Jussie Smollett’s phony hate-crime story could have been taken apart in 24 hours, except for one thing: Nobody wanted to be the first to call bullsh**.
Who will bell the cat?
Not the police, and I don’t blame them. Smollett is a vocal critic of President Donald Trump who checks two protected-category boxes: He is gay and he is black. No police officer comes out ahead in any encounter in which he has to explain that he isn’t a racist or a gay-basher.
There isn’t much evidence that racist or homophobic attacks have increased in the Age of MAGA — partly because such episodes are so vanishingly rare in the United States that they are difficult to measure — but this is one of those things that everybody knows with such unshakable certainty that nobody really ever bothers to check. Imagine being the first cop to catch a whiff of baloney on Smollett’s tale of martyrdom.
Saying as much — especially in a city such as Chicago — would be to put one’s career on the line. Never mind what would happen if you were wrong about that — even being right but not right beyond all doubt would be professional suicide. For that matter, being unquestionably right but right too soon might have been just as bad.
Tell me you can’t hear it. “How dare you victimize him a second time! White privilege! Racist police!” Etc.
The same rhetorical strategy was deployed in the attempted character assassination of Brett Kavanaugh: merciless sympathy.
Merciless sympathy is the stratagem by which our natural solicitous feeling toward those who have suffered some wrong or some injury is forcibly reconstituted into support for a particular political agenda grafted onto the unhappy episode. Those who don’t support the politics are treated as though they were victimizing the victim (genuine or hoax) rather than disagreeing about a policy question.
Merciless sympathy is how declining to oppose Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court is transmuted into callousness toward rape victims, how support for the Second Amendment is recast as contempt for the children killed in Parkland, how doubting the breathless accounts of the Covington Catholic matter becomes racist hostility to an elderly Native American veteran. As rhetorical stratagems go, it is obvious, shallow, and stupid — and therefore effective in the era of Twitter-dominated discourse, in which shallowness and stupidity are weaponized.
And so the police, journalists, and other professional askers of questions grow remarkably circumspect — some of the time. Compare the credulousness that greeted Smollett’s story to, e.g., Andrew Sullivan’s obsessive conspiracy-mongering about Sarah Palin’s son (remember the “Trig Truthers”) or the fact that Louise Mensch (of “marshal of the Supreme Court” infamy) was still welcome in the pages of the New York Times as late as March 2017. Smollett’s unverified and murky account was good enough for progressive journalists, but nothing Sarah Palin could say or do would satisfy their gimlet-eyed skepticism.
One might be forgiven for suspecting that there is an unspoken agenda at work in that double standard.
Merciless sympathy is simply one more weapon in the arsenal of contemporary mob politics. Brett Kavanaugh is an excellent jurist whose most controversial legal opinion is that the Constitution says what it says, which made opposing his confirmation difficult. So accuse him of being a serial rapist — and then accuse anybody who doubts your story of being in league with serial rapists at the expense of their victims.
We have seen this often enough.
The plague of phony hate crimes on college campuses, often coinciding with controversial political events, isn’t the product of coincidence. It is a strategy. Fictitious, politically charged stories of rape — Lena Dunham’s encounter with “Barry” the College Republican, the lies published by Rolling Stone, etc.—are not the products of coincidence. These things happen in clusters for a reason. That is not to say they are being centrally directed as part of some kind of well-tempered conspiracy, but rather that they are the natural result of a certain kind of politics attached to a certain worldview.
Merciless sympathy is used not only to silence doubters but to silence dissent. That is the purpose of conflating victims with political agendas. And if there aren’t any particularly useful victims around, you can always make something up.
Jussie Smollett wasn’t the first. He won’t be the last.