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When did victimhood culture trump truth?

Credit: Rodriguez/Getty Images

February 21, 2019   4 mins

You’ll struggle to find reference to it in the British press but something very significant has just happened in America. An event that clears the air in the Democratic party. That perhaps, even, changes the game.

On a freezing January night in Chicago – while a polar vortex was sucking degrees away from the normal winter cold – an actor called Justin Smollett was walking home from a Subway sandwich shop.

Smollett is black and gay and, in America, quite famous: he stars in a TV hip-hop drama called Empire. He hates Donald Trump and often says so.

What happened next made him even more famous. Smollett was beaten up by two men wearing Donald Trump ‘Make America Great Again’ hats. “This is MAGA country,” they screamed. Then they poured bleach over him and put a rope around his neck. And ran off.

Smollett went home, called the police, issued a statement, and the machine took over.

First, the media machine. Relatively mild stuff from the Washington Post: “To many, the Smollett incident — and the political nature of the assault — is yet another reminder for many black gay Americans that this president’s vision of a ‘great America’ does not appear to include them.”

Then it really got going. Jamil Smith of Rolling Stone tweeted, “The brutal attack on him in Chicago appears to be yet another example not just of further moral decay, but of the brand of terrorism that still doesn’t seem to spark enough response by Americans.”

ABC did an interview with Smollett in which he cried. They asked him who he was angry with and why. Could he ever properly recover?

Then the politicians waded in. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, two Democrats running for the 2020 presidential nomination, called it a “modern-day lynching.” The Democratic party’s biggest star attacked one of the media outlets that had vaguely suggested the facts of the case were not yet proven or might be merely a mugging with a racial overtone. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez tweeted:

“There is no such thing as ‘racially charged.’ This attack was not ‘possibly’ homophobic. It was a racist and homophobic attack. If you don’t like what is happening to our country, then work to change it. It is no one’s job to water down or sugar-coat the rise of hate crimes.”

Perhaps you can guess what happened next.

The initial story – seized upon with such passionate certainty by the mainstream media and by senior politicians – turned out to be, well, less than solid.

Smollett is now accused of making it up. Or, even odder, hiring people to attack him. Sources allege Smollett paid a couple of Nigerian brothers, one of whom is his personal trainer, $3,500 — and gave them a bit extra to buy the rope. They were arrested and released without charge.

And then someone gave the game away – the wider game that goes so far beyond this troubled young man and speaks more of the troubled country he inhabits. Nana Efua Mumford, of the Washington Post, wrote this:

“If Smollett’s story is found to be untrue … The incident would be touted as proof that there is a Leftist conspiracy to cast Trump supporters as violent, murderous racists. It would be the very embodiment of ‘fake news.’ And that reason, more than any other, is why I need this story to be true.”

“I need this story to be true.”   


Does nobody at the Washington Post, or anywhere else, care any more about what is true? I mean, in the old-fashioned sense, the Watergate sense? Is that not a thing anymore? At the Post? At ABC News? At CBS or CNN?

Or indeed at Fox News. The Right-wing online brigade – and the Fox team – have fallen on the Smollett story with great gusto, having, of course, ignored it at first. In other words, they too are not exactly innocent parties in this train-wreck.

But that is not the fight that matters. What matters is that, in Trump’s America, those who used to be guardians of civility and judiciousness have deserted their posts. It’s arguably the president’s greatest achievement. He has turned everyone into an image of himself.

The reason why l’affaire Smollett matters so much is the clarity of the disaster. It will lead to searching questions in the Democratic party about the nature of the campaign they want to run in 2020. Up to now, victimhood has been the new apple pie on the American Left. Poor Justin Smollett – wealthy and well-connected and successful – seems to have been trying, albeit in a bizarre manner, to get himself a piece of the action.

As the truth emerges (and Smollett could face charges himself if the incident is proven a hoax), the centrist Democrats will be keeping those ill-judged tweets and statements from their woke opponents up their sleeves. The question, they will pose, is: does the party want to be the home of faux-victims? Can it stand for more? It is possible that Smollett has done real damage to the Left. But is is also true that he has provided what Americans call, ‘a teachable moment.’

The centrists will say: do not fall for victimhood stories from trendy folks from Los Angeles. Do not squeal at Americans about their homophobia or racism (both of which are real of course) in a way that drowns out messages about health-care and employment.

In this, Justin Smollett has done some folks a favour.


UPDATE: Justin Smollett has now been arrested on suspicion of filing a false report.

Justin Webb presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four. His Panorama documentary “Trump the Sequel”, is available now on  Iplayer


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Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
3 years ago

Absolutely brilliant perspective on the present viewed as history. The Washington foreign policy wonks are no more able to to perceive the futility and rot of their messianic mission of spreading liberalism to the world by force, than economic policy wonks are to understand how unflinching free trade promotion has hollowed out the US economy. I hope Roussinos’s voice is heard widely.