L’affaire Jussie Smollett is at an end. No sooner was the actor convicted on five counts of lying to the police than his silly, sad, sordid hoax faded from public view. At some point, he’ll be sentenced (he won’t do any time), but by then, our bemused public opinionators will long since have ceased to care.
Still, questions remain. The first of course is why a successful and reasonably intelligent person would fabricate such a transparent hoax. Nellie Bowles, writing at Common Sense says she remains “fascinated by the question of why Smollett did what he did.”
The facile answer is that he figured he’d get cookies for being the victim of a race-motivated attack and, lacking a real one, rented a couple of accomplices to feign the crime. DIY. Humans are animals, so a good way to get us to do something is to reward us for doing it, and victimhood brings cookies.
For quite a while now, parts of this culture (like colleges and universities) have elevated victimhood to the highest of social virtues. More importantly, it confers power on the victim that he/she would never have otherwise had. On campus, nothing succeeds like failure. There’s even an entire area of academic inquiry specializing in the matter. The concept of intersectionality awards points for various aspects of victimhood status. Female and Lesbian get pretty high marks, but add Overweight, POC and Working Class and you can try out for the victimhood Olympics.
Smollett of course is biracial and gay, which gives him a certain level of victimhood status. Points off, though, for being male and having a white parent. Plus, he’s been pretty successful as an actor and singer, having appeared in nine movies and television dramas, including a major role in Empire, and signed a recording gig with Columbia Records. He’s no A-list star, but it’s hard to feel sorry for the guy.
Which may have been the problem. Smollett is gay and passes for black, but, each additional line on his resume renders him less and less believable as a victim. So, what’s a brother to do? In Bowles’s amusing summary, he creates a situation in which “two MAGA racists in red baseball hats were crawling the Chicago streets in the middle of the night during a polar vortex, brandishing a noose, and looking for an Empire TV star picking up a tuna sandwich from Subway.”
Yeah, people will buy that.
And therein lies the rub. Smollett’s hoax wasn’t just a hoax, it was a bad hoax, a transparent hoax leaking credibility from the start. That makes the question less “why did he do it?” and more “why did he do it so badly?” Which brings us, as night follows day, to the British romantic poets. Of course it does.
During their friendly “battle of the bards,” Coleridge famously wrote to Wordsworth about the need to instill in readers that “willing suspension of disbelief… that constitutes poetic faith.” That is, every reader knows that there’s no Ancient Mariner stopping a wedding guest to regale him with a story about an albatross. There are only words on the page, actors on a stage or screen, but the key to all of it is getting the reader/viewer to do what he wants to do anyway – suspend his disbelief and enter into the story as if it were reality, as if he could feel the motionless deck of the becalmed ship and the thirst of the crew.
Maybe Jussie Smollett had simply spent too much of his time acting, inhabiting a world of suspended disbelief. To play a role is, after all, much the same process. He started his acting career at the age of eight and hasn’t done much beside that since. Plus, the productions he’s worked in haven’t been exactly the cream of the dramatic crop. Empire was a fairly high-quality series, but The Mindy Project and The Skinny were decidedly less so. So, if you’re a C-grade actor in C-grade productions, maybe you convince yourself that audiences will believe your C-grade hoax, that you were attacked in Chicago by white racists/homophobes screaming “This is MAGA country” and fortuitously equipped with a noose?
And for one audience - the one Smollett knows best – his bid for suspended disbelief worked. In a context of widespread skepticism about what, if anything, had really happened, that audience positively swooned for his star turn that night on the icy streets of Chicago. Here’s ABC’s Robin Roberts lapping up every word as Smollett weeps real tears, thoroughly living the part. And, in the denouement of the Believe Jussie movement, watch The Talk as one participant waxes indignant that, because many doubted his story, Jussie Smollett had become – what else? – a “victim of their disbelief.” Facts come and go, but victimhood is forever. If he’s not a victim of assault, he’s a victim of our refusal to believe that he’s a victim of assault. Q.E.D.
Alas, entirely uninvited, another less sophisticated audience – the police, prosecutors and a jury - broke into the theater. Apparently they hadn’t read their Coleridge or perhaps simply didn’t understand their role. Their disbelief remained altogether alive and well. Like a bad critic who simply can’t understand a play, they kept pointing out the gaping holes in the plot. “No, that can’t possibly have happened!” And they were right. It didn’t happen; not a word was true.
Coleridge conjured many a lurid tale, but never tried to sell one to the police. He understood the difference between fiction and fact and knew that his work lived, and only could live, in the realm of suspended disbelief, outside of courts of law. Smollett missed that memo. The imperative of victimhood that blurred the lines between fact and fiction, his unquestioning belief in our disbelief, the certain knowledge that the Robin Robertses of the world would fall at his feet produced the hoax and, eventually, a morality tale for his education, should he choose to learn it.
But the chattering classes have let the whole thing go. They learned no more from this than from the Tawana Brawley hoax, the Duke and University of Virginia rape hoaxes, or numberless other confabulations featuring suspiciously too-perfect claims of fact. Ultimately, l’affaire Smollett failed to support their preferred narrative of a racist and homophobic U.S. and so must be consigned to the collective memory hole until another story with all the right elements comes along to intrigue and bemuse those who are ever ready to be intrigued and bemused, and to lecture the rest of us about our failure to be that way too.