As I get a little older
I realise life is perspective
And my perspective may differ from yours– Kendrick Lamar, The Heart Part 5
I have considered how universities employ tacitly racist arguments in the name of antiracism. But now I would like to consider how mass media also employs racist tactics of divide and conquer in the name of antiracism. Let me take three examples: O. J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, and Kanye West.
O. J. Simpson is a world-class basketball player, a global icon, and a convicted felon. The famous criminal trial of O. J. Simpson in the 1990s acquitted him of the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson despite considerable forensic evidence against him. It was a show trial, televised to a global audience, and the opinions on the case divided between those who immediately assumed Simpson’s guilt and those who assumed his innocence. In this cacophony of assumptions, it was hard to find the ‘truth’, which was revealed at a civil trial that found him guilty of murder. It is hard to know. The balance of evidence does not favour O. J.. Recent songs such as ‘Stronger’ by Kanye West and ‘The Ballad of O. J.’ by Kanye’s mentor Jay-Z comment on the significance of this moment for the battle against racism in America; Kanye compares the moment when ‘O. J. had isotoners’ (gloves from the case which did not fit on O. J. in the trial, supposedly undermining the evidence of the prosecution) to the moment when ‘Prince was on Apollonia’ in the 1984 film Purple Rain.
But there is more. As shown in the TV series The People Vs. O. J., O. J.’s long-term friend and attorney Robert Kardashian (portrayed by Friends star David Schwimmer) was an important figure in the case. Kardashian himself felt in the end that his friend may not have been telling the whole truth, a truth which plagued his Christian conscience. In the series, Kardashian speaks to his daughters — Kim, Kourtney, and Chloe, children of Robert Kardashian and Kris Hourtney (now Jenner) — about the importance of morality and public mindedness in life. They look at him with bewilderment. Kanye himself sought a ‘Hell Of A Life’ with one of Robert’s daughters, Kim Kardashian, in a marriage that has just ended after around a decade, bearing children Psalm, Chicago, and North.
The dynastic character of American public life is evident to any watcher of U.S. news, political or celebrity. The Kennedy Presidency was adorned with the allure of ‘Camelot’, with Kennedy himself entering Arthurian legend on the occasion of his assassination. The conspiratorial character of American politics accompanies this dynastic element, as speculation flurries about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of famous people and their family members. Sometimes this conspiratorial speculation enters the general public sphere, as in discussions about the clandestine activities of the U. S. military and the circumstances surrounding 9/11. A senior staff member of a college of a notable university recently compared rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West to the rhetoric of terrorists, on the grounds that both are concerned with themes of violence. What’s next — assuming a connection between 9/11 and the release of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint that week? Come on guys.
Michael Jackson has also been tried and acquitted, in his case based on deeply disturbing allegations of molestation of a minor. A recent documentary Finding Neverland revives these old accusations. It supposes, as the reactions to the O. J. trial did, that evidence was dismissed on the grounds of the accused’s fame. But is it not also possible that ‘evidence’ is given on the grounds of the accused’s skin colour? It would not be the first time. And alas, it would not be the last. Because whether O. J. and M. J. are guilty of the heinous, and indeed unforgivable, crimes of which they are accused, depends not on any other factor than the evidence. It is only the truth that matters.
But if the lens through which we see evidence is prima facie racialised, and predicated on a Manichean distinction between good guys and bad guys (see also Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks), by what method can we (to borrow a term from Descartes) ‘clearly and distinctly’ perceive the truth? One terrifying answer is: we can’t. But the next question is: what do we do? Do we demonise our idols, do we put art before artist, or do we completely bypass the question altogether and get on with our lives? Perhaps we seek justice for the past and retribution against wrongdoers. But which ones? Is it just those with fame and fortune? Is it just those who have dark skin, just those who have light skin? Or is everyone guilty of the crimes of which they are accused, regardless of the evidence? And what model of justice do we want anyway — a model of transformation to prevent abuse and exploitation, or a model of retribution and rehabilitation — that is to say, coercion and manipulation: mere extensions of the failed status quo?
Kanye West has never been accused of any crime worthy of trial. He punched a reporter once, I think. (At least, that’s what Twitter was saying at one point.) But that’s not why banking firm JP Morgan is cutting ties with the rapper. No, it is because he has released cryptic social media posts referring to different minority groups and their respective characteristics. But today is a frantic and fearful age. Someone who has never been accused of discrimination is suddenly hurled with accusations of linguistic violence. Honestly?
See, this is where the cult of demonisation ends. It ends with everyone being hunted by a Spanish Inquisition. In Catholicism, at least, we are all sinners. But now, anyone can be a sinner — at any time. So you better watch out. You better not cry. I’m telling you why: the police and the banks are coming to town. And they are coming for you. Or should I say ye?
In South Africa, the rapacious system of Apartheid was brought to a close without a witch hunt of the racist bullies who ran the show. Instead, a Truth and Reconciliation commission presided over by Archbishop Desmond Tutu allowed the truth to be known and shown in safe environment for the victim, and an environment where the predators were expected to give the truth, and nothing but the truth, because they were acting not out of fear, but something like Catholic guilt. Instead of retribution or rehabilitation, there was reconciliation. This was not a punitive, racialised, or individualistic model of ‘justice’. It was justice as inclusion for all people, no matter their actions, where actions could nonetheless be made known and victims find true peace, and predators atone for their action in confession. Is this not the most Christian thing to do in a capitalistic world? Perhaps it is. Will it happen? I wouldn’t count on it.
Of course, to take the example of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, the ‘banality of evil’ is manifested in the guiltlessness of the criminal. But if we take this as our model of justice, then we expect everyone to behave as Eichmann did: cold, calculating, unrepentant about his crimes — while also being, to use what is now surely a trope of the media’s portrayal of Holocaust, a ‘family man’. To echo an astute observation by David Runciman: We will miss the pressing problems of today if we are looking for Hitler. But that is exactly what the media is doing — employing what is, in fact, a tacitly fascistic model of ‘psychoanalysis in reverse’, where what is true is unknowable because truth itself becomes a weapon of power, or ‘discipline and punishment’, to echo Lacan and Foucault, respectively. Michael Jackson once released a song, ‘Why You Wanna Trip On Me?’, which decries the media’s slander of his own person while ignoring the devastation in the real world of ordinary people.
Should celebrities be immune from critique? Certainly not. Should they be immune from prosecution — or, better, truth and reconciliation? Hell no. But should they be viewed as people, torn betwixt dark and light, good and evil, doomed to straddle the boundary between what is and what isn’t acceptable to a civilised society, in thought, word, and even deed? Yes, of course. Our civilisation remains but a mask on barbarism. Either we accept that, and change civilisation to better manage our barbaric condition, or we ignore and continue the multiplication of angels and demons, as Max Weber predicted the modern age would become in the early twentieth century. To be a hero is to be neither an angel nor a demon; neither a perfect nor an evil person, but someone who is nothing less (and, perhaps, nothing more) than extraordinary. To these new heroes, I say: Arise! Your time has come. Do good, won’t you — for the world is full of evil, and darkness beyond measure. Let there be light —
Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?