I was teaching at the University of Southern California at the time that O J Simpson was its star running back, and I remember those heroic days when the young man seemed unstoppable, spirited, gifted beyond most mortals, and destined for a charmed life. What a sad sight, then, to see him a couple of days ago, in shackles, claiming innocence and pleading pathetically for mercy in a Las Vegas courtroom. His pleas were rightly dismissed out of hand by a clear-sighted judge.
I guess there can be little doubt but that Simpson committed the grisly slayings of his wife and her friend, Ron Goldman, back in 1994. His attorneys turned his "trial" into a public spectacle that lasted months, an agonizing farce, and eventually a genuine American tragedy as it turned from a judicial hearing into a racial outpouring of grievances. That so much of black America needed to rally around this fallen hero said much about our history and the then current state of affairs between the races. The jubilant crowds that celebrated his acquittal provided the image of a perverse reversal of the archetypal story of the black man lynched for far less grievous offenses to white womanhood than the brutal murder of Simpson's former wife.
This time around, there has been notable silence from the American community at large, whether black or white. Aside from the not-unanticipated personal remarks from Goldman family members, who have suffered much from the murder of their son and brother, there has been no jubilation or sense of public retribution from fair-skinned Americans, nor protest from their dark-skinned brothers and sisters. My as yet rather tentative hope is that we can take this as evidence of a great cultural shift, where both personal and judicial judgments are removed from any racial concern; and that our recent election process and our brilliant new President-elect will prove us more mature, more inclusively human in our attitudes than in the past.
I myself have feelings of compassion for Simpson, not on account of who he has allowed himself to become but because I remain convinced that the Simpson we saw on the football field had something going for him other than false charm and (back then) appropriately channeled aggression. It's my belief that he has spent his life in pursuit of a false illusion of manhood--an illusion fostered by our heritage and culture. We men still carry within us some significant remnant of an ancient warrior gene, and properly channeled it can be a powerful force for good in the world. Trouble is, the contemporary world has no room for that old spear-chucker warriorhood. Those ten men in Mumbai last week were the epitome of the warrior spirit gone grievously amok; dreadful though it may be to say, they fulfilled, albeit perversely, the ultimate power fantasy of an uncomfortably large number of young males, to walk into a crowd with a fully loaded assault weapon and let loose... What else are all those video games about, and why else are they so wildly popular?
We do have room for the warrior spirit, though, when it's pursued in service of the greater good of humanity, and for the sense of mission that gives it purpose and direction. I differ with those who say that the world would be better off run by women, even though I grant them an important point, because I believe that the peculiarly masculine energy has a vital part to play in the balance of our natures. Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" is a key text in the understanding of both our geo- and our gender-politics, and its wisdom is as applicable today as it was when it was written, in the 6th century BC. What a terrible irony, in Mumbai, to see such discipline and such physical and mental courage perverted into acts of profound cowardice.
My wish for Simpson is that he rediscover, in the time of his imprisonment, the dedication that characterized his power on the football field. I have read that he has gained popularity among his fellow-prisoners by buying candy to pass out to them. Wrong. He's misguided if he thinks that rehabilitation has to do with popularity. It was this false sense of himself, in my judgment, that set him off on the wrong path in the first place. No, if he's ever to redeem himself as a man, he must first acknowledge some unpalatable truths about himself and drop the false protestations and pretenses that have clearly served him badly until now. He must accept unqualified responsibility for his actions, and cease claiming innocence as he continued to do most recently in court.
That done, and honestly done, this man must find within himself the source of some act of service to which he can dedicate himself without thought for profit, popularity or advancement and into which he can channel the energy of what remains of his life. Perhaps then this sad remnant of what was once a hero would stand to recover his profoundly misunderstood manhood as well as his lost soul.
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