Thoughts on ESPN’s “OJ : Made in America”

OJ Time Magazine cover 1994Summer is a difficult time for blogging, because everyone is home all the time. Although I’m a sociable, extroverted person, I need at least a little solitude to think and write, and I’m not getting that. Time to blog has been in even shorter supply the past few nights because we’ve been watching ESPN’s O.J. : Made in America, a ten-hour documentary about O.J. Simpson from childhood through to his most recent incarceration.

Although I know that ESPN is the ugly love-child of the old “Wide World of Sports” and MSNBC (in other words, sports with a hard Left spin), I remember enough of the events in real time to know that it was a factually honest documentary. Indeed, even its focus on race was appropriate, because that, of course, is what the trial ended up being about.

Since I did spend so much of my life recently watching about OJ, I figured I’d share with you some of the thoughts I had as I watched.

First, of course, it was apparent to me that, if Nicole Simpson or Ron Goldman had been armed, the killer (and I believe OJ was the killer) would have had a much harder time. As it was, the killer repeatedly stabbed to death a smaller, unarmed woman, whom he then tried to decapitate. Then, when Ron Goldman showed up on the scene, the killer trapped him in a space from which there was no exit, and stabbed him repeatedly until Goldman finally died from a severed abdominal aorta. It was an absolutely staggering act of butchery. The entire crime scene was soaked in blood. Pints and pints of blood were spilled everywhere. Guns are the great equalizer and, in this small gun-free zone, the guy with the knife had all the advantages on his side.

Second, the show raised interesting questions about justice. The Browns and the Goldmans saw justice as something centered around the case itself: justice was convicting OJ Simpson of having murdered their beloved family members. To them, the defendant in the case was OJ. For the black community, which perceived itself as the endlessly persecuted victim of the Los Angeles Police Department’s racist abuse, something that had gone on for decades, the defendant was the LAPD itself. Mark Fuhrman became the face of the LAPD. Blacks across America saw Nicole and Ron as collateral damage in a much larger war, with justice for the community much more important than justice for the individuals.

Third, if one puts oneself in the place of African-Americans who believed that there was one law for blacks and one law for whites, there could be no less deserving “everyman black person” than OJ Simpson. The only thing black about OJ was the color of his skin, and it was light black at that (hence the outrage at the Time Magazine cover I used to illustrate this post). Upon leaving high school, he embraced the white world. He went to whiter than white USC and, after a short stint with the Buffalo Bills, lived in even whiter Brentwood until his home was seized and destroyed after he lost the civil wrongful death case. OJ didn’t have a minute to spare for actual blacks; OJ was all about OJ.

Fourth, I had never realized how talented OJ was. This means that, in the 90s, when the whole thing exploded, I was a bit bewildered by the notoriety of it all. I grew up in a family that considered American football a disgusting, lowbrow, violent sport. I’d never actually heard of OJ until he became the face of Hertz car rentals. I knew he was a football player, but it was only when I watched the ESPN footage of him at the peak of his game, that I realized what an extraordinary talent he was. When it came to America’s sport, he was the best, and the most elegant, and the most charismatic. No wonder people who had watched him for the length of his career — from college, through pro ball, through commercials and Hollywood fame — saw him as a larger than life figure, whether he was a murderer or the victim of a racist system.

Fifth, watching the trajectory of OJ’s career, I went from admiration to disgust. This was separate from my certainty that he slaughtered two people. Instead, I was following the life story starting in high school, when he was a talented guy who always let his friends take the rap — yet his friends remained devoted to him. In the beginning of his career, when OJ refused to be defined by his race, I thought that was admirable. After all, I do take seriously Martin Luther King’s admonition that America will have achieved racial redemption when we start judging people, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. That’s what OJ seemed to want.

However, as his career progressed, it became clear that OJ was not making a civil rights statement. Instead, he actually thought he was a special being. He was the ultimate malignant narcissist who believed himself to be somewhat divorced from and better than the rest of the human race. A malignant narcissist has a host of problems and is not the type of person anyone should ever want to marry. The narcissist is brutal in a marriage. Some are just mentally abusive; others, like OJ, are physically abusive. And narcissists are the type of people who, when their ego suffers a severe wound (such as seeing an ex-wife start dating a younger, more successful protegé), will kill.

In his relationship with Nicole, OJ did what all malignant narcissists do: Because they are utterly devoid of insight, everything wrong in their life is always everyone else’s fault. They cannot change, they cannot grow and, when things go bad, they cannot recover. Like the rats they are, when trapped, they are utterly vicious, all the while being pathetically whiny.

Sixth, since I was unaware of OJ’s status in the popular culture and because, by the 1990s, I had already developed a disdain for the media’s piranha-like characteristics, I tried to catch as little of the Simpson trial as possible. Seeing this overview reminded me of another problem I had with the trial: the LAPD and the prosecution (especially Christopher Darden) screwed up, while OJ’s team was damn good. Totally unethical, especially with Johnny Cochran’s “Hitler” summation, which was pretty unconscionable, but the “dream team” was indeed better than the prosecution. Separate from the damning facts (which Vincent Bugliosi laid out in Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O. J. Simpson Got Away with Murder) and just grading the performance of the trial teams, the defense did a better job and deserved to win. It was infuriating and sickening to see the victory dance, but this is the way it goes in the criminal cases: the prosecution has the resources of the government behind it, but the defense has the easier burden and more latitude — something magnified when the defense team costs $50,000 a day for nine months.

The LAPD, especially, did a careless job. I acquit them of the racism that the so-called “dream team” claimed characterized them. It’s impossible to believe that they engaged in a sophisticated conspiracy on the fly. These guys were the Keystone Kops, not the sophisticated Oceans 11 crowd. I support the police very strongly, but I still expect them to do their job well, especially when they should reasonably predict that the case will be a well-publicized one.

Seventh, even though I accept as true that blacks have been on the receiving end of appalling racism in America for centuries, especially police racism, I do think that the victim message obscures another message that the black community needs to hear: Lift yourself up. Police yourself. Improve yourself. Don’t let racists define you as lackluster, criminal, do-nothings. When you hear the activists speak (and they spoke a lot in this show), they are as narcissistic as OJ — there is no self-reflection, no change, no growth. It’s a dead-end devoid of individual responsibility. The activists stoke the rage but refuse to acknowledge that, racism notwithstanding, the black community needs to improve itself too.

Eighth, I kept wondering why the LAPD didn’t eventually say to the residents of Watts and Compton and South Central, “Look, if you’re saying that you cannot trust us and believe us incapable of improvement, we think you should police yourselves. We’re not going to abandon you abruptly, of course. Instead, we’ll do a five-year phase-in. We’ll hire members of the local community, train them, and then, at the end of five years, we’ll turn the local police stations over to you. We’ll continue to provide funding for another five years, but at the end, your community must support your own police department.”  Heck, I would suggest that all police departments that have race-based fights with communities do this:  “Ferguson, fine, we’ll leave. Give us five years to transition things over and we’re out of here. Best of luck. Really. We do want you to thrive.”

Ninth, despite this long post, I found the whole thing as boring as I did in the 1990s. I watched because Mr. Bookworm wished for my company. Mostly, though, I wasn’t interested in what I considered a media travesty. At the end of the day, the people I felt most sorry for were Ron Goldman’s family. Nicole Simpson’s family had danced with the devil (Nicole thought they’d be angry at her for divorcing OJ, because he funded the whole family), but Ron Goldman’s family were swept into a nightmare scenario that extended far beyond their son’s death simply because he was, by complete accident, in a very wrong place at a very wrong time. They were denied justice and it’s apparent that they still suffer (although they’re glad that OJ is finally in prison for good).