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Tabloid reality.

Ever since the trial of Socrates in fourth-century B.C. Athens for subverting what George Bush would call "values," courtroom proceedings have provided catharsis, moral instruction and entertainment for a passive public. "Trials of the century" seem to come along every few years: In the memory of many still living, the cases of Sacco and Vanzetti, John Scopes, the Scottsboro Boys, Bruno Hauptmann, the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss vie for pride of place at the top of the all-time chart. The 1960s gave Americans, among other things, a string of absolutely first-rate political trials, many of which assumed the character of guerrilla theater: Angela Davis, the Soledad Brothers (featuring George Jackson in subsequent solo roles), the New York Panther 21, the New Haven Panthers (starring Bobby Seale and Erika Huggins), the Boston Five (antidraft advocates), the Chicago Seven (or Eight), the Catonsville Nine and much, much more.

Those celebrated trials were mainly about politics, broadly speaking, or about mystery. The legitimacy of the left, the validity of rebellion, the role of religion and the authority of the state were on trial. In the cases of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys, Hauptmann, Hiss and the Rosenbergs, the trials -- which live on at least partly because of suspected injustice -- were also exercises in discovery, in ascertaining the truth, or a consensual version of it, amid wildly contradictory accounts of the circumstances. In other words, Who dunnit? It says something about the times in which the trials took place that the defendants on the pre-1960s list were all found guilty (and many were executed by the state, while an extraordinary number of the later ones were acquitted. Following the political earthquake of the 1950s came the judicial aftershock of the 1970s: the trials of Watergate, in which the conspirators were prosecuted and all found guilty.

Now another generation has come to trial, but the celebrated cases of this decade have a decidedly different meaning and new public function. The prosecution of Joel Steinberg for the murder of his illegally adopted daughter, Lisa, is the latest in a spectacular series that began with the trial of Jean Harris and continued through John Hinckley, Bernhard Goetz, the fight for Baby M, the Howard Beach gang, Bess Meyerson, and that trial-that-wasn't, the Tawana Brawley episode. These cases were about sex, gender, race and madness -- sometimes all together, packaged by the media in extremely personal terms, as if to deny the dictum of the 1960s that personal problems are also political issues. There was no real mystery to be resolved in any of them, and neither did they spring from political urges. Hinckley was no Sacco or Vanzetti; Goetz was not simply a negative of Angela Davis. Baby M's father and adoptive mother, William and Elizabeth Stern, took a baby from its mother but they bore no resemblance to Hauptmann, the kidnapper of the Lindbergh child. The whites who beat and chased a black man to his death in Howard Beach, Queens, were not mirror images of the Scottsboro Boys.

The defendants (and attendant personnel) are now given the roles of lone gunmen, psycho killers, anomalous punks, fools for love or women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Their individual responsibility is at issue, not the larger social forces that give rise to the acts with which they are charged. On occasion, organized groups or commentators with a radical sense of the complexity of social behavior have tried to insert some analysis into the spectacle that attends such trials. Feminists prepared and signed a letter supporting Baby M's biological mother. Antiracist organizations protested against Goetz and the Howard Beach punks. Recently, some women have been trying to make the case that Hedda Nussbaum, Joel Steinberg's brutally abused and pathologically dependent lover, is a living metaphor for millions in less dramatic, psychologically similar conditions. But in these cases spectacle tends to defeat analysis, and the morality of the circus overwhelms the sociological imagination.

Conflicts of identity may be sublimated by the judicial process and presented as spectacles precisely because the political structure cannot mediate them. Prosecution and defense, press and public are all complicit in the reduction of social issues to personal tragedies. And the more tragic the circumstance, the more distant it becomes from most people's lives. Women who see the pathetic, semirobotic Nussbaum chronicle her savage existence for the TV cameras may or may not think, "There but for the grace of God go I," but they rarely sense that far more banal relationships also entail dependencies that may wound and limit lives. And men who see Joel Steinberg curl his lips and beetle his brows on the evening news seldom understand that he represents an extreme version of the violent and manipulative personality that has its origins in social as well as individual conditions. For all its postmodernity, television affects a Victorian attitude toward behavior. It equates explanation with justification, and since evil cannot be justified, it must not be explained.

The trials of this generation have a tabloid reality, like the lurid layouts in checkout-counter magazines and the new trash TV series. It is increasingly difficult to tell whether the program pre-empted by the Steinberg trial is the soap opera, or vice versa. Trials are not only mediated, they are media: They are true fictions that convey false truths about our lives and our worlds. In other words, they are docudramas staged by the state and run by the networks and the press for purposes of ideological instruction and social control. At last, there is a perfect marriage of show and trial.
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Title Annotation:trials of the century
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Jan 2, 1989
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