Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Jed Bartlet & Jussie Smollett

On the danger of identity politics and mob rule
Screen Shot 2019-02-21 at 12.22.43 PM

Chicago police say today that Jussie Smollett concocted the hate hoax because he wanted to get a higher salary from the producers of his TV show Empire. From the NYT:

Eddie T. Johnson, the visibly angry Chicago police superintendent, said Mr. Smollett had taken advantage of the pain and anger of racism, draining resources that could have been used to investigate other crimes for which people were actually suffering.

“I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention,” he said at a news conference in Chicago.

The superintendent seemed particularly upset by the fact that Mr. Smollett, he said, had arranged a fake assault that featured a noose hung around his neck. The police say the staged assault was carried out by two brothers to whom the actor had paid $3,500.

“Why would anyone — especially an African-American man — use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations?” he asked. “How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile?”

If Smollett is found guilty on these felony charges, he deserves the slammer.

In his Transom newsletter today (subscriber only), Ben Domenech discusses an interview that Aaron Sorkin recently gave about his revisionist take on To Kill A Mockingbird, now playing on Broadway. In the podcast interview, around the 30:00 mark, Sorkin says that in his new version, Sorkin faults Atticus Finch for being too forgiving of white racism. Domenech writes:

The flaw he finds in Atticus is his tolerance… 18 years after he wrote this scene [on “The West Wing”]:
Sam: “I am so off the charts tired of the gun lobby tossing around words like personal freedom and nobody calling ’em on it. It’s not about personal freedom. And it certainly has nothing to do with public safety. It’s just that some people like guns.”
Ainsley: “Yes, they do. But do you know what’s even more insidious than that? Your gun control position doesn’t have anything to do with public safety, and it’s certainly not about personal freedom. It’s about that you don’t like the people who do like guns. You don’t like the people. Think about that the next time you make a joke about the South.”
This Aaron Sorkin vs. Atticus Finch storyline is a great example of where we are today, particularly considering it comes from the writer who created the modern vision of high minded do-gooder liberalism on the screen. His fantasy of Bill Clinton as a Northeastern Kennedy Christian, with abounding faith in humanity, where the other side plays to tribalist notions, was a warm blanket for liberals during the years of W. Then, it was okay to say most people are good and bad, and that they are on both sides. But that was when the ideas Sorkin espoused were viewed as culturally ascendant – now that he is unsure, the tone has changed. Essentially this depiction of Atticus Finch is Aaron Sorkin saying: Jed Bartlet was wrong.
What Sorkin is attacking here is not some faux idealized “liberal high mindedness,” but what we used to call Christian charity. This is what we’re losing. It is not a view based on an understanding that racism was good, or that racists are good; it’s that all have sinned and fallen short. Everyone is selfish and prideful and cruel, and we are tempted to act on these motivations every day of our lives.

Domenech goes on to quote C.S. Lewis, who said:

For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. . . . Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.

Lewis goes on to explain why, if we allow ourselves to become the sort of people who want to see the worst in everybody, and who are disappointed when our enemies turn out not to be as bad as we wish they were, then we will end up in a universe of “pure hatred.”

In the summer of 2002, I was really overcome by rage. I was raging at the abusers in the Catholic Church, of which I was then a communicant, but more than anything I was raging at the 9/11 terrorists. Watching the south tower fall in front of your very eyes will do that to you. My wife compelled me to go see a therapist about it. In one of our early sessions, he told me that he knows I don’t want to hear it now, but I need to recognize that I could have been Mohammed Atta. Under the right circumstances, I could have found myself piloting that plane. That really ticked me off! I was not Mohammed Atta, nor could I be!

Years later, I came to see that it was true. My capacity for righteous anger is such that I could have become — and could become — Mohammed Atta. After his gulag experience, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recognized that he had within himself the capacity for doing great evil. This is the source of his immortal saying about the line between good and evil running down the middle of every human heart.

You know that I come from a small town in the Deep South. A beautiful place. Not too many years ago, I learned about an old white man in our town — a man I grew up to revere, like most local people — who, in his youth, had been part of a lynch mob. The old man was dead by the time I was informed, but the truth came to me from someone in a position to know it. I subsequently found out the names of other white men — all dead by then — who had been pillars of the community when I was a little boy, but who had once been members of the KKK.

Late in his life, one of these men involved himself in the fight to save a black church threatened by development. Was it atonement? I don’t know. I can’t know. But he did the right thing in that moment, this man who a generation earlier had burned crosses.

Having to come to terms with the facts that a lot of the older men I grew up respecting had, before I was born, committed some evil racist deeds, was quite a moral education. Most Southern whites of a certain age has to reconcile themselves to this. If you lived in a big city, it’s possible that you never knew men who had done these things. If you lived in a small town, it’s impossible that you didn’t know these men — though they may never have talked about them. As hard as it is to believe, it was entirely possible to grow up white in my town and not know what those older generations had done. When I would hear about the Klan and the Civil Rights Movement on television, I assumed those were things that happened elsewhere, not in our town, where everybody was decent.

I was wrong, of course. As I’ve written here before, I have had to come to the conclusion that had I been born in an earlier generation, I would have likely joined the white mob outside the West Feliciana courthouse on that day in 1963, when a black man tried to register to vote.  It disgusts me to think that, because what that mob did violates everything in my conscience. But what if my conscience had been formed in a time and place where it would not only have required immense courage to stand up to one’s own people, but also one in which it would have taken an extremely rare leap of the imagination to conceive that my tribe was wrong?

I was born in 1967, four years after this event. I would dearly love to believe that I wouldn’t have been part of that mob. I don’t know the names of anyone who was in that mob, but I’m sure that had someone written them down for history’s sake, every name on that list would be familiar to me from my childhood. I shudder to think that some of my own relatives might have been in that mob. And I can’t say that I am separate from them, because I knew and respected, as a boy, gentle, upright old men who, as I found out later, had been in the Klan. If these men (and, let’s be honest, their wives too) had gotten carried away by their tribal fears and hatred, and done these horrible things, whose to say that the same thing couldn’t happen to me, under a different set of circumstances?

It could. And it could happen to you, too. Solzhenitsyn said:

“There always is this fallacious belief: ‘It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.’ Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.”

When you understand that good people can say and do evil things, and that evil people can say and do good things, you will be on your way to wisdom. And you will understand the need for humility, and for grace. Ben Domenech writes:

Only when you see the other tribe as beasts can you invent the kind of hoaxes the fictional Ewells and the very real Smollett did.
This is a question about whether we are going back into darkness. Belief that your tribe is good and other tribes are evil is what everyone thought for most of human history. The human heart tends toward tribalism before tolerance. We can go back to that world. It still lives in all of us. Fighting it is the challenge, particularly at a time when the most audacious thing you can do is show some grace.

If he’s found guilty, Jussie Smollett must be punished according to the law, because what he did was terrible. But let us all remember how quick people were to believe Smollett, and how disappointed many were when it turned out that Trump supporters weren’t as evil as they had hoped. And let us also remember that every single one of us is at risk of believing, or disbelieving, allegations of wrongdoing based not on the facts, but on tribal identity. This is all too human, but when people in positions of political, legal, or cultural leadership believe these things, and act on them, we are in worse collective trouble than we realize. This is why the illiberal politics of identity are perhaps the greatest danger to the common good that we face now.

(Thanks to Chicago reader JS for the tip.)



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now