Jussie Smollett and the Perils of Greater Wokeness

You’d think partisans would have learned their lesson by now.
February 18, 2019
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Jussie Smollett. (Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)

Jussie Smollett’s story was implausible from the start. The alleged attack occurred at 2 a.m. during one of Chicago’s coldest days in decades, perpetrated by MAGA hat wearing bigots who were armed with bleach and a rope. They somehow recognized the Empire star, attacked him, while yelling that Chicago was “MAGA Country.”

It quickly became clear that actual evidence of the attack was sketchy at best.  Smollett’s phone records failed to support his story and extensive video surveillance somehow failed to capture the incident.

All of this suggested reasons for caution, if not skepticism, long before the hoax was exposed. (For the moment, Smollett continues to deny the attack was staged, but police say two of his associates — Nigerian brothers who were extras on Empire — have already confessed.)

But you know the rest. Or maybe not. While there is the usual post-screw-up hand-wringing about the media’s need to be more careful, Smollett’s story became a fascinating specimen of our newly woke politics. What we saw was a distinctive kind of virtue-signaling groupthink, where doubts were suppressed in the service of the greater wokeness.

Smollett is black, gay, and outspokenly anti-Trump, so the attack was quickly framed as racist, homophobic, and political. In other words, Jussie Smollett was the Intersectional Victim Incarnate.

By now – after, the Rolling Stone rape fiasco, a series of campus-based hate-crime hoaxes, a church arsons perpetrated by a parishoner and not Trumpkins, and the botched story of the Covington kids – you would think that that even the most passionate partisan would have learned their lesson.  Hoaxes do not raise consciousness. They do not empower genuine victims. The story of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf,” is not a primer on how to raise awareness about the Wolf Threat.

And there is always a danger in making a specific fact situation, based on the credibility of a single individual, a centerpiece of your political or cultural jihad. If a story turns out to be bogus, the backfire can be horrific; rather than raising consciousness, hoaxes breed doubt and derision.

But none of that stopped or even slowed down the celebrities, Democratic politicians, and media figures who seized on the narrative with both hands. For a useful rundown see here

Since the lines between politics and popular culture have been erased, presidential candidates rushed to reaffirm their intersectional wokeness. Senator Kamala Harris called it an “an attempted modern day lynching.” Cory Booker echoed her, saying that “The vicious attack on actor Jussie Smollett was an attempted modern-day lynching.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared (before deleting her tweet): “The racist, homophobic attack on @JussieSmollett is an affront to our humanity.” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: “We are all responsible for condemning this behavior and every person who enables or normalizes it.”  Senator Bernie Sanders said: “The racist and homophobic attack on Jussie Smollett is a horrific instance of the surging hostility toward minorities around the country.” Etc, etc.

To be sure, not all of the reactions to the initial reports were unreasonable.  Jim Geraghty draws the necessary distinctions.

There’s nothing wrong with being sympathetic to someone who comes to a hospital with a facial injury and describes being attacked; in fact, we ought to have compassion and sympathy for victims of assault. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to believe the account of an actor that you like. Not every claim of a hate crime is a hoax (although the number that are would surprise a lot of people).

But, Geraghty notes, “once you step beyond compassion for victims and start citing an event as an indictment of large groups of people, you had better make sure your understanding of that event is accurate.”  

Unfortunately, the appeal of using the alleged attack to assign collective guilt was simply too tempting for some media/Hollywood types.

The YouTube video of actress Ellen Page’s fiery condemnation of Vice President Mike Pence’s responsibility for the attack has gotten more than 18 million views.

Kevin Fallon, a senior entertainment reporter for the Daily Beast tweeted:

Forbes contributor Mark Hughes had this sober take:

In retrospect, much of the reaction looks like a combination of wish-casting and tribalism. On CNN over the weekend, Kmele Foster said that while there were widespread doubts about Smollett’s story, many progressives “were afraid to raise the questions because of the intersectional nature of this particular accusation.”

This is, of course, a trap both for the SJW left and the Trumpist right. If a story becomes the embodiment of our ideological narrative, doubts become subversive and disloyal. This becomes crucial in an age in which our politics is less about ideas or principles than about dueling narratives; in which pitched battles are fought over memes and anecdotes of dubious provenance.

In his newsletter this morning, Jonathan V. Last links to a 2017 essay by Freddie DeBoer, who describes the way groupthink silences doubt. Progressive will share their doubts about a particular narrative in what he calls the “back channel,” but dare not express it openly.

It’s a classic cause of political self-destruction, when a group’s inner dynamics become so ossified and conformist that no one is willing to point out the group’s problems. That’s the condition in far too many left spaces today: a near-total inability to point out the cracks in the foundation for fear of being shamed yourself.

What good, progressive, feminist, anti-racist people need to be willing to do, if they want to grow this movement so that we can stop losing elections and start acquiring the power to actually make tangible change, is to be willing to say when you think that movement has gone wrong. You must be willing to say, publicly, I am with the cause, but I am not with this. You have to be willing to say, yes, the world is full of offensive things, and yes, I stand with you when someone does something offensive, but this particular claim to offense is not credible. You have to be willing to fight for social justice loudly and passionately and then, when someone takes the language of social justice applies it to ridiculous and illegitimate ends, be one of the people willing to say “enough.”

Good advice for both the left and the right these days. But unlikely to be heeded.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.