“A Kind of Religion”: Jussie Smollett and the Weaponization of Identity Politics February 22, 2019

“A Kind of Religion”: Jussie Smollett and the Weaponization of Identity Politics

No doubt you’ve heard the news about Jussie Smollett‘s downfall, an event that was both inescapable and inevitable.

But you probably don’t know about this:

[M]inority students at the University of Iowa’s College of Dentistry were the targets of menacing e-mail and a bomb threat. Red noodles were left on the doorstep of a black student, with a note suggesting that they represented a dead black person’s brain. Surveillance tapes were set up. The FBI located the computer used in the e-mail threats. A black dental student, Tarsha Michelle Claiborne, was arrested and confessed.

Or this:

[A] lesbian student at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota said two men shouted anti-gay slurs at her and then slashed her face. Outraged students raised nearly $12,000 as a reward for information about her attackers. Then the student confessed she had made up the story and cut her own face.

Those stories aren’t recent. They happened two decades ago, when hate-crime hoaxes, usually rooted in identity politics of some kind, had gradually become a sad sub-genre all its own. The Chronicle of Higher Education noted in 1999 that it had observed a “flurry of fabrications” on campuses around the country, most focused on race and gender.

The oldest identity-politics hoax I remember (ex aequo with the Tawana Brawley saga) involved the Dutch actor Jules Croiset. In 1987, Croiset mysteriously disappeared for a couple of days. When he resurfaced, he said he’d been abducted by three neo-Nazis

… who forced him into a sewer tunnel, bound him, ripped his Star of David chain from his neck, and daubed a swastika on his chest. After violent humiliations, he told the police, he escaped. … [T]he speaker of the Dutch Parliament denounced neo-Nazi “rats coming out of their holes.” The Justice Minister said he was considering creating a special prosecutor to investigate neo-Nazi activities.

A month later, however,

[P]olice announced that the actor had confessed to staging his own kidnapping. They said he had also typed and sent menacing letters to prominent Dutch Jews in the name of a fictitious Dutch Fascist Youth Front; he sent one letter to his wife, threatening the lives of their two boys.

Croiset, whose father was Jewish, had been so opposed to a purportedly anti-Semitic play that he wasn’t satisfied when further performances of it were canceled due to ongoing disruptions by demonstrators. He tried to convince people that Nazis were still hunting Jews. There didn’t exist any actual examples of this in peaceable 1980s Holland, so Croiset thought he should provide one. It was the most memorable performance of his career.

Which brings us back to Jussie Smollett.

*                    *                    *

On January 29, news broke that Smollett had been attacked in a homophobic, racist hate crime. The African-American and openly gay actor, who plays a key character on the black soap opera Empire, said that two strangers had beaten and kicked him while yelling homophobic and racist slurs. They’d also tied a noose around his neck and thrown an alkaline liquid on him, presumably bleach.

After absorbing a dozen or so news accounts about the assault, I posted this on social media that evening:

Weird story. Despicable if true, despicable if false. Awaiting further details.

Like everyone else with a decent grasp of reality, I hardly need reminding that hate and hate crimes are a real thing. My go-to emotions when hearing about such events are anger at the perpetrators and instigators, and sympathy for the victims. But, while I’m not free of undue credulity, I reserve the right to weigh claims and mentally mark the ones that seem especially dicey.

From the get-go, almost nothing about the Jussie Smollett attack added up.

For me, the noose was perhaps the oddest detail. Smollett kept it around his neck for more than 40 minutes after his assailants fled, so he could show the object — in flagrante delicto, as it were — to the cops. Who does that, after an attempted strangulation? A genuine victim’s urgent inclination would probably be “get that thing off of me!” This goes double, I imagine, for an African-American victim, considering the hateful history that a noose symbolizes.

Other reported facts about the Chicago attack made no sense either. When I began scribbling down my doubts, I ended up with a note file almost three pages long. Any single one of the questionable details I picked at might possibly be real, even plausible, I thought — when considered in isolation. But in the aggregate? Nah. You can read my list of 24 red flags here.

Smollett’s many skeptics were proven right when police finally established this past weekend that the attackers were two Nigerian-American brothers of Smollett’s acquaintance, who were reportedly paid by the actor to stage the attack, and who are thought to have even rehearsed it with him.

His lawyers aggressively maintain his innocence, but online and in meatspace, I can find few people who still put any stock in the actor’s tale.

Then again, there’s Vox, which wrote that being skeptical of even obvious hate-crime hoaxes is risky, because such skepticism

perpetuat[es] a dangerous worldview that the media is corrupt and the stories of racism and bigotry are better off not being believed.

That seems like a particularly unlovely strawman to me. Only far-right stooges think that examples of outright bigotry should be pooh-poohed or disregarded. Instead, the trick — for everyone, across the political spectrum — is to filter out occasional-but-not-rare instances that are fake from the plentiful genuine ones. Pushing for truth should always be uncontroversial, not least among journalists.

I’m pleased, though, that Vox didn’t go as far as some progressive media did in the wake of the Tawana Brawley case. At the time, the Nation wrote that it “doesn’t matter” that Brawley lied. That’s because, the magazine argued, white-on-black racism is a reality, and there was emotional truth to her false accusations.

*                    *                    *

Ever since January 29, I’ve been pondering what might have possessed Smollett to orchestrate the bashing. The following five scenarios, or some combination of them, seem the most believable to me.

• Smollett is a social-justice enthusiast who hates Donald Trump. “45 and all his white hooded cohorts are a national disgrace,” he tweeted nine days before proxies of those white-hooded Trump lovers supposedly attacked him. The hate-crime narrative that Smollett advanced demonstrated oh so neatly that the MAGA folks he despises are no better than Klansmen. Score one for the tribe.

• Empire drew 17 million viewers per episode during its first season, but by season five that number was somewhere south of 7.5 million — a 57% drop. The show won’t survive if the slide continues, possibly squashing Smollett’s TV career. Maybe he saw a chance to catapult himself from demi-celebrity to household name; and in so doing, maybe he sought to boost his Empire paycheck, as the Chicago cops alleged yesterday. (The actor is believed to earn $65,000 per episode — almost $1.2 million annually — which nonetheless makes him unhappy).

• Smollett helped lead the drive to raise money for cash-starved Bennett College, a 146-year-old private school for black women. To avoid closing and to regain its accreditation, the North Carolina institution recently needed $5 million in short order — before February 1. By January 29, the day of Smollett’s reported pummeling and three days before the deadline, the school had only managed to scrape together a portion of that sum. Then, manna from heaven: post-attack, Smollett’s well-wishers contributed to Bennett in droves, with donors saying things like “good acts will beat evil ones.” Earlier this month, the school announced that it had raised $8.2 million.

• Days before the alleged attack, Smollett campaigned with Sen. Kamala Harris to get her anti-lynching bill through the 116th Congress. Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (who I’ve long liked and may vote for next year if he gets the Democratic nod) have been trying to build political support within both the Senate and the House. In doing so, Booker made sure to mention the attempted “lynching” of Jussie Smollett, both on Twitter and on the Senate floor. Is it possible that Smollett sought to furnish “evidence” to drive home the importance and timeliness of his political friends’ bill? (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Booker or Harris put him up to it, or were involved in the hoax.)

Victimhood has become a prized identity, and we live in a culture where the need for attention and validation is constant. Perhaps Jussie Smollett, whose ethnicity and sexual identity make him a poster boy for the intersectional left, decided to compete in the Oppression Olympics (he promptly won gold in the men’s downhill career). Smollett observed — correctly or not — that the demand for violent racists is bigger than the supply. Playing the victim was virtually assured to deliver a national wave of sympathy and attention that C-list actors can’t ordinarily garner.

In this, Smollett succeeded spectacularly — well, at least for a week or two. Big names like Nancy Pelosi, Ron Howard, Rob Reiner, Katy Perry, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, John Legend, and Brian Grazer were publicly distraught over what allegedly happened to Smollett. All of them, and many more, either tweeted their horror about the so-called attack or vented their feelings in media interviews. (None did so more emotionally than Ellen Page, who, on Stephen Colbert‘s show, gave a cringily tearful speech that was viewed more than 18 million times online.) On the other side of the political divide, even Donald Trump weighed in with a condemnation of Smollett’s attackers.

The essayist and linguist John McWhorter, speculating about Smollett’s motives, settled on “victimhood chic” and fame.

The noble-victim position can seem especially, and understandably, comforting. It can also be handy — in a fashion quite unexpected to anyone who was on the front lines of race activism 50 years ago — as a road to stardom.

McWhorter, who is perhaps the most prominent black author on race in America after Ta-Nehisi Coates, believes that racial politics have become “a kind of religion,”

… in which whites grapple with the original sin of privilege, converts tar questioners of the orthodoxy as “problematic” blasphemers, and everyone looks forward to a judgment day when America “comes to terms” with race. Smollett — if he really did stage the attack — would have been acting out the black-American component in this eschatological configuration, the role of victim as a form of status. We [African-Americans] are, within this hierarchy, persecuted prophets, ever attesting to the harm that white racism does to us.

In a way, the fact that some people see a need to fabricate hate crimes is a good thing, McWhorter ventures.

Only in an America in which matters of race are not as utterly irredeemable as we are often told could things get to the point that someone would pretend to be tortured in this way, acting oppression rather than suffering it, seeking to play a prophet out of a sense that playing a singer on television is not as glamorous as getting beaten up by white guys. That anyone could feel this way and act on it in the public sphere is, in a twisted way, a kind of privilege, and a sign that we have come further on race than we are often comfortable admitting.

Of course, almost everyone got to play identity politics on this one, not just Smollett and the people who stealthily relished the thought that the attack was a symptom of Trump’s America. Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro remarked that progressives

… were hoping the story was true, and then they could jump on Republicans for not having been quick enough to embrace the story.

True enough, but Shapiro might have pointed out that this goes both ways. Trump supporters were clearly keeping their fingers crossed that Smollett’s story was a fabrication — not primarily because it was awful on its face that a gay black man received a beating by racist homophobes; but because if he didn’t, the exposed fakery would be a cudgel against the woke Left.

It was the same in 2008, but in reverse, when Ashley Todd, a campaigner for John McCain, claimed she’d been robbed by a black man. When the assailant learned that she was a McCain fan, she said, he cut the letter B into her cheek and told her, “You are going to be a Barack supporter.” Conservatives tried hard to suppress their boner over this stroke of good fortune, as the Left all but prayed that Todd was a shameless liar — which it turned out she was.

Not all identity-politics hoaxes — and there are plenty to choose from — are cut from this same cynical cloth. Though I hate liars, I find it easy to forgive Herman Rosenblat, a Holocaust survivor who claimed that a nameless girl had frequently smuggled apples to him while he was a young prisoner in a German concentration camp. Years later, he said, he met her by happenstance on a blind date in New York, and they eventually married. Their amazing love story was shared around the world by Oprah Winfrey and others. Then it emerged that the Rosenblats had fabricated key parts of it — in an effort to spread joy, they said.

*                    *                    *

What Jussie Smollett is suspected of doing is a far cry from spreading joy. The hoax he orchestrated (insert obligatory “if that’s what he did”) is a product of astounding cynicism and selfishness, and the damage he has knowingly inflicted on different groups is almost incalculable. Let’s take a look.

• His pathetic stunt is a big dumb gift to the right, especially to a certain kind of Trump fans, who will no doubt bring up this episode at every opportunity for years.

• Most likely, some minority victims of already-underreported hate crimes will now be even more nervous about going to the police, for fear of being branded as another Jussie Smollett.

• It’s been a Black History Month like no other. As Noah Rothman wrote in the New York Times, “Many politicians and journalists seemed to suspend all critical thought in a campaign to indict not just Mr. Smollett’s attackers but the country as a whole.” Smollett has dealt a gut punch to race relations in America, further poisoning the already noxious political climate. It’s contemptible to pretend to promote peace and justice while stoking division and hatred. (On his Twitter account, Smollett’s ID blurb says “I am simply here to help save the world. Nothing is more important than love.” Funny, but not ha-ha funny.)

• Twelve Chicagoland detectives were on the case for over three weeks. That means Smollett has caused thousands of hours of investigative work to be wasted, drawing resources away from a growing workload of open murder cases and other violent crimes.

• For all their faults, the news media play a vital role in our democracy. Smollett further undermined confidence in the embattled news industry by putting journalists in the impossible position of having to report critically but fairly on the case while pleasing most readers. To people on the right, any news coverage of the Smollett saga that failed to detail the volumes of red flags was evidence of media bias. On the left, for a week or two, every news item that suggested skepticism about the event — even verbiage as mild as the proper use of “alleged” and “purported” — received howls of protest. Prudence was chided as prejudice. For instance, when Entertainment Tonight tweeted the news that Smollett had been the victim of “a possible homophobic and racially charged attack,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D), a Congresswoman from New York, countered angrily that

“There is no such thing as ‘racially charged.’ This attack was not ‘possibly’ homophobic. It was a racist and homophobic attack. … It is no one’s job to water down or sugar-coat the rise of hate crimes.”

Over and over, news teams were caught between a rock and a hard place, glumly navigating the moods of ever-less-forgiving constituencies.

*                    *                    *

If Jussie Smollett is found guilty of the charges filed yesterday, he faces one to three years in prison; and another five if he’s also responsible for sending himself, through the U.S. mail, an envelope with a threatening note and a white powder (committing acts of terror by mail is a federal crime).

We may get our wish that the courts throw the book at Smollett. What we will not get is the freedom to never have to think about him again. Bigots will scoff and speak his name after real hate crimes happen. And I consider it likely that Smollett will (a) claim a psychological disorder or addiction; (b) seek treatment; (c) say he’s conquered his demons; (d) write a memoir for a seven-figure advance; and (e) sell the movie rights for millions more. Hatred and lies can be hot commodities. Combine them with a tale of redemption, and Americans will lap it up.

By the way, I just googled “Jussie Smollett” and got 97 million hits, 92 million of which appear after January 29. Next I looked for “Spencer Deehring” and got 5,000. Finally, searching for “Maurice E. Stallard” yielded 4,400 results.

Deehring and his partner Tristan Perry were beaten unconscious by homophobic assailants last month for the crime of holding hands in public. Four suspects are in custody.

Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones, both black, were shot and killed by white supremacist Gregory Bush this past October. The murderer spared the life of caucasian bystanders because “Whites don’t kill whites.”

Stallard, Jones, Perry and Deehring combined didn’t get even 0.02 percent of the news coverage, recognition, or sympathy that’s been heaped upon the semi-criminal what-the-fuckery of Jussie Smollett.

I think we can do better, starting with a greater readiness to drop social-media-driven, premature hairtrigger posturing; a renewed dedication to divorce fiction from truth; and the subsequent resolve to tackle some of the unacceptable realities conveyed by the latter.

(Top screenshot via Good Morning America. Bottom image — sans text — via the Chicago Police Department)

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