EDITORIAL: Jussie Smollett, a made-up story and the trashing of Chicago
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Jussie Smollett picked the wrong town.
Chicago has all kinds of problems, but there was something about his story that felt wrong.
An actor is attacked at 2 a.m. outside his apartment building in comfy Streeterville by two assailants shouting racist and gay slurs?
His attackers throw a rope around his neck? They pour bleach or something on him? They yell, “This is MAGA country”?
When it’s below zero outside?
And Smollett never loses his grip on his Subway sandwich?
Yeah, well, OK, maybe.
A handful of fast-draw Chicagoans, most notably U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, were quick to buy Smollett’s story at face value.
“This is a hate crime plain and simple,” Rush said.
But the worst of the knee-jerk outrage came from those who live elsewhere. From babblers on cable TV who go for the easy kill. From politicians who say whatever works.
Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democratic presidential candidate from California, called it “an attempted modern day lynching.”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi decried this “racist, homophobic attack” as an “affront to our humanity.”
And now that Smollett has been charged with making the whole thing up, will they apologize for their posturing?
“I think that the facts are still unfolding,” Harris says now.
Come on, senator. You can do better than that.
For his part, Rush condemned the “Empire” actor Thursday afternoon, saying he was “outraged” at Smollett, who “orchestrated an inflammatory story, which he knew would further divide this nation.”
Earlier in the day, police Supt. Eddie Johnson said Smollett’s false claims — if, in fact, they are false — amounted to an attack on Chicago, and he’s got that right. This city knows racism and bigotry all too well, the real thing, and it has struggled to rise above it and come together. In many ways, that is what next Tuesday’s mayoral election is all about.
So Smollett, if his story is just a story, did Chicago no favors. Nor did Rush at first. Nor did anybody else who was so keen to decry racism and anti-gay hatred at the drop of an empty hat.
They made it harder to fight the real thing.
When something as goofy as this happens, politicians and pundits look to jump in fast. And once you get past the Harrises and Pelosis, they can be very good at it, becoming voices of reason. It’s as if they all took the same class where you pick apart a short story.
Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show” said the Smollett affair reveals the power of confirmation bias.
“We live in a world where people are too enthusiastic at jumping at stories that confirm their biases,” Noah said, “instead of just pausing and going, ‘what do I make of the story.'”
Tina Nguyen of Vanity Fair said, yes, the left rushed to judgment, but the real story was the furious backlash from the right. Among conservatives, she wrote, there is “an ever-simmering resentment at being labeled the party of bigotry, or racial grievance or discrimination, which many conservatives reject as a form of discrimination itself.”
Conservative commentators wrote that liberals are too quick to see racism and homophobia everywhere. Liberal commentators wrote that right-wingers have made an art form of intolerance, seizing on isolated criminal acts to paint entire racial and ethnic groups — and border-crossers — as criminally inclined.
As Neil Steinberg of the Sun-Times wrote: “The problem is that an example isn’t proof.”
We live in hyper-reactive times. We should really learn to take a breath.
In the meantime, we’d like to offer a word of praise for Supt. Johnson and the Chicago Police Department.
The minute Smollett filed a report claiming he had been the victim of a hate crime, every seasoned cop had doubts. Not that Smollett’s story couldn’t be true. But real crime doesn’t play out like in a movie.
But the police proceeded in their investigation exactly as they should: With the presumption that Smollett was a real victim.
Johnson assigned a dozen detectives to the case, which critics called excessive. Those extra cops, they said, could be out chasing real criminals.
But leading on the police is a real crime. And cynically exploiting racial divisions is no small social offense.
“I know the racial divide that exists here,” Johnson said. “I know how hard it’s been for our city and our nation to come together.”
This case was always about much more than a false police report.
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