Last week, the Alabama small-town newspaper editor Goodloe Sutton published an editorial calling for the Ku Klux Klan to “ride again” and string up nooses in Washington, D.C. Contained in the short, hateful missive was this claim: “Slaves, just freed after the civil war, were not stupid. At times, they borrowed their former masters’ robes and horses and rode through the night to frighten some evil doer.”
The editorial was racist from front to back, but the lines about freed slaves wearing robes represented something particularly vicious: denialism. The KKK, Sutton’s implication went, was in part a hoax by black people. That this suggestion did not square with his call for the Klan’s revival didn’t matter. A lie like that exists to justify the unjustifiable. It exists to portray victims as frauds and vest righteousness on their tormentors.
The editorial has served as an upsetting companion piece to the recent saga of Jussie Smollett, because among the things so monstrous about the Empire actor’s alleged hoax is that it will feed the denialism upon which hate movements rely. Smollett reported being attacked in Chicago by two masked men who he said put a noose around his neck, poured bleach on his face, and yelled homophobic and racist slurs, as well as “This is MAGA country!” Two acquaintances of Smollett eventually told authorities that he’d paid them $3,500—by check—to fake the beating. Police have now arrested the actor on charges of making a fake police report; out on bail, he reportedly told the cast of Empire, “I swear to God, I did not do this.”
From the get-go, Smollett had tied his supposed suffering to politics, even suggesting in an interview on Good Morning America that he’d been targeted for speaking out against Trump. In turn, his alleged deceptions have been processed as a partisan matter. “What could be the motive for Jussie Smollett to commit such a hoax?” tweeted the filmmaker Robby Starbuck. “Trump Derangement Syndrome. He was radicalized by the media to believe the very worst things. No facts, all driven by emotion.” Trump himself on Twitter asked Smollett, “What about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?”
But Smollett has also been held up as a sign of broader sociocultural malady. “The great paradox of modern American culture is this: Victimhood equals power,” wrote Matt Walsh in a Daily Wire column about the case. Tucker Carlson’s take: “Smollett pretended to be a victim because we reward victims. We’ve decided that it’s more heroic to suffer than it is to achieve.” Here at The Atlantic, John McWhorter suggested that the actor sought “the role of victim as a form of status” because of the “aspect of early-21st-century America” called “victimhood chic.” The term has also surfaced, among other places, in a Fox News panel about Smollett. Such assessments build on years of arguments about whether the current era is overly obsessed with—and glorifying of—the pain of marginalized people.
Certainly, according to law enforcement’s version of events, the actor believed victimhood to be profitable. The Chicago Police Department superintendent, Eddie T. Johnson, told reporters on Thursday that Smollett arranged the attack because he was unhappy about his salary on Empire. Being attacked, and leveraging the attention, would—by this logic—increase his star power to the point where he could get paid more. Smollett’s Good Morning America interview and concert speech would indicate that he liked being received as heroic: He was the “gay Tupac,” as he put it during a performance shortly after the incident. What he allegedly sought, then, was the sympathy afforded to victims without the suffering they experience.
But if such sympathy has become more significant in an ambient-cultural way, it’s been because of a more common understanding of such suffering. The killing of black folks by cops, a class of tragedy that previously did not command much media attention, has become a national controversy. Women are speaking out more about how sexual abuse and discrimination can exact deep personal and professional costs. The “power” that such victims now supposedly wield stems from more people listening to them and taking them seriously, and even that baseline level of decency does not reliably outweigh the tolls. Christine Blasey Ford said that threats and harassment forced her to move homes a number of times in the months after Brett Kavanaugh, whom she accused of attempted rape, was confirmed to the Supreme Court.
It’s relevant that Smollett’s alleged gambit for martyrdom fell apart quickly, too. This is what hoaxes tend to do: get exposed. Right-wing commentators have pointed to a string of false hate crimes reported in the Donald Trump era, including from a woman who said she was robbed of her hijab by a man in a MAGA hat and from a gay organist who planted “Heil Trump” graffiti at his own church. Each lie sews doubts about real crimes, drives greater division in the country, and wastes police resources. But the debunked tales that are circulating now are, as much as anything, reminders of how crying wolf isn’t easy to pull off when professional investigators get involved. The wannabe victims don’t appear better off for having tried it.
Meanwhile, actual victims still suffer, despite living in a supposed victimhood culture. The FBI says hate crimes have steadily risen in the past few years. Numbers crunched at Quartz suggest that 0.2 percent of hate-crime reports from 2016 to 2018 were false. Whatever the count, it is clear that hateful violence is a reality. The murder of nine black parishioners in Charleston by a man hoping to start a race war was not a hoax. Eleven people were killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue by a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs as he opened fire. There’s no doubt about how Heather Heyer died in Charlottesville. The revelation just this week that a Coast Guard lieutenant plotted mass assassinations as part of a plan to create a “white homeland” appears to be well corroborated.
Even if Smollett was taking advantage of such horrifying recent traumas, does that represent something new and pervasive? Many commentary pieces about Smollett invoke the decades-old example of Tawana Brawley, a black woman who in 1987 falsely accused a group of white men of raping her. At The Cut, an interview with Dr. Marc Feldman, an expert on “factitious victimization,” makes clear how inexplicable and pathological scams of suffering can be. He brought up the example of the many people who falsely claimed to be victims in the 9/11 attacks. “Some of them did it for money,” he said, “but there were also some people who seemed to do it just for the notoriety or the fame and the attention it would predictably attract.”
The more damaging cases of hoaxes throughout history are not those by marginalized people claiming trauma, as Smollett is alleged to have done. The most awful falsehoods have, rather, included rape accusations used to justify the lynching of black men. They’ve come in the form of fabricated evidence and coerced confessions to put innocent people in prisons.
Or they’re the ones that have channeled denialism: the contention that the Holocaust was made up by Jews, or that the KKK was black people in hoods, or, more recently, that the shooting at Sandy Hook was staged. These lies not only erode the credibility of people who’ve suffered; they also seek to make victims into villains so as to enable new horrors against them. If he lied, Smollett gave more fodder to such hate movements that try to replace realities with conspiracy theories. Painting his alleged crime as especially trendy, as if it reveals a wider scam, doesn’t help.
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