Jussie Smollett and the coveting of victimhood

Everyone wants to be oppressed these days.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Identity Politics Politics USA

At first glance, the Jussie Smollett trial looks like one of the maddest things taking place in the Western world right now. Here we have an actor accused of giving wads of money to two Nigerian brothers in 2019 in return for them beating him up and racially insulting him. Apparently it was all part of a dastardly plot by Smollett to secure the sympathies of the celebrity set and possibly become more famous to boot. He allegedly encouraged the burly bros to shout ‘MAGA’ slogans at him and to hang a noose around his neck. Make it look as racist as possible, this black actor allegedly advised the black brothers. Oh, and he had previously masturbated with one of the brothers, in a bathhouse, and on another occasion they also did some drugs. Allegedly.

And yet, take a closer look at this simultaneously hilarious and deranged affair and you might see that, in this era of wokeness, it kind of makes sense. It kind of makes sense that someone would allegedly go to such extraordinary lengths to depict himself as a victim, as a bruised, bleeding recipient of racial hatred, as yet another target of the white supremacy that had apparently been turbo-charged in the Trump years. After all, ours is a time in which a great many people covet victimhood. In which it’s the in thing to suffer. In which nothing guarantees you speedier access into the hallowed pages of the liberal media and the bleeding hearts of the new clerisy than claiming you are a casualty of hatred, an oppressed being at risk of moral-majority spite, violence or, best of all, ‘erasure’. When victimhood is the dominant currency among the cultural elites, would it really be shocking if even a well-known, well-paid actor had spun a tale of violent victimisation?

First, the mad part. The Smollett trial really is one of those events that makes even an unapologetic fan of the United States like me wonder if America might indeed be quite mental. It started back in January 2019, in Chicago, when Smollett went to a Subway to get a sandwich at 2am on a freezing cold night. As you do. He says he was set upon by two big blokes in ski masks. They punched him, kicked him and bit him, he says. They also bombarded him with racial and homophobic slurs (Smollett is gay). One of his assailants reportedly cried, ‘MAGA country!’, which was confirmation in the eyes of Smollett and his sympathisers that this was a Trump-fuelled act of hate. Thanks a lot, Donald. The best detail is the noose. Smollett still had it on him when the police arrived at his home to take his statement. It would take a heart of stone not to at least smile at the cops’ bodycam footage showing Smollett wearing a fetching cardigan in his fancy apartment as his ‘creative director’ points out the loosely tied noose to the officers.

Before long, holes seemed to appear in Smollett’s story. When it emerged that Smollett’s ‘white supremacist’ assailants were actually two black men he had previous associations with, a mass stroking of chins took place across the United States. Mysteriously, Smollett had even given one of the brothers a rather large sum of money – $3,500 to be precise. Smollett said the payment was for the brothers to assist him in the gym so that he could get in tip-top shape for a music video. Don’t you hate it when your personal trainer jumps you in the middle of the night and screams Trumpish slogans in your face? In February 2019, Smollett was charged with filing a false police report. He made the whole thing up, the cops said, possibly in order to boost his reputation and maybe even his pay on Empire, the Fox series about a hip-hop dynasty he was starring in at the time. The charges against Smollett were eventually dropped after he agreed to perform 16 hours of community service.

But the whole unhinged saga came back again after a special prosecutor completed an investigation in 2020 which suggested the attack on Smollett was about as believable as one of Empire’s melodramatic storylines. Smollett now faces six counts of filing false police reports. The case is ongoing. It is, of course, entirely down to the jury to decide whether he is guilty. But the rest of us can, for now, muse on the social dynamics of this most curious of cases, this affair that even Smollett admits sounds like ‘something out of Looney Tunes adventures’ (sic). If Smollett did indeed orchestrate the attack on himself – let’s see what his peers decide – then that raises questions about the culture we all live in, and in particular about the social, moral and even economic prestige accorded to victimhood in the 21st century. Is it possible that we now have a situation where people will essentially punch themselves in the face in order to be part of today’s privileged caste of sufferers?

Here’s the disturbing thing: if Smollett arranged a hate crime against himself, he won’t have been the first person to do it. Hate-crime hoaxes are an actual thing these days, as spiked’s Wilfred Reilly has extensively documented. There was the State University of New York bus-attack hoax of 2016, when two black and one Latino female students claimed that around 10 white men and women racially insulted and violently attacked them on a bus. Hillary Clinton tweeted her concern about this horrible attack. Only it didn’t happen. They made it up. The students were found guilty of false reporting and ordered to do community service and pay a fine.

In 2018, a black student at Smith College claimed she had been harassed by a janitor while she was eating her lunch. An investigation found she had fabricated details of the encounter. In 2019, a black school student in Virginia said three white boys pinned her to the ground and cut off ‘chunks’ of her dreadlocks. It never happened. She cut the dreadlocks off herself. Also in 2019, a student at the University of La Verne in California reported receiving a racist message on Instagram, being assaulted by a masked man, and finding her car on fire. She really went to town on her hate-crime story. She has since been charged with fabricating her reports. Albion College in Michigan made headlines across the US earlier this year when anti-black and anti-Semitic grafitti was found daubed on campus walls. The graffiti was pro-KKK, it contained the N-word. White supremacy running rampant? Nope, the culprit turned out to be a black male student.

On it goes. Race hoax after race hoax. In all of these instances, a similar process unfolds. Claims of racial victimisation are made, the media splashes them on the front pages, headlines bemoan the scourge of white supremacy and other vile phobias, politicians tut-tut over this latest dreadful crime of identity, and everyone agrees Something Must Be Done. Then, when each case turns out to be nonsense on stilts, the feverish inventions of millennials who presumably crave the glamour of oppression, nothing much is said. The Hillaries of the world look the other way. Oh, that thing I was angry about didn’t really happen? Never mind.

The speed with which claims of racial victimisation are transformed into stop-the-press news about America and the West more broadly being shitty racist hellholes helps to explain why these hoaxes keep happening. There is a symbiotic relationship between the woke elites’ insatiable yearning for proof of America’s rottenness and the fact that some people falsely claim to have been victimised and attacked. The credulous, breathless reporting of every allegation of hate crime as irrefutable evidence that white supremacy is still rampant acts as an invitation to the hate-crime hoaxers, to the identitarian chancers. The knowledge that they will be instantly believed, instantly accorded the pity of the clerisy, instantly inaugurated into that holy sect that has directly experienced the violence of supremacist ideologies, of the lingering colonialist brutalism of Western society, is unquestionably an enticement to fabrication. It is contemporary society’s sanctification of victimhood, especially the victimhood of racial suffering, that tempts some to forge horrors and hardships.

And it goes beyond hoaxes. Completely inventing stories of oppression is merely the most extreme expression of a broader cultural dynamic. Others covet victimhood in more ‘acceptable’ ways. So community groups, for example, don’t outright invent tales of racist victimisation in order to win society’s resources and sympathy, but they do very often embellish the numbers. The ever-expanding definition of ‘hate crime’ – here in the UK it is essentially any crime that any person believes was motivated by hatred against a protected minority group – means the figures can be constantly fluffed, giving the impression of a widespread criminal loathing of minorities that simply does not exist. Not hoaxing, as such, but definitely inflation. The driver to this more ‘respectable’ form of victimhood cultivation is not that dissimilar to the thing that motors the hoaxers – the knowledge that your shot at securing sympathy from the woke media, and economic resources from the state, will be vastly improved if you can locate yourself and your identity group high up the scale of suffering.

And then there’s the individuals, the influencers, who simply play the victim card. The modern media are full of them. Woke campuses throng with well-off youths insisting they are victims of structural oppression. I’ve lost count of the number of Home Counties young women, sounding not unlike Princess Margaret, who have cornered me during a university talk to insist that they really are oppressed. Students at Oxford are so privileged and cosseted that they had to pretend that they felt oppressed by a statue – the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes, which they claimed was an environmental microaggression, persecuting them every time they passed by. It’s a hard life being a rich kid at one of the highest seats of learning on Earth.

In all of these cases, from the entirely invented stories to community groups’ exaggeration of levels of hatred, from the plummy trans activists who insist that the expression of biological facts will ‘erase’ them to the rage against statues by weeping, wounded students, what we are witnessing is a new cult of self-oppression. In the past, genuinely oppressed peoples sought to overcome their oppression. They demanded an end to their subjugation and equal access to the workforce and society. Now we have non-oppressed people lying and spinning and posturing in order to convince us, and themselves, that they are oppressed. They seek the status of oppression as determinedly as earlier generations of the actually downtrodden sought to escape it. This isn’t only highly morally questionable, where people with economic, educational and very often class privilege play at being the heirs to yesteryear’s victims of colonialism, Empire and slavery. It also reveals how distorted society itself has become under the strain of wokeness, under the boot of identity politics. The more woke society rewards claims of suffering, the more that it invites and celebrates confessions of victimisation, the more people will feel encouraged to negate their own autonomy and instead depict themselves as the wretched collateral damage of an uncaring society.

This is how the culture of victimhood harms society, and the future itself. In seeding new generations who prefer the warm glow of elite pity over the old muscular determination to make one’s way in an often unforgiving world, the cult of the victim diminishes citizens’ sense of themselves and denudes society of precisely the vigour and daring it requires to develop and progress. In an irony that is almost too much to take, we now live under a regime of privileged oppression, where those who are the best at enfeebling themselves, at making themselves pathetic, are accorded the greatest social value. That is bad for them and for society. We don’t yet know for sure if the Smollett case was an expression of all of this – let’s let the jury decide on that – but we do know that in a world in which victimisation is considered a virtue, frailty will become fashionable and deception will abound.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

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