“I can pimp ‘em all off, ‘long as the common man wants ta enjoy himself.”
– Flash, “American Pimp”
Trials have always bewitched us. They give us conflict, drama and power struggles; the confrontation of biased witnesses; impassioned pleas from professional orators; and that enticing moment when the defendant either beats the system or becomes its victim.
Justice as entertainment began with the public’s involvement with the courts. In Periclean Athens the first juries, numbering around 500 men, served as both audience and judge. There was no need for jury duty. Each member was paid a full day’s wage to make difficult his being bribed. Best of all, there was no limit on how frequently one could serve.
The poor or old men who could not or did not work found income and entertainment, becoming regular, professional jurors while most eligible Athenians never served. The bored mob turned trials into spectacles as litigants became expected to entertain more than they were to convince. Aristophanes satirized this practice in his play “The Wasps,” where he portrayed defendants being acquitted only if they cried and begged, prostrating themselves before the suddenly powerful mob. Rhetoric took a back seat to drama in the courtroom once the public eye opened — and liked what it saw. Sound familiar?
Jurors weren’t just passively observing the trials; they were in control. Socrates is depicted in his “Apology” as having to ask the jurors to stop shouting him down several times during his defense speech. Power joined entertainment as an incentive for being a juror. If a man cannot have direct power over another man — something we all wish for — he seeks the substitute power of enjoying himself at the other’s expense.
Nowadays jury duty is what we try to get out of. Jurors are quiet (assuming they don’t snore) and while they elicit more drama out of attorneys than a bench trial would, they never know anyone involved in the case, unlike in ancient Athens, where spitefully punishing your personal nemesis was what justice was all about.
Under our social contract, the state has a monopoly on force as a tool of justice through the penal system. In the West, it was when citizens sacrificed their right to personal vengeance that the drive and therefore custom to witness punishment arose as a vicarious compensator. Yet public floggings and hangings and tarring-and-featherings are no longer a spectacle for mass consumption. The gates of the Coliseum are closed and there are no more witches to burn (hopes Martha). We are too “civilized” to feed such urges explicitly.
This vindictive vacuum is filled by trashy talk shows like Jerry, Ricki, et al., ad nauseam. But Jerry Springer has made a frank point time and again: Unlike the O.J. Simpson trial or the evening news, his show does not pretend to be anything other than what it is: the cesspool of humanity broadcast worldwide. But that’s not enough. Nothing ever is.
Reality shows popped up years ago with “Cops” and “The Real World.” They were no more and no less than real.
Next came reality TV — but I don’t know how much reality is involved in watching some nobody desperate for her 15 minutes of fame trying to cling to her sanity while eight pounds of tarantulas crawl on her face. O brave new world, that hath such shows in it!
Trials became a part of the game as they themselves devolved to being a game. At the sadder end of this sick spectrum lie shows like “Judge Judy.” People don’t turn Judy on to see real justice. They tune in to see her “Shush!” someone out of their dignity. The person most enjoying this display of axe-grinding ego is Judy herself, mainlining attention through her veins, stabbing respect for the litigants with her three-pronged ratings. She seems the judicial answer to the Soup Nazi: “No justice for you! SHH!”
Remember the original “The People’s Court”? Remember Judge Wapner? He was calm, thoughtful, serious. I couldn’t tell he knew he was in front of a camera. But times change. While Jerry Springer is honest about having more in common with Satan than Donahue, he isn’t degrading anyone but the freaks on his shows, except maybe his screaming audience, except maybe his complicit viewers, except maybe all of us.
We don’t have a modern counterpart to Aristophanes because there is no need: like “Baywatch,” these regularly scheduled prostitutes of justice serve as their own farce.
Justice has decayed into entertainment. It’s the saddest joke when the neurotic fool on the subway screeches, “Don’t push! I’ll sue!” while we still don’t teach in our schools that our government injected black people with syphilis at Tuskegee in the name of research. The man on the street is now associating courts with the basest forms of entertainment; he consequently associates the courts less with real cases involving real justice and more with the narcotic process of getting his kicks with the courts as his base means. When justice isn’t treated seriously we ought not wonder how it is that CEOs of tobacco companies can openly state that nicotine is not addictive.
How high up does this scintillating poison of the new courts run? The last presidential election was reduced to a nine-person vote in which the U.S. Supreme Court was willing to degrade itself through its “justices” voting along party lines. When any court anywhere is degraded, it’s that much easier for the one we pay the most attention to to degrade itself.
The status of our courts is becoming more and more common as their entertainment value for the masses eclipses their true function for the people. Meanwhile jive-talking fools give us what we’ve asked for since the show began: a piece of the action. The performers fester as we feed from that sickly sweet rush of watching a destruction we’re not powerful enough to dole out ourselves but are desperate enough to take in with eyes greedier than the lawyers we follow like soap opera stars. That piece of the action gives us the feeling that we are sitting right there, right next to the sellouts, the racists, the bodyguards, the weeping families, the angry police, the vermin media, the killer, the houseguest, and … there we are, a part of the act, the biggest part of all.
There’s a woman standing outside this alleged hall of justice. The camera won’t pan on her because, even when in action, she isn’t all that sexy. She’s blindfolded. She’s carrying a scale, though she’s not about making money in the financial news. She’s Justice, and she’s lost to us. We are the ones who lost her.
Free-lancer Mitch Artman, who lives and writes in New York, is a frequent contributor to law.com. His e-mail address is [email protected]