The truth is, I hadn’t planned to write a Before Shabbat essay today. It’s the last weekend of vacation, people are away, maybe I’m feeling lazy… whatever. But then, the Jussie Smollett case broke wide open. If you’ve been out of the loop or refusing to watch the news (something I wish I could manage…), Jussie Smollett is a gay African American actor who claimed that he was attacked on the streets of Chicago. The alleged perpetrators, wearing MAGA hats, called him disparaging names, smacked him around, put a noose around his neck (a racist trope), and then poured bleach on him as a metaphor for their hatred of Smollett’s black skin.
What a harsh, tragic story. What a tale of invidious racism and a sign of just how low people have sunk. Almost every trope of hatred was mixed into this travesty of an assault. Three weeks ago, I responded, in part, by writing, “I want to say to Jussie Smollett that while I was never beaten or terrified like he was, I feel his pain and I applaud his bravery. We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and in Poland, and Russia, and Latvia, and, and, and… We stand with you, Jussie. We pray for justice. We pray for wisdom. We pray for peace.”
I honestly felt a deep sadness about Jussie Smollett, about the USA, about the future, about the world as it is and will be. Today, three weeks later, I feel sick. I wonder: what was it that motivated Smollett to do something so stupid? How blinded was he to the ramifications of his despicable actions?
Smollett initially claimed that the story of his attack, a true archetypal hate crime, happened. As Chicago police began to investigate the crime, they found that some pieces were not fitting together. He began to equivocate just a bit and then, realizing he had been backed into a corner by the truth and by surveillance cameras, he fessed up.
False reports of hate crimes are exceedingly rare. Between 2016 and 2018, there were approximately two dozen false reports, either confirmed or suspected, according to figures compiled by the Center on Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. That’s a fraction of the several thousand hate crimes documented by the federal government over the same period.
It was all a ruse, a publicity stunt, to get him sympathy, attention, a better salary, and name recognition. On the latter, be careful what you ask for. His stupidity, his utter lack of dignity for himself and empathy for the people he falsely implicated as well as callousness for the people who, like him, are actual targets of hatred, are evident. He’ll never work again. Good.
Why did so many people, including myself, accept Smollett at his word? Because it was a story of outrage, another sign of how the current zeitgeist of America is a horrible, vindictive nightmare. It proved that haters are emboldened, that hate crimes are increasing, and that innocent people of color are victims of persistent racism that continues to grow. Smollett’s lie worked as well as it did because those general statements are true. By lying, Smollett gravely damages the credibility of those victims of hate who are telling the truth.
We are, all of us, so ready to jump on the stories we hear that support our view of reality. Instead of waiting to listen to the considered truth, instead of giving the media precious time to get it right, we want the answer according to our political preferences. It’s true of the Left. It’s true of the Right. It’s true of well-meaning people who are fired up, loyal to their cause. It’s also true of ideologues on the Left and the Right, cynics who make ignorant pronouncements and outright lie for their own advantage.
The whole situation is so sad. In the end, there is little to do other than this: we can, each one of us, try breathing a bit more deeply first. We can try to evaluate information rather than immediately use it as ammunition or as a means to make our soapbox higher. We need to listen more carefully. We must be unrelenting when lies are told as if they were facts. The truth: so fragile, so vulnerable, is so often a victim of hatred and corruption. I pray that we might find a way to uphold the truth again.