For the past 21 years, Ron Nief of Beloit College has released an annual “Mindset List,” a dismaying set of assertions meant to remind professors that their new freshmen have come of age in the historical blink of an eye and possess no memory of the events and eras that middle-aged instructors take for granted. Among the gems on the most recent version are the pronouncements that, for the incoming class, “outer space has never been without human habitation,” “Robert Downey Jr. has always been the sober Iron Man,” and “Calcutta has always been Kolkata.” Yet the most striking claim on the 2018 list has to do not with the unremembered past but with a cultural sensation that has remained oddly relevant despite its age. “Investigative specials examining the O. J. Simpson case,” Nief writes, “have been on TV annually since [the class of 2022’s] birth.” In other words, while my students and I may not have as shared a frame of reference as we once did, it looks very much like we will continue to have The Juice.
That Americans young and old remain intrigued by the saga of one Orenthal James Simpson is a point largely beyond argument, but the numbers provide some helpful quantification nonetheless. In 2016, the FX production The People v. O. J. Simpson averaged 7.7 million viewers in the important “live plus seven-day” ratings, finishing the year as cable television’s most-watched new show and losing the overall race only because The Walking Dead had not yet decomposed into unwatchability. Later that year, ESPN’s five-part documentary O. J.: Made in America did almost as well, reaching 3.4 million viewers on the night of its premiere — a serious number in an age of fragmented audiences — and going on to claim millions of other eyeballs in the following weeks. Written accounts of Simpson (a “one-man book industry,” according to Literary Hub) have sold briskly in recent years, with Bustle, Vogue, Goodreads, and other sites featuring lists of “must-reads” to accompany the O. J. television renaissance. (Renewed interest in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life alone has likely financed another full decade of obnoxious Supreme Court commentary.) Perhaps most remarkable of all, Simpson’s decision to join Twitter a mere two weeks ago has already born the fruit of 820,000 followers, more than Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, and Bill de Blasio combined. O. J. Simpson for president in 2020? Why not? The people are clearly listening.
Simpson’s “alleged” crimes brushed up against the twin American obsessions of race and celebrity culture, but it isn’t immediately clear why the nation still cares about him these many years later. Neither is it obvious why the fantasy-football analysis and minor score-settling that have thus far comprised O. J.’s tweets should be of interest to hundreds of thousands. The Menendez brothers — in their day, nearly as fixated upon as Simpson has been — have receded into appropriate irrelevance in 2019, as have Scott Peterson, Robert Blake, and Casey Anthony. No one cares who took Chandra Levy. That Simpson is different — that he endures even though his football career ended 40 years ago, and his murder trial in 1995 — must be due to something in the man himself. Some peculiarity on which the public can’t help but gaze.
My own theory is that O. J. remains compelling because he is the living antithesis of the “apology culture” that has spread like mold through polite society, transforming otherwise healthy citizens into groveling wrecks who risk drowning in the muck of their own insincerity. Though five minutes’ perusal of celebrity Twitter provides ample evidence of the phenomenon (with Lena Dunham leading the race by a double chin), perhaps the best illustration at the moment is the Democratic presidential-nomination fight, whose endless mea culpas would have reached Truth and Reconciliation proportions by now if they weren’t so patently disingenuous. Kirsten Gillibrand, for example, regrets that her previous beliefs about immigration “certainly weren’t empathetic,” while Bernie Sanders “certainly apologize[s]” for allowing sexism to infuse his 2016 campaign. (One wonders what a linguist or psychotherapist would make of those “certainlies.”) Kamala Harris, the penitent former prosecutor, laments the “cases where folks . . . made a decision in my office and didn’t consult me,” while Joe Biden is very sorry for — let’s be honest — existing at all before the commencement of the Obama presidency.
That all of these confessions are vain, self-serving, fruitless, unmeant, insulting, and ultimately counterproductive has come to the attention of no less a personage than CNN’s Don Lemon, who acknowledged on air this past April that “this election will not be about who has the better apology for the past — at least I hope not.” Similarly concerned is the New York Times, which worried two months earlier that “the cascade of apologies risks making Democrats look like the hypersensitive, politically correct crowd Republicans make them out to be.” For the Times, the counterpoint and bogey is, unsurprisingly, Donald Trump, “who often insults and offends people and almost never apologizes for anything.” Yet what is Trump but O. J. Simpson without the violence and athletic stardom? Had things gone differently in 2016, one could easily imagine Trump following O. J. to Florida, protecting the remains of his fortune and vowing to search for the real electoral killers.
What the two men have in common — indeed, the very source of their strength — is their shamelessness. And shamelessness, though a bad example for the children, is a kind of honesty in this slippery age. Everyone knows what O. J. did and is; the president’s lies fairly bounce off the voters. There are no surprises left and no apologies forthcoming, but the brazenness of the pair is so enthralling that few can look away. Democratic candidates could learn a lesson from that fact if they weren’t so terrified of their own coalition.
Instead, they are likely to proceed exactly as their base has taught them: two-facedly, with seeming contriteness, and fully aware that not one of them is really sorry. Has the public, at long last, begun to have enough of such silliness? Perhaps. Such an evolution would go a long way toward explaining O. J.’s popularity.
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