Monday, June 18, 2007

A Word about Words

I’ve been following the Duke Lacrosse rape case fairly steadily. I find things like this reveal a great deal about the character people, especially in how people are treated by the media and how we interpret the images we view. The Duke Lacrosse case was interesting because it dealt with racial tensions and class tensions and good old southern politics.

One thing it shows is the danger of having district attorneys as elected positions. Of course, having district attorneys be appointed positions would have other dangers, but when the DA also has to be a politician, has to pander to the public for votes, then in sensation cases such as this one he has to take the public’s viewpoint and public anger into account. Who really stands a chance with this DA? The woman who represents an angry and occasionally oppressed ethnic group who make up a large portion of the voting population in Raleigh Durham, or three pampered and privileged white kids from out of state who are part of a social group that none of the locals particularly like anyway. It’s a constant problem with elite schools: the locals love the tax base brought in by students but hate the school and the students themselves. Who remembers the classic film “Breaking Away” and what exactly is meant by the word “cutters?”

The public was out for blood and Nifong knew it. He also knew that he could score points with the African American community if went after these white sons of privilege. The Media whipped the public, both in Durham and across the nation. Nobody likes these spoiled rich kids anyway. The New York tabloids, as always, went crazy, and soon, as regular as clockwork, Al Sharpton was heading down to Durham to level accusations of racism at the Duke community. Nifong was also up for reelection that year, and if he appeared soft on the Duke players he didn’t stand a chance. Of course, in the end, the players were exonerated and Nifong has now been disgraced, disbarred, and faces a very painful future. If he’s found hanging in his bedroom closet one day soon I won’t be a bit surprised.

But the case is only on of many, after all. A nearly identical thing happened to Kobe Bryant only, in Kobe’s case, the DA turned over the exculpatory evidence (eerily similar, you’ve got to admit: DNA material in the woman’s underpants and on her body not of the accused) and the case was eventually withdrawn. The zeal with which the Queens County DA went after the police who shot Sean Bell on his wedding night was obviously fueled by the continuing outrage in the African American community. The DA who went after Michael Jackson, though he might have been sincere in his belief that Jackson was guilty, nonetheless also knew that the publicity a conviction might bring would be like gaining tenure—he’d be set for life, and his elections would be merely a formality. Hell, it goes all the way back to Fatty Arbuckle.

But the role of the media in all of this can’t be overstated. The media feeds America’s schadenfreude. We love the suffering of others, and we especially love to see the high and uppity brought down. Paris Hilton being a case in point. The higher up you are the further you have to fall and the more the American Public will enjoy watching you plummet to your doom. Nobody knew this like William Randolph Hearst back in the day, nor like Rupert Murdoch now. Scandal sells papers. If you actually study the Roxy Hart murder trial, on which “Chicago” is based, you’ll see that the movie isn’t that far off in its depiction of the media feeding frenzy surrounding every new scandal du jour in 1920s Chicago, and nothing’s changed. And the story doesn’t have to be true for the publisher to sell newspapers or for the DA to score votes. As Dashiel Hammett said of the Fatty Arbuckle case (which he had worked as a Pinkerton detective), "The whole thing was a frame-up, arranged by some of the corrupt local newspaper boys. Arbuckle was good copy, so they set him up for a fall." Chief among these local boys being Hearst, who later told Arbuckle that it hadn’t been personal, it was all just to sell papers.

So when a feeding frenzy like this erupts, when the public is calling for blood, when the DA needs votes, when the accused is rich, privileged and famous, and therefore hated and reviled; who cares about the truth? Is justice even possible in a case like that?

But that’s not why I sat down to write this article. I’ve said all that before. I sat down to write this article because of words. One word in particular. A word I love to harp on because nobody uses it correctly. In all the discussion of Mike Nifong’s prosecutorial misconduct, never once has the word “tragedy” been used. Yes this started out as a melodrama, with Nifong as the hero DA going after the evil rich kids. It became a different melodrama, as Nifong became the villains and the wrongly accused payers the victims. America loves a good melodrama the way we do a scandal. But the whole thing is really a tragedy. A bus full of doe-eyed urchins plunging over a cliff to their deaths isn’t technically a tragedy, but if ever there was a case of a great man being brought down by his own hubris, this is it. I could see the whole thing on stage, with a chorus of judges or townspeople and Nifong in a weepy tragedy mask. Sophocles would have him tear his eyes out now that the last act is over.

But nobody cares about words anymore.


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