Jussie Smollett and our Romance with Rescuing

The Jussie Smollett scandal is so chock-full of issues that writing about it can make you feel like a mosquito in a nudist camp. There’s so much to bite – where do I start?

Let’s start with the facts, on the slim chance you’re not up on this
unfolding drama.

On January 29th Smollett, an actor on the Fox television series Empire, reported to the Chicago police that he’d been assaulted on the streets in the early morning hours by two men. He claimed they recognized him, taunted him with insults about his sexuality and his race (Smollett is openly gay and African-American), announced he was in “MAGA Country” (i.e.Trump Country) then threw an unknown liquid on him, punched him, and tied a rope around his neck in lynching fashion. (See here for an account of the alleged attack.) 

Local and national reactions were swift. The Chicago PD deployed several detectives to track the assailants down, the media featured the story at full volume (often throwing barbs at Trump and his supporters for creating an environment in which such hate crimes could happen) and the nation was generally and rightfully appalled.

Then it all unraveled. Suspicions were raised when Smollett turned over “limited and redacted” cell phone records to detectives, claiming privacy concerns. Security videos showed no record of the assault, though they did show two men who were identified as Smollett’s friends walking in the area around the time of the reported attack. The men in question eventually told police Smollett hired them to stage what became a fabricated hate crime, and the plot thickened considerably.

Last Thursday morning Jussie Smollett was arrested then released on bail, taken off the Empire series, and now faces felony charges.  As of this writing, he maintains his innocence

Two obvious points emerge; a third, which is less obvious, needs
our attention.

Talking Heads, Left Face

The first obvious point is media bias.

Journalistic animosity towards the President is symptomatic of its animosity towards conservative ideas, an antipathy directed at right-leaning figures, especially if they’re Evangelicals, reaching downright rabid proportions if said Evangelical leaders express traditional views
on sexuality.

Consider, for example, the vicious killing of Matthew Shepherd in 1998, after which Good Morning America’s Katie Couric suggested his assailants were inspired to murder a gay man because of materials about homosexuality sponsored by Focus on the Family and other nationally known ministries. Never mind that Shepherd’s attackers claimed no Christian base; never mind they never mentioned these materials and were neither church-goers nor followers of James Dobson. Those dots would be connected; Evangelicals would be blamed; accuracy be damned.

No less damming were comments from comedienne Kathy Griffin, actress Wanda Sykes, and singer Lance Bass of In Synch, all of whom blamed Christian teaching on homosexuality for the suicides of gay teenagers on the Larry King Show back in 2014. 

Media wisdom dictates that if gays are depressed, self-destructive, assaulted or insulted, there’s a born-again bigot somewhere who must be responsible. This thinking at least partially explains the journalist’s quickness to believe and to blame – believe the victim without proof; blame conservatives without cause.

The Sin Justifies the Means

The second obvious point is that some people fabricate hate crimes for personal or political gain.

Consider gay activist Sam Briton, who’s testified before State Assemblies about the horrors inflicted on him by conversion therapy (allegedly designed to convert sexual orientation) at the hands of his Christian parents, who turned him over to a doctor whose name he can’t remember, who tortured him with shock treatment in a facility he can’t locate, and who was traumatized by people he can’t identify, though he remembers all the other details. (See here

Consider the multitude of reports claiming racist or homophobic violence, made by alleged victims against fictitious attackers. (See here for one of many appalling lists of “hate crime hoaxes.”)

Or consider Smollett himself, whose hostility towards Trump is evidenced in several tweets he’s made since the President’s election. He, like other entertainers and reporters, had an ideological dog or two in this race.

So OK, journalists and celebrities drool at the chance to dump on Trump, and people can and do lie to advance a cause or harm a perceived enemy. None of this is news.

We the Heroic

The less obvious point Smollett’s story raises has to do with us, the general public. What makes us so susceptible to claims of victimhood, and so eager to avenge self-identified victims?

I believe the answer lies with God-given needs, and with sin-induced distortions of those needs.

God created man with a need to connect with one woman for lifelong partnership; the sin nature distorts that need into a craving to connect with multiple partners. God created humans with the need to worship Him; the sin nature distorts that need into a weakness for idolatry. 

God likewise created us to hate injustice, protect its innocent victims, and fight their persecutors. The sin nature has distorted that need into a knee-jerk tendency to cry “The Cavalry’s coming!”when someone cries Victim, without taking time and exercising responsibility to examine the
Victim’s claim.

Vanity Fair’s Tina Nguyen defensively acknowledges this when she writes about Jussie Smollett’s alleged deception:

“Amid a culture war that is tearing America apart at the seams, he (Smollett) may have taken advantage of a woke generation that         defaults to believing victims and is trying, in fits and starts, to create a safer and more tolerant world.”                        

That’s the problem. This “woke” generation, maybe with the best of intentions, defaults to impulsively rescue the aggrieved and attack the accused without due diligence, because we need to rescue some soul and attack some villain, somehow and somewhere. 

I get it. When I first studied the Holocaust in high school, I found myself envying the young people in the European underground who so bravely resisted Hitler by sheltering Jewish families and sabotaging the Storm Troopers. “How awesome,” I thought, “to protect the oppressed and attack the oppressor for a just cause!” And I became jealous, wishing such a cause was available for me to fight in.

But like promiscuous rebels who want sex without commitment, we crave heroism without crises. That’s the devil’s bargain made between a well-meaning public and the many industries that thrive on keeping people locked into a victim’s mentality.

There are plenty of those, most of them thriving by convincing their constituents that they’re fighting to end their victimhood, but that vicimhood is ever-increasing and never corrected, so keep those checks and credit card numbers coming.

Thus all it takes is for someone to cry “I’m drowning”, and we jump into shallow water to resuscitate someone who wasn’t even swimming. But that’s OK  – we get the thrill of being heroes; victims get the masochistic rush of being damsels in distress, and the melodrama’s complete.

Well, not quite. Because every melodrama needs a hero to cheer, a heroine to fear for, and a villain to boo. That’s you, in case you haven’t noticed the black hat that’s been put on your head if you’re politically or
theologically conservative. 

Presumed Innocent

The worst part of the Jussie Smollett farce, and the broader farce it points to, is the cynicism it will create towards true victims, and the distraction it creates from real injustices.

Because some gays and lesbians are attacked, verbally or physically, and relationally wounded by rejections and denigrations. Some members of racial minorities suffer overt and covert expressions of prejudice. Some women are sexually harassed; some children are abused. No one’s denying this happens; no one wants it to happen.

So evil practices call for decent people to, yes, rescue. Today’s conservatives get that, so we aren’t calling for society to stop believing that victims exist. Instead, we’re calling for a fair assessment of each victim’s claims, verifiable proof when an individual or group is accused or when someone claims their victimhood was inspired by the beliefs of a third party, and swift justice once proof of a violation is presented.

After all, Jussie Smollett didn’t disprove the existence of the Devil. He only reminded us that we’re a little too anxious to see him where he isn’t, and to chase him where he’s not going.

Isn’t that exactly what he wants us to do?


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