Where Even O.J. Simpson Can Judge You
Late in January, I logged into Twitter only to see that an account I followed had decided to talk about racism. This is a not-uncommon experience for social media: Check to see what your friends are doing or look at cute dogs, and it’s not long before you’re digesting a near-stranger’s analysis of contemporary social issues.
The owner of this account, an elderly Black man, had posted a video responding to a recent news story: Lawyers for Ghislaine Maxwell, who was facing charges of conspiring with Jeffrey Epstein in the sexual abuse of minors, were complaining that the grand jury indicting her wasn’t diverse enough. This claim amused the man, given the gravity of the allegations, but he agreed that race was an evergreen problem in jury selection.
Here the video took a mild swerve. “I had a trial in California, a civil trial — that all 12 of my jurors, wasn’t one Black,” the man said. He continued: “I had another trial here in Nevada, which I will never understand, but all 12 of the jurors were Caucasian. But I guess I could say that’s water under bridge, that’s part of the past. I’m over it.”
If you knew nothing about this man, you might think he was simply describing his negative encounters with a racially biased system and his decision to move on from them. But I knew something crucial about this man, which was that he was O.J. Simpson, and the civil trial he so innocently referred to had determined he was responsible for the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. The jurors — one of who was a mixed-race Jamaican immigrant, despite Simpson’s recollections otherwise — had awarded $33.5 million to the victims’ families. One of the video’s replies summed up the consensus response: “Juice you are 100% correct on this but I dunno if you should be the one to talk about this.”
This was not an isolated incident. At least once a week, Simpson narrates a video from a golf course or from what looks like an expensive home. Each begins with a catchphrase: “Hey Twitter world, it’s me, yours truly.” Often he talks about sports; sometimes he talks about politics; occasionally the two are threaded together, as when he prefaced a discussion of the Capitol riots with a breakdown of the Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith’s professional prospects. Invariably, replies fall into two categories: supportive messages from people who still believe he did not kill anyone and pointedly ironic references to the murders. (“Thanks for the killer take, Juice.”)
Unbelievably, many of these videos contain glancing allusions to the thing for which he is primarily known. Simpson, who was acquitted of murder charges in his criminal trial in 1995, has maintained his innocence, and on Twitter he does so with unnerving nonchalance. “I’ve been in the legal system,” he says in the Capitol video. “I’ve had some of the best lawyers in the world,” he says, with a knowing chortle, discussing Donald Trump’s second impeachment. Why was he in the legal system? Why did he have those lawyers? Come on, you know why.
Unbelievably, many of these videos contain glancing allusions to the thing for which he is primarily known.
From 2008 to 2017, when Simpson was serving time for kidnapping and armed robbery in a Vegas sports-memorabilia dispute, the new-media industry exploded, and the barriers around celebrities collapsed. Everyone, from ordinary people to the very famous, could bypass media gatekeepers and talk to you directly through a phone app. Simpson’s communicating largely through video follows this trend. It also reminds his audience what he looks and sounds like after all those years spent under suspicion or in prison.
“The creation of a public image — that is, defining what ‘being O.J.’ meant — had been Simpson’s life work,” Jeffrey Toobin wrote in “The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” his definitive account of the murder trial. Now that a cross-racial majority of Americans believe he committed a double homicide, the parameters of Simpson’s public image have narrowed drastically. But he regularly uses those criminal allegations as the foundation of a winking performance, a different sort of “being O.J.” This isn’t new: In 2006, he famously tried to publish a book called “If I Did It,” in which he discussed how he would have carried out the murders — you know, if he’d done it. (A bankruptcy court awarded rights to the book to the Goldman family, who promptly subtitled it “Confessions of the Killer.”) Maybe I killed my ex-wife, he is always saying, and maybe I didn’t; either way, I am living my life, and you are among more than 900,000 followers waiting to see what happens next.
An enduring slogan of the Trump presidency was “there’s always a tweet”: The former president had posted so voluminously over the years that no matter what position he adopted, you could easily find evidence of his having once insisted the opposite. But criticizing his hypocrisy missed the fundamental emotional logic of tweeting. The point of posting like this isn’t to prove your intellectual consistency; the point is just to post. I believe Simpson, who was acquainted with Trump, intuitively knows this, because it so naturally fits with the type of fame that he spent decades chasing. He was a football superstar, but instead of fading into retirement, he doggedly pursued acting and endorsements, ensuring he would remain in the cultural consciousness as a kind of eternal Hollywood Square. Churning out Twitter monologues about golf conditions and climate change is not exactly shilling for Hertz, but it keeps your name out there. And if Simpson keeps at it, any number of people might basically forget how he got here in the first place. He’ll have his detractors, yes, but his supporters, too, in the same detente as any modern celebrity — and a modern celebrity is the only thing Simpson is capable of being, at this point.
The point of posting like this isn’t to prove your intellectual consistency. The point is just to post.
Rereading Toobin’s book today, one thing that leaps out is the author’s obvious contempt for Simpson. References abound to his limited intelligence, his duplicitous nature, his obvious guilt. At the time of the book’s 1996 publication, this was a popular stance: that Simpson had clearly done a terrible thing and gotten away with it. But time mutes all passions and creates new characters to fixate on. Last fall, Toobin accidentally exposed himself during a video call with his co-workers. He was eventually fired by his employer, The New Yorker, and mocked across the political spectrum. Even O.J. got in on the fun. “Damn, Jeffrey Toobin,” he said in a short video. “At least Pee-wee Herman was in an X-rated movie theater.” This was intensely corny, as retorts go, but just imagine the humiliation of finding yourself in a position where O.J. Simpson can go viral by clowning your failings. Some people got mad at him; others said, “Stick it to ’em, Juice.” For the moment, it did not matter what he supposedly did. He was online and reacting to the news, just like everyone else.
Jeremy Gordon is a writer from Chicago whose work appears in The New York Times, Pitchfork, The Nation and other publications. He last wrote for the magazine about the musician Beverly Glenn-Copeland.