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Politics & Policy

The Jussie Smollett Hoax Reaffirmed Progressive Fears

Jussie Smollett attends a screening of the television series “Empire” in Los Angeles, Calif., March 12, 2015. (Phil McCarten/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: how actor Jussie Smollett’s tale was tailor-made to play into the existing stereotypes of progressive minds; a look at how fear drives our political divisions; the Left and the Right react to Amazon’s HQ2 incentives, and the scuttling of the deal with New York City, in different ways; and a hard truth about personal identity and social media.

If You Want to Understand Americans, Understand Their Fears

In light of the rapidly changing account of what happened to actor Jussie Smollett in Chicago, and the contention of unnamed police sources to local media that what was initially reported as a hate crime was a hoax staged by the actor himself . . .

Hate crimes happen. Sometimes you hear about them because of a high death toll, like in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

But a lot of times these are, with no irony intended, “local crime stories.” An assault on a Moroccan-American legal immigrant on a train in Massachusetts. A racially motivated murder with a sword near Times Square. The aggravated assault of a a Sikh man in Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. A man who fatally shot an Indian in Olathe, Kan. A Jewish man attacked outside a restaurant in Cincinnati, Ohio. An allegedly anti-gay attempted mass shooting at an Asian restaurant in San Diego.  (Prosecutors are still deciding whether the evidence is conclusive that this was a “hate crime.”)  (Except for the San Diego one, none of the events listed above represent mere allegations or claims; they are news accounts of individuals being convicted of crimes, with judges and juries concluding that they were primarily driven by hate and prejudice.)

It’s not accurate to say, “This sort of thing almost always turns out to be a hoax,” and it’s also not accurate to say, “This sort of thing almost never turns out to be a hoax.” The way we measure hate crimes is imperfect; more police agencies are collecting data and providing it to the FBI than in the past, making year-to-year comparisons. Nearly 1,000 police agencies started providing data to the FBI in 2017 who weren’t in 2016. Last year many news organizations reported hate crimes “increased by 17 percent” but we don’t know how much of that represents the crimes occurring more frequently or simply more extensive data collection.

Longtime reader Grizzly Joe called my attention to this article by neuroscientist Bobby Azarian. I have a lot of bones to pick with some of how Azarian characterizes recent events, but his central thesis seems sound: Fear motivates people, like few other emotions. As I wrote way back in 2014, “Fear is an indicator that we care about something and fear losing something. Fear can be a powerful motivator to action.”

Right now, Americans feel fear, and they hear other Americans insisting that their fears are unrealistic or silly or paranoid, which drives political anger. A lot of folks on the Left think that their counterparts on the Right are paranoid and driven by fearmongering and terrified of mythical problems, and vice versa.

Today, it’s not hard to find a grassroots activist on the Left who is convinced that they have a great deal to fear. They’re convinced that they could be a victim of a hate crime — and as seen by the list above, they do indeed happen. They’re worried about climate change. (Forget the debates about forward-looking projections; extreme weather and fire events cost the federal government $350 billion from 2006 to 2016. The effect of 7.7 billion people generating carbon dioxide on our environment is likely to be somewhere between “no effect at all” and The Day After Tomorrow.) They fear “liberty is dying” and that Trump is a dictator — and while the president found many of his initiatives stymied by the courts, a lack of legislation from Congress, and perhaps even his own staff, he’s also sought to build upon past expansions of presidential power.

The Washington Post contended that right-wing terrorism is on the rise, and that right-wing terror attacks are more deadly. (It’s fair to ask if the death toll the best measuring stick; if we measure purely by fatalities, James Hodgkinson’s attempted mass shooting on Republican congressman at Alexandria baseball practice in 2017 didn’t kill anyone. Nor did Edgar Maddison Welch shoot anyone when he went into the Comet Pizza in Adams Morgan with an AR-15, seeking to investigate “PizzaGate.” Few would characterize either event as inconsequential because no one died.)

Today it is also not hard to find a grassroots activist on the Right who is convinced that they have a great deal to fear. They’re convinced that insufficient border and immigration enforcement leave them at higher risk for violent crime. Some illegal immigrants do commit violent crimes, even if they commit violent crimes at a lower rate than native-born citizens (but more frequently than legal immigrants). They worry about the Iranian nuclear program, and find it mind-boggling that the previous administration traded a giant payment and removal of sanctions in exchange for a temporary delay in that program. They notice and recoil from self-anointed enforcers of the “Antifa” movement behaving indistinguishably from fascists. They worry about a “deep state” of high-ranking law-enforcement officials who leak sensitive information in order to promote their own narrative in media reports, and who seek out criminal indictments of their political foes on the most tenuous or sketch evidence.

If what police sources are saying about Jussie Smollett are true — and their account makes more sense than the idea that two homophobic rednecks in MAGA hats, who watched enough Empire to recognize Smollett, wandered the streets of Chicago on the coldest night in 30 years with a rope and bottle of bleach, just happened to encounter him in a spot outside of the range of any surveillance cameras, then beat him and kicked him, but at no point did Smollett lose his cell phone or Subway sandwich — why did he do it?

Because his most likely motivation would not be all that different from infamous The New Republic hoaxer Stephen Glass: He understood that many people in prominent positions would choose to believe his story, because it reaffirmed all of their preexisting beliefs. Quite a few progressives believe that their country is beset by Trump voters itching to commit violent acts against minorities. (For everyone scoffing that those willing to do that sort of thing don’t exist in Chicago, notice the locations in the list of hate-crime convictions atop this column: Outside Boston, Times Square in New York, Dupont Circle in Washington D.C., San Diego. Hate crimes indeed occur in deep-blue cities.) The lessons of Smollett’s tale were tailor-made for the progressive worldview: Trump’s election had not only unleashed an ugly tide of racism and homophobia, the hatred and impulse to violence was manifesting itself in the most unexpected of places. No one was safe! And if no one was safe, then it was an emergency. As Kevin observed this weekend, “Emergencies offer a moral permission slip… [if you can convince yourself that the current moment is an emergency], 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.”

When you look at the list of fake hate crimes, you notice quite a few on college campuses. Colleges aren’t likely to have a lot of closeted neo-Nazis, Klan members, or otherwise hateful individuals, so particularly aggrieved activists who wished they had overt racists around to denounce invent them. If caught, they often claim that they did so to “raise awareness” — like in cases in Malden, Massachusetts and Brown County, Ind. (Just how many people are completely unaware of the existence of hate crimes?)

The less flattering and self-serving explanation is that some people get a thrill and sense of purpose from cultivating the belief that evil is secretly working in their communities, hiding behind smiles of their neighbors and acquaintances. We saw this in the Salem witch trials, the contention that comic books were corrupting youth morals in the 1940s and 1950s, the day care sex-abuse panic, the claim that Dungeons and Dragons and/or heavy metal music were driving kids to Satanism, and the apparently almost-always-mythical stories of razor blades in Halloween candy.

The villains change, but the psychological motivations and almost-happy embrace of paranoia do not.

The Right and the Left Oppose Corporate Welfare for Different Reasons

The Amazon decision to no longer pursue a second headquarters in New York City is a splitting up the usual partisan lines. I hated the Amazon deal, but not because it was a big corporation or “greedy” or any of the usual arguments you hear from the Left. As a service, I love the company — just about anything you want, including obscure, out-of-print books, delivered quickly. I just don’t like government picking winners and losers in the marketplace or giving a special tax break to one company over another company. That’s not a free market, that’s corporatism.

The argument from the liberal opponents of the deal overlapped some, but . . .

As many noted last week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seemed to think that the city was taking an existing pile of money and giving it to the company, declaring “we could invest those $3 billion in our district ourselves, if we wanted to. We could hire out more teachers. We can fix our subways. We can put a lot of people to work for that money, if we wanted to.” But the $3 billion was a discount on taxes the company would pay in the future. Without Amazon moving to the city, hiring people, and generating revenue that gets taxed, there’s no rebate to be given to the company.

Over at Bloomberg, Joe Nocera notices that the anti-deal Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took action quickly and loudly, and pro-deal Democrats moved slowly and quietly.

Meanwhile, as the backlashpallooza gained momentum, the officials who had lured Amazon to New York — particularly New York governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio — sat on their hands and let opponents like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and state senator Michael Gianaris control the narrative. Talk about arrogance! Assuming they didn’t need to do anything further after cutting the deal itself, Cuomo and de Blasio made no effort to organize Amazon’s local supporters, who were actually in the majority.

Meanwhile, down here in Virginia, the state legislature approved $550 million in incentives to Amazon after a whole nine minutes of debate, and Governor Blackface will sign it into law. Virginia’s deal gives Amazon cash grants of $22,000 per new full-time job for the first 25,000 jobs.

I suppose we should be thankful that the Washington Post headline wasn’t “Virginia Agrees to Help Local Heroic Job-Creating Entrepreneur.”

ADDENDUM: A really sharp observation from Beth Moore, about the nature of identity on social media:

The whole shebang of social media culture is driven by drawing attention. Warning: whatever builds public identity will invariably be required to sustain it. If we got attention with pain, we’ll need to stay in pain. If we got it by being offended, we’ll need to stay offended… If we got it by appearing fierce, we’ll need to stay fierce. Beautiful? We’ll need to stay beautiful. The best in our field? We’ll need to stay the best. Good luck with all that. If your platform is cause-oriented, that’s one thing but if it’s your personal identity, it’s a trap.

Almost every human being is multifaceted — but apparently “brands” can’t be.

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