On June 12, amidst daily hyperventilation across the Internet and cable TV about our current cultural scene, America will mark the 25th anniversary of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, killings for which Nicole’s ex-husband — the retired NFL superstar and movie/TV fixture O.J. Simpson — was soon arrested. By January of the following year, the “Trial of the Century” had begun, ending nearly a year later with an acquittal for “The Juice” despite overwhelming evidence. He was later found civilly liable for wrongful death, and he was imprisoned from 2008 to 2017 on armed-robbery and kidnapping charges that, in a convoluted way, ultimately stemmed from that civil verdict.
The O.J. case certainly didn’t invent “outrage culture” — which reached its pre-social-media peak during Vietnam and Watergate. Nor was it the first celebrity courtroom case about the “deathstyles” of the rich and famous, a fact to which Claus von Bulow, the Menendez Brothers, and Jean Harris can attest. But the trial was both the lowest moment for old-fashioned legacy media — “respectable” newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and nightly network news shows — and also their last gasp of untrammeled relevance before the “World Wide Web” (as it was then starting to be known) rewrote everybody’s story.
First the obvious parallels. Race relations were at a boiling point. Some of the top movies of the past few years had been Colors, Stand and Deliver, Do the Right Thing, Boyz in the Hood, Falling Down, and Hoop Dreams. The “Willie Horton ad,” with its famous “coded racial appeals,” was only a few years old, as was the Rodney King beating. California was still emerging from a brutal recession of collapsed property values, foreclosures, and downsized defense jobs.
In other words, the go-go Reagan ’80s were definitely over — but the shoe-shopping “peace and prosperity” of the dot-com booming, deficit-erasing, low-unemployment late ’90s had yet to appear. As Ron and Nicole were being taken to their funerals, Joe Biden and Bill Clinton were inaugurating the infamous 1994 federal “crime bill,” while “three-strikes” ballot initiatives were all the rage — as was California’s most infamous ballot initiative of all, Proposition 187, which barred illegal immigrants from receiving state services. Drive-by shootings and crack-related crime had become an almost daily feature of newspapers and news broadcasts in the major cities, with a rape and murder rate roughly double that of today’s.
With police shootings and beatings, Black Lives Matter, the Charlottesville incident, and the media coverage of revived neo-Nazi and white-supremacist activity, one wonders what barely healed wounds would be brutally ripped open were an O.J.-like case and trial to hit today — or how a certain Twitter-addicted president might respond. In another sense, we’re already living our “O.J. trial” today, with the tawdry terrors of Trump and the Mueller investigation having replaced DNA swatches and bloody gloves as the hot topics around the water cooler.
Indeed, Donald Trump becoming president after being the billionaire superstar of ’80s and ’90s tabloids is in some ways the final flowering of the Hard Copy/Inside Edition and Jerry Springer/Ricki Lake culture that was then on the rise. As Ryan Murphy’s top-rated 2016 FX miniseries on the case cheekily foreshadowed, perhaps the biggest stars of all to emerge were the teenage daughters of O.J.’s great friend, the late Los Angeles businessman Robert Kardashian.
But the true significance of O.J. to today’s society — and in particular, to the evolving differences between liberals and conservatives — runs much deeper. Conservatives in the Clinton years usually claimed to deplore situational ethics, though perhaps they should have stopped a minute to notice that their most effective players in the modern halls of power (Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove) were ruthlessly realpolitik political actors. In the “Flight 93 Election” of 2016, by contrast, Republicans mostly united behind Trump. What changed?
For all of talk radio’s fulminations against Loony Leftists, in the ’80s and ’90s, American conservatives’ adversaries were liberals — not the true hardcore Left. When Ron and Nicole died, the most acclaimed filmmaker in America was Martin Scorsese. The most prestigious small-screen auteur was Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue). Courtroom thrillers by John Grisham and Scott Turow about conflicted, formerly idealistic Boomer children of the ’60s trying to navigate today’s thorniest issues flew off the shelves. In other words, the intellectual, cultural, and academic zeitgeist tilted towards the liberal fetish for “fine lines” and “gray areas.” No wonder conservatives, particularly social and religious ones, felt free to take the hard line in response.
Today is different, with the recent revival of uncompromising and doctrinaire leftism, “identity politics,” and socialism, and as a result many conservatives have learned to stop worrying about personal ethics so much. In the so-called “Flight 93 Election” of 2016, voters knew there was a strong chance that Trump would appoint judges and regulators who oppose abortion and infringements on the religious freedom of social cons, and that there was absolutely zero chance that President Hillary would do anything but the opposite. It wasn’t about the individual case anymore; it was about the big-picture.
In my book about the 1990s, Culture War, I made a grim joke treating O.J., Monica, and Bush v. Gore as a Scream-like “trilogy” of horror movies. The first one set the rules, the second one broke the rules — and by the third one, there were no rules left other than sheer survival.
In the O.J. case, the defense won when Johnnie Cochran asked the jury, “Who polices the police?” — after the police brutality and white supremacy of investigating LAPD officer Mark Furhman had been revealed for all the world to see. The “system’s” credibility was gone, and the purpose of the trial swung from getting justice for two murder victims to making a statement about the injustices that people of color had too often suffered at the hands of the Establishment.
A couple of years later, when Bill Clinton was accused of a series of what we’d today call #MeToo abuses, feminists rewrote the Left’s rules and defended him. In the culture-war hothouse of 1998, it was a choice between that, and giving the biggest political victory ever to the likes of hard-core anti-feminists such as Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, and John Hagee.
And so it goes with the very sad saga of O.J., Ron, and Nicole — a case that, so unlike O.J.’s triumphs in his Monday Night Football glory days, had only losers. The world as it was in 1994 is long gone, and in some ways the trial seems like an echo from another age — no less than someone in an open shirt driving his brand-new AMC Pacer Wagon to work, blasting Bee Gees music on the way.
But the deeply uncomfortable moral questions — about how far is too far and how far is not enough, about when justice for one (or two) can be sacrificed to justice for all, and about when one’s larger principles almost require one to sacrifice one’s basic principles — those are as sadly fresh as today’s virtual headlines.
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