From OJ to Obama

The conviction of O.J. Simpson on charges stemming from his cartoonish effort to steal/reclaim sports memorabilia confirms the saying (usually attributed to Karl Marx) that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Simpson’s fans---if there be any remaining---may point to the racial composition of the jury (11 whites, one self-described Hispanic, no African Americans) and the fact that coming into the trial, some of the jurors said they disagreed with Simpson’s acquittal for the murders of his ex-wife and Ronald Goldman. But at least based on what I’ve read, this was a fair trial.

The farce this time was not the trial but the crime itself. Whatever might have been left of Simpson’s credibility after his tasteless effort to write a book about how he would have committed the 1995 murders “if” he had done so, was surely shredded by his participation in this outlandish crime.

The bigger story here, of course, is the fact that there is no story. And that, to my mind, says something about how things have changed since 1995. Although the country and the news media are still susceptible to periodic obsessions with nonsense, we live in a more serious age. Hillary Clinton’s efforts during the primary campaign to instill nostalgia for the 1990s failed in part, I think, because people now recognize that decade as not just a period of peace and prosperity, which it was, but as a time of missed opportunities. While Americans obsessed over OJ and Monica, while they bought bigger and bigger gas guzzlers, al Qaeda gained strength and the planet heated up. Yes, the last 8 years made things immeasurably worse, but they were, in important respects, a continuation of trends of the Clinton years.

Which brings us to Barack Obama, whose promised (and admittedly somewhat empty slogan of) “change” is not simply a change from George W. Bush but from a politics of nonsense to a politics of pragmatic substance. I was initially mystified by the McCain campaign’s latest efforts to demonize Obama as a dangerous radical. Rather than emphasize his real connection to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Sarah Palin made headlines over the weekend by going after Obama’s tenuous connections to erstwhile Weatherman Bill Ayers. This seems almost certain to fail, not only because it’s mostly bogus, but because most people don’t even recall the Weather Underground, except perhaps via the Bob Dylan lyric from Subterranean Homesick Blues.

The McCain/Palin decision to demonize via Ayers rather than Wright may not last; or it may just be a response to the fear that Americans have heard what they’re going to hear about Wright and made their peace with it; but I suspect that part of what is going on is a pivot away from racial politics. Yes, racial politics will give McCain some racist votes in Appalachia, but he’ll lose more throughout the country by people who see it as the transparent distraction that it is. Thirteen years later, Americans are coming to understand that we can’t afford OJ anymore.

Posted by Mike Dorf