicide was not prevented by a freeway chase. This is not a problem that can be resolved by saying, ‘Don’t Forget So-and-So,’ and filling in the blank with the name of either the pathetic murderer or his unfortunate victim. We never knew their names to begin with.
Murder in America has become so widespread (over twenty thousand people were killed last year by handguns alone) that we no longer have any way of coping with it as a tragic, individual act. The only way we can take in the enormity of this now faceless crime is to attach a face to it. And the face we have chosen to attach, for this brief moment of media-generated history, is that of O.J. Simpson