Critique of Pure O.J.

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, March 19, 1995

The O.J. trial is getting a bum rap. People say that it's a tabloid case, that it's trash, that at some level our fascination with it is shameful. I personally have vowed that for every minute I pay attention to the Simpson case I will spend a minute reading something by Henry James, or trying to end world hunger, or watching "Masterpiece Theater." If it still exists.

Many of us are instinctively wary of anything with mass appeal. We don't wish to be associated with the stripe of society once known as the Vulgus. The sniffy crowd presumes that the widespread obsession with the trial is ipso facto proof of its lowbrow nature. (Seconds later they let slip that they have personally downloaded maps of the Simpson estate from the Internet.)

The mainstream press has been unsure how to cover the trial. All out? With discretion? Heavily contextualized or with just the raw naked squalid tawdry facts? Old-line subscribers to the NewYorker must have choked on their crumpets when it started chasing Simpson scoops.

Attorney General Janet Reno, the mother superior of the legal community, was asked in January if she was watching the Simpson trial. "Are you kidding?" she said. "No." She said if everyone "put as much energy into other issues as Americans seem to in watching the trial, we might be further down the road."

Reporters received a fax in January from the University of Maryland stating that the public information office would offer no help "as a matter of principle" in locating legal experts to talk about the case: "It is the feeling of the Public Information staff that encouraging our faculty to participate in the escalating sensationalism of the trial would serve little -- if any -- useful informational purpose, would serve to trivialize the legal processes at work, and would further distract from the central fact that two lives have been lost and a third lies in the balance of justice."

Someone who dipped into CompuServe's OJFORUM , an epistolary hotbed of Simpson argumentation, left this harangue:

"I don't think that you people are . . . what is it? . . . intelligent enough . . . possessed of enough humanity . . . self-aware enough, or whatever it is that has been left out of your makeup that allows you to participate in this degrading spectacle, that I could ever impress upon you the destructive nature of your behavior in this regard. You are incapable of shame and I am shamed by that."

So you see that there is some negativity toward the case out there.

This is unfair.

As any truly intelligent, humane, self-aware observer could see, millions of us are caught in the gravity well of the Simpson trial not because we are drawn to small, mean, trivial issues -- but rather because we are drawn to the grand themes of human existence. Love, for example. Obsession. Power. Money. Truth. Deception. That kind of thing. Within that tabloid O.J. trash lurks the stuff of life.

Several of the enveloping themes, like race and domestic violence, already have been well-trod in the mass media. So let me take you down some thematic side streets, into some unfamiliar epistemological alleyways. As a service to the O.J.-obsessed readership, I have identified six realms of intellectual inquiry in which the Simpson trial can be edifying and revelatory: * Contingent truth vs. formal truth. * The subjectivity of logic. * The American ideal of the citizen leader. * The dissipation and recohesion of the mass audience. * The disturbing nexus of love and hate. * The myth of identity.

Readers should not hesitate to make their own lists, explicate their own themes. Robert Sternberg, a professor of psychology at Yale, says of the Simpson case, "It's sort of like a Rorschach test for different people's interests and passions. So people read into it what they want."


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