America’s favorite football star-turned corporate pitchman-turned accused/acquitted murderer-turned memorabilia thief was awarded parole today. O.J. Simpson will be out of prison in October. The hearing was impossible to miss, given that every single network dedicated wall-to-wall coverage to it.
As much as this kind of sensationalistic celebrity gossip packaged as news is the fault of corporate media, that is not where the root of the problem lies. One of the few laws that applies across the spectrum of humanity is supply and demand. Sure, corporate media has their own agenda that values profit over journalism, but the stories which are profitable are the fault of the populace. If no one cared about O.J. (and if you do care, why? How does whether he's in jail or not for memorabilia theft affect your life one iota?), he wouldn't have owned our television sets for an entire day. I had no idea that his parole hearing was today, until my entire Twitter feed suddenly turned into the O.J. show.
Americans are fascinated by criminal justice—as the seemingly infinite iterations of Law & Order prove—but we tend to ignore the latter portion of that phrase in favor of paying attention to the “criminal” aspect of it. Serial, Making a Murderer and countless other documentaries and pseudo-documentaries have been created to analyze crimes, and it is this mindset that serves as the backdrop to our historical depravity. We care infinitely more about crime than justice. We prefer to punish prisoners rather than rehabilitating them.
The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its inmates. Our number of prisoners has risen 500% over the last 30 years. There are more people behind bars for drug offenses today than there were total people in prison in 1980. We spent $80 billion on incarceration in 2010 alone. African Americans comprise 12% of drug users but 40% of people arrested for drug offenses. 80% of people cannot afford a lawyer, and this has led to public defenders routinely carrying a caseload of over 100 at a time. The list goes on and on and on and on. If Americans really cared about the “justice” aspect of criminal justice, we would not be the most prolific imprisoner in mankind’s history. But we don’t really care, so we are captivated by the spectacle of one famed black man’s parole hearing while sentencing millions of others to prison for non-violent offenses without even batting an eyelash.
We’re completely fascinated by the concept of crime, but dedicate next to no effort to fix the problems inherent in our criminal justice system. When was the last time you saw a politician with criminal justice reform as a central plank of their candidacy? (hint: with a few exceptions, never) As if someone sent this story to prove our hypocrisy, at almost the exact same time as the O.J. parole hearing began, news broke that White County, Tennessee was practicing outright eugenics—offering inmates 30 days off their term for getting a vasectomy. If we cared more about justice than we do crime, this affront to humanity would have knocked O.J. off the front pages immediately. But alas, it did not. The demand has spoken, and thus the supply was cut short.
America has become a country where spectacle supersedes substance. Our last presidential election pitted a reality TV star raging against Washington versus a creature of The District who had little more to say than “a buffoon is clearly a buffoon.” Our three most likely candidates for president all were under FBI investigation at some point in the past year. It’s not just that our country values spectacle more than substance, but that we have become so consumed with vacuous bullshit that we don’t even take the time to identify the substance, let alone understand it. The Kardashians take up more space in our national consciousness than health care does. This video of MSNBC cutting off a Congresswoman speaking about NSA overreach to show Justin Bieber’s bond hearing is all you need to know about where our priorities truly lie.
Looking back to that fateful nationally televised chase that escalated America’s complicated relationship with one of our first African American corporate pitchmen, it seems as if O.J.’s downfall coincided with America’s. I still remember watching the NBA Finals in split screen with it, wondering if this football hero of my father’s youth would kill himself in front of one of the largest viewing audiences of the decade. Now I wonder if the America I grew up in even exists anymore. The Oscar-winning documentary, O.J.: Made in America highlighted how that chase kicked off the reality television era, and now we have followed it to its logical conclusion.
It’s not hard to see how we got to Donald Trump. Many of us want to pretend as if he is some alien who is anathema to America, but he’s not. He’s a direct byproduct of our cynicism. In the 1800s, over three-quarters of the voting age population voted, and today that figure hovers just over 50% (and that’s just in presidential years). Further highlighting our abdication of responsibility to our fellow citizens, the percentage of registered voters who vote has actually been on the rise since the 1960s—meaning that our polarization extends past politics, and we have separated into tribes of politically active and politically apathetic Americans. We talk a lot about how polarization in politics is a problem, but more people didn’t vote than voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Apathy—not polarization—is what rots empires to their core.
O.J. Simpson embodies so much of our national discourse. He moved to the swanky suburbs of Brentwood in order to fit in with the elite, all while those who grew up with him in the projects of Potrero Hill in San Francisco (and projects across the nation) begged him to use his platform to highlight the strife of the downtrodden. As O.J.: Made in America demonstrated, he largely ignored these pleas in favor of ingratiating himself ever more into the secret club who truly runs America. O.J. made a decision to pursue spectacle over substance, and our country has followed his lead. I would like to hope that one day we will become the people our founding fathers had in mind when they constructed this American project, but history and the laws of supply and demand suggest that this apathetic trend is more likely to accelerate than to shift course.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.