Law, God, ghosts and the American way

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The Independent Online
MY FELLOW non-Americans - returning from a month in the United States, I here present my annual 'State of the Union' address, reflecting on the condition of the culture of our co-linguists across the ocean.

The country's principal convulsion at the moment is the affair of OJ Simpson, the former star of American football, who has been sent for trial for the murder of his ex-wife and her male friend, after a week-long preliminary hearing screened gavel-to-gavel on almost all available channels.

It is the custom on these occasions to offer a helpful Anglo parallel - the closest here would be the public interest that might follow the charging of Paul Gascoigne with a double slaying - but the Simpson case is strictly untranslatable. It depends on structures of celebrity, sport, justice and race which exist only in America. For example, tiring of profiling the accused and the victims, People magazine, the Bible of the star-struck, turned to lavish spreads on the leading counsels, with Robert Shapiro, Simpson's big-buck LA lawyer, photographed in his bed, his gym, his pool.

Two aspects of the case particularly interested me. The first was the apparently easy acceptance at all levels of American society that justice is a matter of tactics rather than an absolute. Shapiro offered an alibi defence: that Simpson was elsewhere at the time of the killings. This is unusual, as rich American defendants traditionally admit the act but plead justification. (The Menendez brothers, LA's last court stars, killed their parents, but cited child abuse.) Yet the implication of Shapiro's alibi defence was that a brutal double murderer was still on the loose. No one, though, behaved as if this were so: not the cops, the press, the defence team, nor the public. The dominant discussion point was not 'Did he do it?', but 'Can he get off?'.

The Simpson case has also confirmed the extent to which media behaviour threatens the American legal system. By this, I do not mean the televising of trials - the live and complete screening of hearings with a high level of analysis from lawyer-pundits in fact functions as a vital check and balance on the reporting of court cases by the print media and the television news shows. Floating dubious or bogus evidence and buying up stories of witnesses, these amateur detectives and prosecutors are worth several points to the defence.

At least two potentially important witnesses in the Simpson case have been discredited because they offered previews of their testimony to the trash media for cash. Judges and defence counsel encourage the assumption that a witness who has done this is unreliable. Yet who can truly blame a citizen of America - capitalist paradise, mediapolis - for believing in a right to sell information they own? In one instance, Shapiro, who is earning an estimated seven-figure fee in this case, was able to rubbish a poor shop employee for taking a few thousand dollars for his story. For millionaire defendants and million-paid defence lawyers to aid their cases in this way seems terrible hypocrisy.

Americans' obsession with the law extends - as I reported last year - to its literature. The top of the fiction bestseller lists is currently a case of John Grisham vs Scott Turow, as the lawyer-novelists slug it out for dominance. Beyond the realm of bestsellers, one of America's most obscure literary talents - William Gaddis, who has published one big experimental novel every decade or so since the Fifties - has just published an epic legal satire, A Frolic Of His Own.

In serious American fiction, though, another intriguing trend is developing: the resurrection of the undead. EL Doctorow's latest book, The Waterworks, uses the structure of a ghost story, and Alison Lurie's new collection, Women and Ghosts, features a series of spookings in contemporary America. Closing Time, Joseph Heller's long-awaited sequel to Catch-22, to be published in October, contains a quite unexpected supernatural strand and scenes set in the underworld.

Add to this the fact that the most recent books by John Updike and Margaret Atwood also feature phantoms and uncanniness and you have a PhD thesis about North American fiction waiting to be written. Have writers become nervous of competing with the huge mass of actuality reporting in print and on screen? Has the popularity of ghost stories historically been the sign of a fragmenting and terrified society?

American politics, meanwhile, has been visited by the Holy Ghost. The religious right continues its advance towards the heart of the Republican Party, having secured the nomination of the God-fearing, if not law-

fearing, Colonel Oliver North as a candidate for the Senate, and placing several local party organisations in a muscular Christian stranglehold. It now seems likely that, in addition to the previously infamous questions to presidential nominees about adultery and drugs, Republican hopefuls will now be asked 'How many times have you been born?', with instant disqualification for a singular response.

Taking into account the troubles of the British Conservative Party over Europe, those on the left may now enjoy the satisfying irony that it is the parties of the right that are split and afflicted by fanatical dogmatists: a charge once reserved for Labour and the Democrats. Admittedly, this is about the only consolation for President Clinton, frustrated on his health care proposals and pursued by financial and sexual allegations. But he might also take comfort from the current field of likely Republican challengers.

Bob Dole, the Republican leader in the Senate, is already quite openly running for president, more than 18 months ahead of even the primaries. But, 71 now, he would be even older than Reagan on inauguration day and has been treated for cancer. The other candidate, Jack Kemp, who served in the Bush cabinet, is a former football hero and ex-team mate of OJ Simpson's, which may now be less useful than he once calculated. He also seems to have a language problem.

In a television interview I watched, Kemp spoke mainly in French and Latin, managing vis a vis, a priori and quid pro quo in the course of one answer. This is an unlikely vote-winner in a country where the only generally used foreign phrases are Notre Dame, which is a football team, and a la mode, which means pie with ice cream. Finally, with his whiney memoirs just out as a memory-jogger, there is Dan Quayle. He has the useful support of the religious right, although how people who have Dan Quayle as their candidate can believe that God is on their side seems a deep theological problem.