Once upon a time, fakers posed as heroes and winners. Rosie Ruiz pretended to win the Boston Marathon. Richard Blumenthal said he served in Vietnam. And Frank Abagnale of Catch Me If You Can fame pretended to be a pilot and a doctor. Those were the good old days, when Willie sang about how his heroes had always been cowboys. Today, everyone wants to play the victim. It's worth asking: Why?
The answer, of course, is a culture that rewards and honors them. If you can't be a victim in real life, you can play one on TV by pretending to be a member of a victimized class (see Rachel Dolezal and Elizabeth Warren).
The latest example involves actor Jussie Smollett, who Chicago police now believe paid two men to make it look like Trump supporters had assaulted him last month (Smollett vigorously denies this). In one interview, Smollett claimed that his alleged assailants said, “This is MAGA country,” before hitting him.
Smollet’s story appears ready to join Duke Lacrosse and the University of Virginia rape in a long line of hoaxes that many media outlets and political leaders were quick to fall for because it fit their preferred narrative. It's not enough that Donald Trump is a bad president, we are hell-bent on the idea that he has lit the match of hatred that incites and inspires violence. This theory explains why we were quick to believe the worst about those smirking white, MAGA hat-wearing Covington kids, and it's why we were quick to believe the Smollett story, too.
It is easy to understand the psychological reasons why 21st century poseurs cast themselves as the injured party. What’s more difficult to comprehend is why an already-struggling media industry is so ready to alienate half the country, and reinforce Donald Trump’s dangerous line about the “fake news” media in the process.
The 24/7 cable news and Twitter are part of the story, to be sure, but our haste is also a result of overt political pressure. Anyone who tries to employ prudence is assumed to be not sufficiently woke.
When Smollett said he had been the victim of a hate crime, progressive writers and politicians immediately began “working the refs,” taking to Twitter to shame law enforcement and journalists for using supposed weasel words like “alleged” or “racially charged.”
Take, for example, this GQ piece—one of hundreds I could point to—criticizing the police for referring to this as a “possible hate crime.” The author scoffs at this, saying, “The cautious wording is one last wound inflicted on Smollett's battered body.” But his scorn isn’t reserved solely for the police. He goes on to say that the media, “…goose-steps around the truth of the matter with shallow euphemisms like ‘racially charged’ used to describe open, proud bigotry.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, likewise, chimed in on the “racially charged” line, declaring that “It is no one’s job to water down or sugar-coat the rise of hate crimes.”
Now, some of those pols are slowly walking things back. “I'm going to withhold until all the information actually comes out from on the record sources,” Booker said Saturday.
His caution won’t last. In an era when victim status is the trump card for those wishing to advance a political agenda, you can count on more insistence that every victim must be believed immediately and alleged perpetrators presumed guilty. Outlets that fail to frame the news that way will feel the ongoing pressure campaign to get in line.
The unintended consequence has been to make the media look ridiculous as it keeps rushing to judgement and falling for hoax stories.
If we are to beat back the charges of “fake news” and defend the institution of journalism, we must defend those other old-fashioned ideas and institutions like the presumption of innocence, due process, and, yes, maybe even trying to avoid political bias.
It is telling that today’s highest-profile hoaxes—a measure that, of course, reflects what hoaxes are accepted at first and rewarded with media attention —are about appropriating someone else's victim status, not stealing their valor. Never mind the glory of heroes, experts, or champions, the desire for sympathy—and the moral authority that comes from being victimized—has replaced the desire for admiration or respect for some act of heroism.
I’m not sure what exactly that says about a society, but it can’t be good.