L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 274, June 6, 2004
What do we need ... what do we not need?
To Forgive and Forget: What's in it for Me?
Special to TLE
Ten years ago, I had just moved to a new city and had not yet started my new job. That's why I was able, as I unpacked my household goods, to watch much of the ongoing OJ Simpson circus as it was broadcast live on cable TV news channels. I saw the so-called slow motion chase; I saw the footage of Simpson attending his ex-wife's, and the bitter public statements from her family. And even once I was working again, news concerning the pending trialand then the trial itselfwas so pervasive I was still saturated with information about it no matter when I chose to watch the news or on which channel.
In the end, of course, Simpson was acquitted of all criminal charges. Although the reaction to the not-guilty verdict was very much along racial lines, most black people seemed to think that Simpson really was not guilty. Even so, it seemed their celebration was less for Mr. Simpson than it was for the triumph of a black man over a system of justice that they saw as unfair to minority defendants. (And in fairness to the jury so many thought had rendered a decision based on some similar racial criteria, it found Simpson not guilty in a classic case of reasonable doubt; several jurors stepped forward after the trial and said that, had they been privy to the information many of us watching television had seen, they would have considered Simpson as guilty as many of us did.)
There were, of course, a few people interviewed on television or quoted in newspapers who made it clear that they didn't care whether Simpson was guilty or not. It was their contention that letting a black man go free after a murder trial, even if he happened to be guilty, was only just given the number of black men they believed had been wrongly convicted in the past. But those opinions seemed to be representative only of a very small minority, and as incendiary as some found the idea at the time, both the opinions and the objections to them have also faded into the past.
It's interesting to note that you rarely hear of OJ Simpson these days. You may recall he was in the news in several legal matters in the state of Florida where he now resides (he was suspected of involvement in drugs or drug trafficking, but a search warrant yielded no results; he was also accused of domestic violence against his daughter in one instance and his girlfriend in another, but those cases also came to nothing). Other than that, you hear very little of a man who used to be very famous and much loved. Simpson was once a valuable commercial commodity with his acting and advertising career; now he's relegated to the occasional retrospective story.
The reason that OJ Simpson isn't seen in Hertz commercials or in the movies any more is simple: people won't buy tickets to see him, or products he endorses. He may have been acquitted of murder (though he was found liable for the deaths of two people in a subsequent civil trial), but people in general don't like the man very much any more. Maybe there's just enough doubt in people's minds that he may very well have done the deed of which he was accused. Or maybe people think there's no doubt at all, and that there's a murderer running loose in Florida. Regardless, Mr. Simpson's past crimes (domestic violence) and suspected crimes (murder) continue to haunt him, even years after the major criminal case and its resolution.
I've offered this synopsis because the OJ Simpson case is one with which virtually all of us are familiar, and because it illustrates a troubling change in society. Just ten years ago, public censure was something to be feared. It could threaten your livelihood and destroy your reputation; it could result in the undermining of friendships, and the loss of the goodwill of strangers. And because of those things, it acted as something of a correcting influence on some of the darker aspects of society without so much as a single intrusive morality ordinance getting in the way. Of course, public censure sometimes went too far and was occasionally erroneously applied (even so, I suspect it was still more accurate than the typical courtroom given the various legal maneuverings that now take place more often than not). But in general, I look at a widespread public censure as sort of a free-market judge, jury, and jail all in one inexpensive and efficient package.
Now fast forward to more recent times and the criminal charges against singer R. Kelly. Mr. Kelly has been charged with some 14 counts of child pornography in connection with a video tape that allegedly shows him engaged in some kinky sexual behavior with a 14 year-old (keep in mind that Mr. Kelly is in his mid-30's). This isn't the first time he's been charged with something like this, but it does appear to be the most serious and with what is claimed to be incontrovertible evidence. When the news came out, public censure went into gear. Radio stations took his music off their play lists, the music buying public didn't purchase his new album, and even other singers said bad things about him. But not too very much later, Mr. Kelly is already back on top with a forthcoming album, a single climbing the charts, and in much demand as a co-writer of songs.
The public, of course, is notoriously fickle. Perhaps they're waiting for Mr. Kelly to be found guilty before they stop buying his music. Maybe they actually believe in the premise that Mr. Kelly is innocent until proven guilty (which would be a refreshing change if it were actually true). I don't have any kind of an argument against that position. But what I did find offensive in the extreme was material contained in a story in a current issue of Entertainment Weekly magazine (I subscribed only to help a local school with a fundraising event, so give me a break). In that article, I learned that there are people in the music industry who are actually saying that it doesn't matter if R. Kelly is guilty, that his personal life is not their concern.
Now while I agree wholeheartedly that one's personal life is, indeed, one's own concern, I draw the lineI suspect just about all of us do!where someone is being harmed, most especially where that someone is a child. And a 35 year-old man having sexual relations with a 14 year-old girl clearly involves harm to a child. One person interviewed for the story compared R. Kelly's alleged crimes with Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky scandal, saying the President's actions didn't affect his job and implying that whatever R. Kelly has or has not done, his music is still good. (Someone apparently needs reminding that Bill Clinton's sexual behavior with Monica Lewinsky might not have been against the law, although there's an arguable basis for sexual harassment there; it was his perjury and obstruction of justice that got him in trouble with the authorities. The sex only got him in trouble with his wife. If Mr. Kelly did what authorities claim, he's going to be in a good deal of trouble and with more than a few people.)
Another woman quoted in the Entertainment Weekly story was asked to comment on the ongoing Michael Jackson matter in connection with the support R. Kelly is receiving. Her reply as to the difference in the public reaction offered these two men? Michael Jackson doesn't have a hit record. Meanwhile, a writer who knows Kelly says that she's aware of people who think R. Kelly really is the man on the video tape, but they don't think what he was doing was wrong, or least wasn't that wrong.
And so we come to this: Ten years ago, a black man loses virtually everythinghis reputation, most of his money and belongings, and his good relationship with the American publicdespite having been acquitted of the crime he was accused of committing. Today, a black man is as famous and popular as ever, and people are saying they don't care if he's guilty, that in fact his guilt or innocence is none of their business ( the NAACP actually nominated R. Kelly for an Image Award in the midst of all of his legal troubles, which is meaningful in and of itself). And this willingness to ignore wrongdoing apparently comes almost solely from the fact that the accused happens to be both famous and producing a product currently in demand.
This is not a commentary about black performers and the support they do or do not get from black Americans. These are simply some very famous cases which are comparable because the men involved are all black, talented, and areor weremuch beloved of black and white audiences alike. Instead this is a comment on how society itself seems to have changed in a very short time, and much for the worse.
OJ Simpson was ostracized by many, and is still largely ignored by most of us despite an acquittal almost ten years ago. Even today, Michael Jackson doesn't seem to be getting much overt public support from any particular contingent. But remember that he hasn't had a hit in some time, and let's face it: he's odd. At the same time, R. Kelly is being welcomed with open arms by radio stations and concert managers, record companies, and other performers because he's making money for them; he's close to the hearts of a wide audience because his music happens to be what they like at the moment.
I don't resent R. Kelly's successes even as he awaits trial. And if Michael Jackson were to suddenly come up with a runaway hit, I wouldn't resent that, either. Neither man has been found guilty of anything; both are free to go about their business until their trialsand afterward if they're acquitted. What I do find both illuminating and sickening is the difference in the public treatment of these two men based only on what we can still get from them, and the willingness of some to forgive, forget, or even ignore all together almost anything as long as they're still getting what they want.
In directly comparing these men and their criminal cases, it seems obvious that the public has recently determined that, as long it gets what it wants, it no longer cares about "personal" behavior (although it must be acknowledged that we're considering murder in the Simpson matter and "only" sexual abuse of children in the latter two cases). It looks like we don't care any more even when others are harmed. We just want what we want, whether it's entertainment or profits. And we apparently will take it at any price (as long, I suppose, as we're not personally doing the paying). Perhaps society should be indicted along with Michael Jackson and R. Kelly. As a group, we're clearly suffering some of the same problems with conscience these two men are alleged to have with theirs.