Cancel the BOLO alert for red-capped racists braving the polar vortex on streets of Chicago in search of blacks and gays and black gays to victimize. It turns out that the same perpetrators who smeared feces on Tawana Brawley, drew that backwards swastika on Morton Downey, Jr., and gang raped Crystal Mangum also put that noose around the neck of Jussie Smollett.
“As Jussie Smollett Story Takes a Turn, Reaction Shifts to Wait and See” read the CNN headline on Monday. Reading between the lines one wonders why agnosticism prevailed only once two acquaintances of Smollett confessed to receiving payment from the Empire actor to stage the assault, which the faux assailants say they rehearsed with the faux victim. Strangely, the media and several politicians who incautiously drew conclusions without facts now advise wait-and-see as the damning facts mount and Cook County files charges. Does prudence really command us to put on the seatbelt only in the aftermath of the car crash?
A sensationalistic hate crime touted by the press only to eventually unravel feels familiar enough to condition Americans to receive such reports skeptically.
“Trump America is real and I witnessed it first hand last night!” Yasmin Seweid wrote in late 2016 of a fabricated attack on her by inebriated Trump supporters calling her a terrorist and attempting to rip her hijab from her head on a packed Manhattan subway train. “What a traumatizing night.”
In 2017, a vandal signing a note “White America” smashed a window and lit a fire at a Charlotte, North Carolina, store run by an immigrant. The note read, “Our newly elected president Donald Trump is our nation builder for white America.” Surveillance footage showed the vandal as a black man who turned out to oppose the president.
The organist copped to spray-painting “Heil Trump,” “Fag Church,” and a swastika on St. David’s Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana. “I suppose I wanted to give local people a reason to fight for good,” he confessed in 2017, “even if it was a false flag.”
Like Charlie Brown, we keep trying to kick that football. Part of falling for fake hate crimes, albeit temporarily, stems from falling for other fake hate crimes permanently. Several stories of martyrdom at the hands of bigots woven into our national fabric appear upon further inspection to be, well, fabricated. Unlike the Smollett case, these events involved real, horrific violence. But in the aftermath, ideologues used the tragedies for political purposes. This success in alchemizing propaganda into history inspired Jussie Smollett to increase his stature from wealthy primetime actor to victim.
Consider Harvey Milk, really murdered by a really disturbed former San Francisco supervisor in November of 1978. The notion that Dan White shot his former colleague because of his homosexuality led to Milk’s face on a postage stamp, his name on a Navy vessel, and his birthday celebrated as a state holiday in California public schools.
But his murderer, a protégé of Dianne Feinstein, attended the largest gay rights fundraiser in the history of the United States until that point. The San Francisco Democrat donated $100 to defeat the anti-gay Briggs Initiative and occasionally voted with Milk on gay rights matters before the board of supervisors. In an interview for my book Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco, Ray Sloan, who was White’s campaign manager, chief of staff, and business partner, rejected the idea that anti-gay animus motivated his boss. “That was never an issue,” Sloan told me of his own homosexuality. “In coordinating [White’s] campaign, I don’t think anyone knew or cared if I was gay. I neither hid it, but I wasn’t out participating in any way that would say that. I sort of lived my own life. As time went on, it was clear that [White] knew. It just didn’t make any difference to him.”
More recently, Matthew Shepard, barbarically murdered by two men in Laramie, Wyoming, in October of 1998, became a poster child for hate crimes. As with Milk, facts complicate the narrative.
Namely, “Matthew was part of an interstate meth-trafficking circle,” Stephen Jimenez writes in The Book of Matt, and “the buying and selling of crystal meth was only one of the activities he and [his murderer] Aaron [McKinney] shared.”
Law enforcement observed McKinney engaged in sexual acts with men on at least two occasions, a gay club’s bartender knew Shepard’s murderer as a hustler turning tricks with male patrons for cash, and various paramours attest to engaging in gay sex with him. One of those who engaged in sex with McKinney was his victim, Matthew Shepard.
“[A]aron screwed [M]att at least 5 times that I know of,” Ted Henson, who was so close to Shepard that Shepard’s parents presented him with a vial of his slain friend’s ashes, told the openly-gay Jimenez. “[M]att made me feel sorry for him a lot and I would do anything for [M]att. [S]o when [M]att would go get high, his payment to [A]aron was his ass, and [A]aron would only do it if [A]aron, [M]att, and I would have a 3 way together.”
Former Laramie police officer Flint Waters, who arrested Henderson, told the UK’s Guardian in 2014, “I believe to this day that McKinney and Henderson were trying to find Matthew’s house so they could steal his drugs. It was fairly well known in the Laramie community that McKinney wouldn’t be one that was striking out of a sense of homophobia. Some of the officers I worked with had caught him in a sexual act with another man, so it didn’t fit – none of that made any sense.”
But it made sense for those seeking to pass legislation to link the sympathetic victim to their causes. Gay friends of Shepard, upon hearing of the tragedy, immediately contacted the press and pressure organizations, which hitched the case to their push for hate-crimes legislation. The Laramie Project (a play and later a film) and other pop-culture dramatizations of the events similarly took artistic license in portraying the murders as the result of homophobia. The depiction stuck.
In court, where facts matter, the prosecutors in the Shepard and Milk murder trials did not allege that bigotry served as the motivation. But in the court of public opinion, homophobia is depicted as the alpha and omega explaining motive for both murders. That drugs and money catalyzed the murder of Shepard — just as a petty man nursing a petty grudge over losing a petty office explains the murder of Milk and the decidedly straight San Francisco Mayor George Moscone — neither negates the horrific manner of Shepard’s death nor the evil that motivated his murderers. It also does not erase the fact that truly bigoted people consumed by hate do go to murderous extremes.
The mischaracterization of these events does show the lengths to which ideologues go to impose a Manichean, ideologically-neat stamp on history. People do not want complicated human enemies. They want pure villains. This affirms the ideologue as noble and righteous.
And journalists rarely dare to question the conventional wisdom of such cases because the mob benefiting from the narrative immediately gangs up on the truth teller. Questioning wins one unflattering descriptives: racist, bigot, hater, homophobe, etc. Just as there are incentives to use tragedies for political purposes, there are disincentives to question narratives. So, false narratives often endure.
We ask: Why does the press buy hate crime hoaxes? It affirms them, seems the easy answer. A far more interesting question involves why individuals manufacture hate crime hoaxes. In Smollett’s case, one can perhaps point to the political reason of demonizing his enemies, or maybe the psychological one involving the former child actor’s thirst for attention, or, as the Chicago police allege, the mercenary reason of wanting a higher salary.
But beyond the specifics of this one case is the broader truth about our society that at some point the victim surpassed the hero, that sainthood status goes to the guy who gets something done to him rather than the guy who does something, that we began to desire to broadcast to the world not our goodness but the badness of the people we dislike. If you make race, gender, sexual orientation, and other victim categories your religion, then you begin to find yourself worshiping victims. A former child-actor seeking wider worship understood this.
The Jussie Smollett ordeal spotlights something unsettling about him. But it reveals something more disturbing about us.
Daniel J. Flynn, a senior editor at The American Spectator, is the author of Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco (ISI Books, 2018).