Jussie Smollett’s story has always sounded a little . . . extraordinary.
Smollett, who appears on the television series Empire, says he was attacked on the streets of Chicago at 2 a.m. by two men who shouted racial and homophobic abuses at him, beat him, doused him with bleach, and fastened a noose around his neck, exclaiming, “This is MAGA country!” a reference to President Donald Trump’s political slogan.
That story assumes two possible extraordinary backstories: One, that these two MAGAmen were stalking Smollett and bided their time until they could nab him at 2 a.m. on his way home from getting a snack at Subway, executing their lightning strike with practically Swiss precision, over and done in less than a minute while keeping their violence entirely within the lacunae between the surrounding security cameras; or, two, that two criminally violent Trump fans who happened to cruising the streets of the part of Chicago where Smollett lies at 2 a.m. while in possession of a noose and a jug of bleach just happened to notice him — these are Trump fans who are also big Empire fans, apparently — and, recognizing him as a gay black man and outspoken advocate on gay-rights issues, jumped him on a lark, nonetheless executing their lightning strike with practically Swiss precision, over and done in less than a minute while keeping their violence entirely within the lacunae between the surrounding security cameras.
Either of those scenarios certainly would be extraordinary.
Two men were captured on video walking near the scene of the alleged attack at the time it is supposed to have happened, though the attack itself escaped filming. Smollett says he is sure that the men on the video are the ones who attacked him. Police believe those two men are Nigerian nationals and aspiring actors who appeared with Smollett on Empire and sometimes hung around with him at the gym. It is possible that two black immigrants in the entertainment business are Trump partisans so rabid in their admiration that they hunted down one of their black colleagues and abused him in racial terms while assaulting him.
That would be quite extraordinary.
Two relevant facts here are not in dispute: that gay men and members of other minority groups sometimes are targeted for violent crimes by men driven by hatred, and that there has been a years-long epidemic of members of minority groups and allied political activists staging fake hate crimes for their own selfish reasons or to — odious phrase — “raise awareness” about such crimes.
The irony is that the hoaxers have something in common with Mr. MAGA himself: They desire to proclaim a state of emergency.
Emergencies are dangerous things. India was in many ways dysfunctional in the 1970s, but it was a democratic society operating under the rule of law until Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency. The prelude to her declaration will not be entirely unfamiliar to contemporary Americans: The executive (in a parliamentary system embedded in the legislature) arrogated new powers unto itself, unhappy with the limitations imposed on it by the other branches of government, in this case the judiciary. Genuine social problems led to tension and unrest, which were channeled into a dispute involving allegations that the election had been monkeyed with. A court case was opened. Mrs. Gandhi lost that case, and, with it, her seat in the upper house of Parliament; the court further banned her from standing for office for six years. She and her supporters argued that she was being removed from office for a conviction on relatively trivial charges (misuse of state resources for political purposes, offenses for which her guilt was never seriously in doubt) and insisted that her critics were not merely engaged in opposition politics but attempting a coup d’état. A state of emergency was declared, and Mrs. Gandhi’s first use of her new emergency powers was to . . . cut off the electricity to the nation’s newspapers. India’s newspapers are a wonderfully troublesome lot. Mrs. Gandhi considered them agents of the coup.
Everybody has an emergency to peddle. They always appear at the most convenient times and in the most convenient places. President Trump has just suffered a humiliating defeat in his confrontation with Congress about funding for his beloved wall — and losing a political contest, or having a disagreement about spending, is not an emergency. President Trump has been in office since January 2017, and if illegal immigration is an emergency now, it was an emergency then, but he has only now got around to declaring a state of emergency. The variable isn’t the level of illegal immigration — it’s Trump’s getting steamrolled by Nancy Pelosi.
The fake hate crimes tend to crop up in the places where real ones are least likely to happen but where people are most eager to have them happen in order to affirm their own petty hatreds, which means the socially segregated spaces occupied by the social-justice Left, college campuses prominent among them. In November, Goucher College was convulsed by a series of threats against black students and racist graffiti, which turned out to be the work of a hoaxer, Fynn Arthur, a black student and member of the lacrosse team who was charged with a criminal offense in the matter. These things have the feel of inevitability: The closest thing to a genuine hate crime to happen at Goucher College was the school’s decision to admit young Jonah Goldberg as an undergraduate.
Likewise, the “epidemic” of sexual assaults on college campuses is a myth, an urban legend that shows up nowhere in the actual crime statistics, which suggest that college women are in fact less likely to suffer a sexual assault than a member of the general population. (The women most likely to suffer sexual assault are poor, nonwhite, and non-college educated, especially those residing in relatively insular or isolated communities.) Campus feminists invent these stories for reasons of cultural politics, as we have seen over and over: Lena Dunham and “Barry” the College Republican, the Rolling Stone fiction, etc.
Informed by Randolph Bourne’s admonition that “war is the health of the state,” socialists have long used every war — or “moral equivalent of war” — as a pretext for insisting that the state take over the commanding heights of the economy: World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, Paul Ehrlich’s fanciful Malthusian prophecies regarding overpopulation, the 2008-09 financial crisis, the “inequality” panic, and now, under the dotty inspiration of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, global warming — a dozen different maladies, the same proffered therapy in every case.
Emergencies offer a moral permission slip. Under normal circumstances, the political leaders of the democratic world would not countenance the indiscriminate bombing of civilian population centers for the purpose of trying to bully a foreign dictator into surrender, but that is exactly what happened under U.S. leadership in World War II. (Necessary evil is no less evil for its being necessary.) President Lincoln did a few things that probably weren’t quite legal. Winston Churchill favored a massacre of German military and government leaders after the war as a prophylactic against Nazi revanchism and had to be pressed into accepting the Nuremberg trials, which he considered a farce. The citizens of the world’s liberal democracies, Americans especially, have an implicit understanding with their covert operatives: Our agents do things that are sometimes illegal or immoral in the pursuit of that which is necessary to physical security, and we pretend not to notice as long as they perform their additional professional duty of preventing us from being forced to notice.
What to do about Adolf Hitler is a different kind of question from what to do about Donald Trump or what to do about the illegal immigrants employed by such firms as Houston-based Waste Management of Texas. But if you can convince yourself that Trump is the moral equivalent of Hitler, that illegal immigration is a sudden existential threat to the republic, that our nation’s allegedly atavistic redneck culture has us on the verge of a Kristallnacht for homosexuals, or that all life on Earth will become extinct if Field Marshal Sandy doesn’t have her way every time she stamps her foot, then you can justify — to others, and to yourself — measures that are extraordinary. Among those extraordinary measures is the lie in the service of “a greater truth.”
But what if these are not extraordinary times — or, at least, not extraordinary in the way our activists and media entrepreneurs would have us believe?
The “greater truth” is this: The United States of America is a relatively peaceful, extraordinarily prosperous, and fundamentally decent society. Americans are greedy and violent, but we also are generous and brave. Our country is home to flat-Earthers and world-changing geniuses, both of them in unusual numbers. It’s a package deal. We have a relatively ineffective and dysfunctional federal government, and we have social differences that have put the two main modes of American life (and the political tendencies related to them) at odds with one another, and that more bitterly than is necessary. Those are real problems.
We’ll sort them out — if we allow the excellent institutions we have painstakingly constructed to do that perform as necessary. These include the separation of powers, the rule of law, due process and the presumption of innocence, models of guilt and entitlement that are individual rather than racial or otherwise corporate, freedom of speech, open discourse and inquiry, adversarial political parties, and — this is almost lost — a meaningful distinction between public and private things. The purpose of emergencies — and, especially, phony emergencies — is to empower partisans and advocates and people with power to overrule those institutions in the pursuit of their own immediate parochial goals, whether those include a wall along the southern border or a mandatory seminar on “rape culture” at Yale. Conservative budget nerds often speak of their desire to see Congress return to “regular order.” But it isn’t just Congress that needs to return to regular order — so do the presidency, and the courts, and the people.
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