You can tell a lot about a society and the culture by the people whom it venerates as heroes. Not so long ago in the United States military valor and other feats of physical and patriotic derring do were the ne plus ultra of what determined who became venerated. That’s why the crime of “stolen valor” is there in the first place, by men (and sometimes women) who aren’t veterans who want to bask in the glory and respect afforded actual heroes. Were American warriors not heroes, there would be no valor to steal.
But now we’re witnessing something altogether different. You could call it “stolen victimhood.” The pathetic and outrageous case of Jussie Smollett is the latest example of this baleful trend.
Not long ago, Mr. Smollett was a modestly successful television actor in a modestly successful television show called “Empire.” Outside of the show’s hardcore fan base, he was hardly a household name. Mr. Smollett shot to fame (you might call it stolen fame) in late January not because of anything he accomplished but because of something that was done to him. Or so he said.
The tale bears telling one more time for what it says about the credulity of those we are now electing to high office. He said he was set upon by two men in the middle of a frigid night in Chicago while innocently walking home from a sandwich shop. Two hooligans, said to have been of the white persuasion, recognized him, beat him up, poured bleach on him, put a noose around his neck, and shouted “this is MAGA country!” and slurs against his homosexual inclination, though how they could tell he was a gay caballero was not explained. The assailants, though hooligans, nevertheless showed a certain bravery (if not foolish judgment) by wandering around a rough neighborhood in the middle of the night in Republican regalia with a noose in hand, looking for stray gays.
Chicago, including the upscale neighborhoods, gave Donald Trump less than 20 percent of their vote in 2016, making it hardly a neighborhood to be campaigning for Donald Trump. Mr. Smollett’s tale was riven with more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese, but the ever credulous Kamala Harris and other prominent Democrats could not wait to join the action. The senator from California, auditioning for president of the United States, called the fictitious attack a “modern day lynching.” She erased her Twitter message when it became clear that she had been taken in by a tall tale, demonstrating, we suppose, that even a speaker of the House can suffer shame.
Mr. Smollett was strangely unco-operative with the Chicago police. Still clutching the sandwich that survived the attack, he refused to hand over the cellphone he had used during his beating, and took refuge in stolen victimhood. “It became a thing of like, ‘Oh, It’s not necessarily that you don’t believe that this is the truth,’” he said several days later, “‘You don’t even want to see the truth. If I had said it was a Muslim, or a Mexican, or someone black, I feel like the doubters would have supported me a lot much more. A lot more. And that says a lot about the place that we are in our country.’” Indeed.
“Empire” became “Law and Order.” It emerged that Mr. Smollett actually paid two Nigerian men he knew from the set of his television program to stage the attack. He had sent himself the threatening letter in advance of the attack. He has been charged with a felony for filing a false police report. He is said to have done it because he wasn’t being paid what he thought he was worth. Perhaps he thought he was staging a scene from his TV show on behalf of underpaid Americans everywhere.
“Hate hoaxes” have occurred lately elsewhere, from waiters forging racist notes to leave on restaurant tables to the infamous rape hoax at the University of Virginia. Playing the victim only works in an ailing society that holds up victimhood as the gold standard of fraudulent behavior.