Friday, April 01, 2005

The OJ Effect

In the wake of a controversial court decision, a virtual mob of mourners carries signs and shouts slogans for a swarm of television cameras. In the meantime, lurid stories about the family spread viruslike through attempts to discuss any serious issues the case presents. The governor, the president, even our talk show royalty get involved. More Americans can argue the issues in this matter which in reality has little to no impact on their actual lives than they can about war, the quality of public education, budget deficits, or universal health insurance. It's all too familiar.
Today the object of their attention is Terri Schiavo, a 41 year old woman who has been in a vegetative state for 14 years as this generation's Karen Quinlan. Why the fuss? The Republican Right is evidently angry at Michael Schiavo because he hired a malpractice attorney and successfully raised everyone's health insurance rates through a frivolous million dollar suit. Because of his abuse of the legal system, their leaders have sought to protect his wife from him by making sure he can't carry out her wishes. There is after all a big difference between saying " I don't ever want to be on a ventilator, I'd rather just die." and "But if they ever put me on a feeding tube and my brain has no electrical activity, I want to live as long as possible." Am I the only one who thinks its strange that there's a crisis there because a woman can't die on her own in a place that Ponce De Leon found while looking for the Fountain of Youth? Which I suppose is just as odd as the thought of people seeking court orders to force a bulimic woman to take nourishment. In any case, this is one of the first times Republicans politicians have ever shown this much concern for victims of spousal abuse.
Cynics say it's really all about positioning the party for the 2008 election. I just have to say they are working awfully hard to make sure they keep their traditional voter base of persistently vegetative individuals. If, however, Terri Schiavo does vote in the 2008 election, I will vote Republican especially if she is nominated for Secretary of State there. Others think Michael Schiavo brought this on himself because he got inolved with another woman. Had he been in a gay marriage, this of course would never have happened. The Schindlers would have been able to legally prevent him from visiting his spouse while she was in intensive care. In any case, in their eyes if you get involved with someone who isn't legally your wife, you lose any rights as a husband. Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingston, and Henry Hyde's offices, however, all declined comment on this. Well, Gingrich's press secretary did say there is a very real difference between what Michael Schiavo has done and cheating on a dying wife who is still conscious, one is adultery and the other is just politics. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get them to clarify which was which.
A few years earlier, it was Elian Gonzales, a boy whose mother had died while trying to get them out of Cuba by boat. Thousands of people rallied to protect young Elian from his father, whose apparent crime was that he liked being Cuban and wanted to live with his son but whose former in laws declared they were better suited to look after Elian because they believed in capitalism and Miami public schools had never left any ESL student behind. Sadly, it ended because the Federal Government went much too far and involved itself forcibly in the situation thus interfering with the sanctity of extended family who had never met their nephew in favor of a father who can buy Cohibas legally. We now know that the problem was that Elian's mother died without a living will saying that she was leaving her son to the United States and the American Spectator. Because this was supposedly her dying wish, it was the American thing to do to make sure it was honored even if it wasn't in writing. It is very sad that Castro used this innocent child as a propaganda tool for his repressive regime where prisoners are held without charges and sometimes moved in the middle of the night to places where they can be tortured in ways that seem more perverse than effective.
Two more Florida tabloid phenomena come to mind. There's the 2000 presidential election when those public service ads reminding people that "every vote counts" took on an unexpected double meaning that left five people anxious to make certain that George W. Bush got equal protection in a state where his brother is governor. Lurid stories circulated about the governor, the secretary of state, about precinct officials and something called the "butterfly kiss" until the U.S. Supreme Court did its bit to make the United States safe for terrorists in Florida flight schools by appointing a president who keeps misplacing Osama and mistaking warnings about possible highjackings as historical treatises. You do remember where President Bush was on the morning of 9/11, in a Florida classroom reading an apparently very compelling book about goats.

Even in sports, there's a Florida tabloid angle. After all, who set off the latest round of congressional hearings before the Palm Sunday Emergency session, it was none other than Miami resident Jose Canseco. Who is Jose Canseco's biggest detractor in the major leagues other than errant fly balls in deep left, none other than Tampa native, Tony Larussa, the man who swore that there was no way that Mark Mcgwire could ever have done steroids. Bouyed by Larussa's character reference, Mcgwire then put the scandal to rest with his forthright testimony before the committee. Before Canseco, it was Rickey Williams, the Dolphins running back who decided it was more important to explore his spiritual side by taking hits of marijauna instead of from linebackers.

There is no doubt that the state of Florida has become the capital of America’s most critical industry, the manufacture of tabloid stories. Colorado has done its part with Joan Benet Ramsey and Kobe Bryant and California still clings to its traditions with the Michael Jackson trial but they're clearly not in the same class with Florida. People are starting to say "Geez, only in Florida." Now, as a Californian, this has intrigued me because ten years ago they used to always say "Only in California."

As someone who grew up in the sixties, I remember the events then that bound all survivors of that decade together. JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby, the Moon Landing, Selma, Vietnam, Woodstock. Forty years later, my daughter’s list of shared cultural events is shaped more by Pitt vs. Anniston than say the New York Times v. the United States or Cox v. Nixon. The Manson murders not Civil Rights turned out tobe the decade’s legacy to 21st century media.

How did this happen though? And why did it all move to Florida?
Then last night, it hit me like a ton of Janet Reno impersonators, there is only one sensible explanation for why all socio-cultural excess has moved from California to Florida. I saw the same media circus almost exactly eleven years ago in California for yet another watershed cultural event, People lining the streets with sgns, controversial court decisions, deep divisions on guilt or innocence, extended speculation about marital habits, tv cameras and tabloid stories pushing asside real news. It was the O.J. Simpson trial.
And where did OJ move after the civil trial awarded the Goldmans millions of dollars they will never see, he is living out his grief as a widower on a golf course in Florida. O.J. Simpson is the American god of Tabloid events. Wherever he goes, mischief follows. While he uses his godly powers to find Nicole’s killers on the 14th hole, his tears make social cultural earthquakes that hypnotize Americans into a television-tabloid black hole, a massed collection of mesmerizing events that consume our collective consciousness. Even internet blogs can not escape.

Terri Schiavo, Elian Gonzales, Bush v. Gore, Jose Canseco in a bathroom stall all in Florida each event taking place after O.J. moved there. Think about it when you say OJ and Florida, anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant is no longer the first person who pops to mind.

My inevitable conclusion is that O.J. Simpson is the American version of Loki, the Norse God of mischief who interestingly enough was both unusually big and athletic, funny in a non-Leslie Nielsen movie sort of way, and accused of murdering Baldir. I am not a specialist in Norse lore, but Loki is possibly the most post-modern figure in ancient mythology in that he is neither clearly evil or good. His legacy is one of chaos, clever schemes,scandalous sex, drunken binges, narrow escapes, and the meanest practical jokes of all time. At the same time, the Gods depend on Loki to get them out of trouble that even they can't find a way out of. Does that sound like O.J. or what? Well, I have to admit, it also sounds like George W. Bush before he discovered Christ. It also occurs to me that had O.J. stayed in California he might now be my state's pro-life governor instead of our current anti-steroids governor.

Americans have grown increasingly aware of the bitter cultural war that divides our country. There are scientific-humanists on one end who believe in science-based policy and education, worry about the environment, talk about international cooperation, embrace things like vegetarianism, gay marriage, multiculturalism, and a woman's right to choose. On the other side are religious rovieans who talk about the Bible and the Constitution being a single document, about the sanctity of life except for death row inmates and Moslems in countries with oil reserves, the primacy of American culture and power, promise keeping households, and who equate personal and corporate taxes and regulation with Satan or Dan Rather. At the moment, the only way for these two groups to communicate and exchange perspectives is the show Wife Swap. I believe that the time has come to heal this spiritual divide and that healing must start in Florida.

If we want socio-political earthquakes like the Schiavo Case to stop distracting us from serious issues facing our society- ANWR, peace in the Middle East, children with guns, the funding of social services, free and fair elections in other countries, and the pressing need to privatize the social security system- we must address the problem directly. Unfortunately, the solution can not come through an act of Congress, because that august body has not yet changed the Constitution from saying "free exercies of religion" to "free exercise of Christian Fundamentalism" (as the Puritans and Pilgrims intended). We must go straight to the source. To heal our spiritual divide, we must venerate our version of Loki. Instead of erecting giant plaques of the ten commandments in our courthouses and statehouses, I suggest that we build shrines to O.J. Simpson. In each Florida airport, we can replace the Hertz counter with statues of a smiling #32 peeling an orange with a pocket knife, a pair of sunglasses perched atop his head. Each day, before they go through their security inspections, travelers to other states would place an offering of Bruno Maglio shoes at O.J.'s shrine. After all, lurid sensationalism has become our real God and America’s true idol. Why don't we just face the truth? It may be all we have left that binds us together.



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