If you live a charmed existence and are unfamiliar with social media then you will probably be blissfully unaware of l’affaire Jussie. For the rest of us living in the hell that Zuckerberg and Dorsey crafted, the merry-go-round has taken a particularly bizarre turn. It not only poignantly demonstrates the unique nature of power, grievance and, possibly, politicized mental illness but also highlights the role of politics as spectacle today.
To update the dear reader; Jussie Smollett is an actor on the show Empire, who is black and openly gay. He is also fairly politically progressive in the “I work in entertainment” sort of way. This January he reported that he was a victim of a hate crime. Specifically, he maintained that two men, yelling racial and homophobic slurs, poured bleach on him and put a noose around his neck. After statements from current presidential candidates, a statement from the president, and multiple interviews (including a particularly emotional one where Ellen Page fingered Mike Pence as the real culprit), the story has completely fallen apart.
Instead of a heinous hate crime, a more mundane story broke. Smollett coordinated and paid for (with a personal check!) an elaborate hoax in which he was the victim. This absurdity was followed up by the local prosecutor who, has ties to Smollett and declined to actually recuse herself, refused to bring charges against Smollett in what appears to be a rock solid case.
Part of the farce comprises in the fact that the case was always baffling to the point of complete unbelievability. Either two men were so committed to a hate crime that they wandered Chicago at 2AM in the middle of a polar vortex or, while serendipitously possessing the tools for a thorough hate crime, these two ostensible white nationalists happened to recognize a star from Empire. Like Trevor Noah, I cannot imagine a show that does worse in the white nationalist demographic. Apparently, these two fictional men were such avid fans that they recognized him in the dead of night. Yet despite the obvious ludicrousness of it all, the nation was treated to hysterics from the glitzy and the glamorous.
Regrettably, this trend is not altogether uncommon, nor is it strictly limited to one side of the ideological divide. The nineties gave us the infamous Tawana Brawley case, which was surpassed only by the Duke lacrosse case eighteen years later. The trend seems to have escalated some in recent years after the 2016 election. On the one hand, we’ve endured repeated lies from those who claimed to have been attacked by shadowy Black Lives Matter, antifa or illegal immigrant operatives. Easily my favorite was a Joshua Witt, who claimed he had been assaulted by antifa for his haircut, when in reality he stabbed himself. On the other hand, there has been a veritable deluge of hoaxes from people on the left claiming to have been attacked for being Hispanic, Muslim, trans or black.
This can, in part, be labeled a form of Munchausen-by-hate-crime, though instead of acting as if one has a terrible illness, one lies about having been the victim of a violent tragedy. The aim of both is to bask in the attention and valorization that comes with being a victim, which itself reveals something quite perverse. Now, this is the point at which some on the left object. “How on earth could there be a benefit to being a marginalized person,” they wonder. But that is overly simplistic. Naturally, there is not exactly an intuitive benefit to being LGBTQ, black, Latino, poor, an immigrant or disabled. Yet it is clear that in some circles, circles that have become more influential in the last twenty years, there are status benefits that can come with where you land on the intersectional scoreboard. Dr. Robert Feldman notes that the hoaxers are motivated in part by a desire to be something greater. No longer are you a kid who is in trouble at home or some nobody but now you are the face of an ongoing fight against a national menace.
The recent escalation in these incidents is likely due in part to the rise of what has been termed victimhood culture where offenses against you are not responded to retaliation or apathy but instead with an intense appeal to victimhood to some third party. While an American culture that is more charitably sensitive to issues of race, sex and class is clearly preferable to the alternative, it seems clear that how we handle victimhood is not ideal. If anything this mirrors narratives that are more common in polarized and violently sectarian countries. Bank on these hoaxes becoming more common as this mentality spreads outside of academia and adjacent circles.
Lastly, the incident is fascinating from a political perspective. While I am not suggesting Smollett is well read on the politics of rhetoric, I do think there is a precedent for treating this as a form of political tactic because that’s ultimately what it was. It was an act meant to spur on the twenty-four-hour news cycle in a way that would solidify a certain political narrative to create a political outcome. In a way, it was a form of propaganda of the deed, except in reverse. In the classical understanding, propaganda of the deed is a term from anarchist theory used to describe acts of symbolic violence intended on inspiring the masses to rise up or to raise consciousness. A classic example of this tactic was in 1966 when the IRA blew up a British monument in Dublin known as Nelson’s Pillar to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising (itself a form of armed propaganda motivated more by symbolism than actual military necessity).
The difference here is that, instead of committing a symbolic act to rouse the masses, he framed his opponents as the ones who committed the act, now motivating people against them. Consider the form. All of the elements were designed to evoke a highly visceral response; the noose, the MAGA hat, the shouts of “MAGA country,” the slurs. All this is basically a form of the spectacle, a highly commoditized act meant for you to consume. “You” need to stand with me against “them” otherwise you are complicit in “this sort of thing.” This is where the danger in this tactic lies. There is a terrific documentary series by British journalist Peter Taylor on the Troubles in Northern Ireland called “Provos, Loyalists, and Brits.” What was especially striking was how gunmen from various factions were not radicalized after doing a deep dive into politics and Irish history. It was individual attacks against their community that pushed them into extremism. Smollett’s stunt wasn’t just dishonest, it was dangerous.
Sadly this script will get read again just with different actors. Once the tactic misfired, the narrative switched. The story isn’t that a conniving, possibly unwell, huckster lied, almost certainly broke the law and largely got away scot-free. The real story is how is the right is “furious, “raging” and “melting down.” Once the story was indicative of where we are as a country, indicting us all. Now it’s apparently not all that interesting. This attempted narrative manipulation combined with the political and cultural factors that motivate someone to craft such a lie means that we can expect more of it. We’re through the looking glass now.
The loser in this isn’t Smollett, who will no doubt be given a pass after a necessary period of lying low. The rest of us lost. Nearly half the country was effectively maligned as evil bigots. Truly marginalized people will now be treated with more skepticism than before. Limited law enforcement resources were wasted. The lack of any kind of substantive justice for Smollett’s dishonesty means that while the intended act didn’t polarize, but that fall out will. Without a collective step back, desperate people will continue to resort to spectacle to substitute for argument. Polarization incentivizes spectacle which in turn radicalizes more of the American people. Regrettably, this spiral’s effect will not be felt by various hoaxers and fabricators but by you and me.