Thoughts on the Jussie Smollett fiasco

Let me just say a few things up front. Before this whole scandal unfolded, I did not know who the actor Jussie Smollett was. And, moreover, I obviously do not know whether he truly did fake the assault upon himself. I have not seen the evidence amassed against him. So I will be talking from the hermetically-sealed chamber of hypotheticals at various points throughout this post. (Shit. I hope I remembered to turn on the oxygen valve in there.)

To be completely honest, I must admit that when I first heard the lurid details of the attack, there was just something about them which did strike me as… well, I’m not sure quite how to articulate it. A little too on the nose? A little too perfectly despicable? A little too… theatrical? (I know I am far from the only person to feel that.) But, of course, I also knew that faint hint of weirdness doesn’t mean anything at all really. It was certainly no reason to doubt it genuinely happened. I mean, so what if it seemed oddly theatrical? When deranged individuals decide to attack celebrities, they do sometimes plan it out for quite a while beforehand, sweating the little details. Trying to get everything just right to convey the intended message, to achieve the intended emotional effect. Because they’re hoping to get into the news, to spawn eye-catchingly fucked-up headlines. They’re hoping to make some kind of disturbing statement with the nature of the act itself. In that sense, the attack itself almost becomes half violence, half utterly depraved spectacle.

However, now that Smollett has been charged with making a false police report — a felony, by the way — it’s officially alleged by prosecutors that this event was just a twisted attention-seeking performance. On the one hand, I believe wholeheartedly in the virtue of the presumption of innocence (and not just in the stuffy confines of a court of law either.) And it must be noted that Smollett is still insisting that he is not guilty. But on the other hand, if the prosecutors do indeed have the wide range of conclusive evidence they claim to have, I’ve got to imagine that this will be an open-and-shut trial in their favour. Like, we’re talking a total cakewalk here. Don’t even bother showing up, defense attorneys. Treat yourself to a vacation.

I mean, seriously, this is the part that can hardly be overstated. If reports are to be believed:

  • He sent himself a phony threatening letter a week before. It included white powder made from crushed-up ibuprofen, which was presumably meant to serve as a frightening lookalike of anthrax or some equivalent. Then when this gambit didn’t garner sufficient sympathy, he moved on to planning the simulated attack to up the ante.
  • He had previously worked with his accomplices on a television show, and even separately employed one of them as a personal trainer.
  • He paid them for their attack-staging services with a cheque (just… wow), which is — when you think about it — essentially a redeemable IOU with your name and signature and bank details on. The stupidity of this move is inexplicable. He supposedly makes at least $60,000 per episode for his role on ‘Empire’. But instead of simply withdrawing the specified $3500 in cash — or spending an hour learning how to use Bitcoin nigh-untraceably — for the payment, he wrote a cheque. My god.
  • He spoke to them on the phone shortly before and after the incident itself.
  • He even gave them the money to buy the props for use in the ‘attack’.
  • He had them visit the chosen spot at an earlier time, in preparation.
  • He intended for the whole thing to be captured on CCTV — one imagines so that the footage could be leaked online and go viral — but ended up doing it in a blind spot.
  • He paid handsomely to be beat up and then resorted to self-inflicting some of his superficial wounds anyway.

These allegations are nothing short of incredible. Needless to say, there is probably a frenzied bidding war for the movie rights to this story going on right now behind the scenes in Hollywood. Expect to see the ‘tear-jerking tale of one tortured man’s desperate mistake’ rushed out onto the big screen in one to two years. Only fans of melodramatic Oscar-bait need apply. You can expect nuanced… uh… well… somewhat subtle… hmm, okay, fine… painfully clumsy… reflections on the irony of faking an attack perpetrated by hateful bigots in a world which is already overflowing with genuine hate and bigotry. Because sometimes low-hanging fruit is so low-hanging that it’s actually just resting right there on the ground. Careful. Don’t accidentally step on it. Bootprint Peachmeat may sound like the adorable moniker of an alt porn star with sleeve tattoos who got her start on, but the trodden fruit mush itself is not appetizing at all, I assure you.

You know what I can’t stop thinking? Hell, if you really want sympathy for getting punched by some shitty person that much, just go to a Trump rally draped in a rainbow flag or wearing a t-shirt with some slogan which defies the herdlike groupthink. Your unwitting Huckleberry will wade through the crowd towards you soon enough. And that neanderthal, who never learned how to express anger with words instead of fists, will happily take a swing at you, hoping to please their billionaire god-emperor. Job done. Prison sentence evaded. $3500 saved. Obviously, shoot me over 10% of that as a sort of… consultant’s fee. But no cheques please. I only take Ethereum.

Also, should all of the bullet-pointed things above turn out to be true… Well, let’s just say that if there is a leaderboard for the all-time most inept and bungling executions of an illegal scheme, Smollett has made a spirited attempt to earn a spot on it. In this sense, one cannot argue he hasn’t aimed high. If only his ambition was commensurate with his skill at petty deception.

Or, let me put it another way. Are you hoping to stage a hoax or fake a crime?

First of all, don’t. Despite what Smollett’s spectacularly bad luck here may suggest, there is not only a surveillance camera likely recording you from every nearby building but there’s also a 192-megapixel smartphone in the hand or pocket of everyone you pass. Plus, you may think you solely have to outsmart the actual police detectives trying to thwart you. And that was true many decades ago. When computers were the size of small towns and the best medium for noting down evidence was… paper. But today, you’ll also have to outfox a legion of amateur online sleuths. They have nothing better to do than scour every trace of your digital presence to find clues or inconsistencies, and then collectively trudge towards a series of tiny crowdsourced discoveries via trial-and-error. Taken as a group, they’re like a pretty dumb A.I. that can still just bruteforce most problems fed into it because of its ungodly surplus of processing power. For real though, we’re talking about people who will spend hundreds of hours amassing clues just to post a wall-of-text infodump and get a pittance of Reddit Karma. Is this… sort of sad? Oh gosh, yes. Yes. Of course yes. But their dedication is undeniable. And you cannot compete with it. The possibility of a fleeting moment of extremely localized internet fame is enough to entice them into making uncovering your deceit an unpaid full-time job. It isn’t wise to attract their blazing spotlight.

Second of all, if you’re hellbent on ignoring my advice and going ahead with your foolish intention anyway… do not — I repeat do not — solicit Jussie Smollett’s advice on how to do it properly. He’s not the tutor you want. Although, to give him the benefit of the doubt… maybe the copy of ‘Criminal Conspiracy for Dummies’ he ordered just didn’t arrive in time? This is why I’m always, always telling my friends that Amazon Prime essentially pays for itself before you know it. No-one ever listens to me though. But that’s just fine(!!!). I’m not even slightly bitter that none of you are clicking on my referral sign-up link. Needlessly wait an extra few days for your new frying pan to be delivered. See if I care.

Alright, to draw this to a close, I’m going to get serious for a hot second. Because, as is obvious, there are some pretty fucking serious implications to this whole fiasco. (Without even getting started on its associated media-circus…)

For one thing, I’ve seen a certain sentiment expressed in various places online now. Maybe you have too? It goes a little something like this: ‘after this Jussie Smollett mess, my faith in these kind of stories from alleged victims is forever damaged, I just don’t know if I can believe ANYONE anymore!’ *Cue their quiet, tearful contemplation, head in hands, all alone in the middle of an empty high-school gymnasium*

Their hellacious inner turmoil pains me to see, as no doubt it does you, but one still feels slightly obligated to point out a few facts. Just for the sake of argument, you understand.

Jussie Smollett’s alleged lies have basically zero impact on anything beside his own reputation and his prospects of imminently going to prison. They are just the story of one man’s idiocy. They are not at all a useful lens through which to view the scourge of bigotry in the United States or elsewhere. They do not make the truthfulness of other people’s stories of being attacked or victimized any less or more likely. Actually, let me emphasize that last point. Because it must be stated forcefully. If discovering that some very small percentage of people fabricate these accounts makes you very suspicious or dismissive of ALL of them, that frankly makes no sense whatsoever. I mean, did you up until recently live in some off-planet utopia where lies are completely absent (just as smallpox has been eradicated here on Earth)? Is that why this revelation is such a mind-boggling, trust-shredding shock to you? No? You’re sure? Well then, maybe you’re just looking — subconsciously or otherwise — for a reason to apply wholesale doubt to those kind of claims. And that’s on you. No-one else.

Listen, don’t get me wrong, I generally don’t blindly believe in the conclusive truth of a stranger’s story right off the bat. But nor do I suspect they’re probably just a sinister liar either. If you’re a compassionate human being, you offer them sympathy and support as if it might well be true. And meanwhile you’re welcome to personally reserve judgement on the objective truth of the matter. You wait for more details and/or evidence to come out. Hopefully even a trial. So on and so forth.

For another thing, there’s something to be said about the larger damage caused by what Smollett is alleged to have done. Because it enables, by providing empty rhetorical ammunition, the incredulous naysayers to cast doubt on genuine victims of hateful attacks. Now, yes, they’d be trying to do that anyway. But any seemingly helpful examples they’re given are like drops of rocket-fuel sprinkled into the gas-task. And, believe me, this encouragement will be a very long-lasting ripple effect. You can envision it, can’t you? Brainless alt-right trolls will be tweeting ‘nah, they’re just another Smollett, y’know? #fakenews’ for years to come. His very name will become a weapon for them to wield. And so, the wickedness of his crime is doubled. If he is indeed found guilty, I’d expect his sentence would reflect this.

That his motivation for faking the assault was allegedly just a desire for a heightened public profile and a higher salary is… simply… sickening. I mean, I don’t want to get too sententious here… But how could anyone think to exploit the long history of racist and homophobic violence, and people’s righteous outrage over it, for such paltry personal gain? It must require a mindset which is hard to even imagine. And one animated by, amongst other things, a flabbergasting degree of selfish disregard. Especially so if you’re already wealthy and famous. What greed. What stupendous, stupendous greed. As in, you paid pretend-attackers to put a noose around your neck in hopes of… what? Becoming a trending topic on Twitter for a few days? Appearing on a couple more talk shows than usual to tell your phony sob-story? Somehow triggering a pay-bump and then maybe buying a second Ferrari? Truly, what in the actual fuck.

(Incidentally, I cannot believe that his accomplices have gotten off scot free for giving their testimony and cooperation. In a case which appears to be bursting at the seams with independent, definitive evidence of all their guilt. It just strikes me as so unnecessary. And meting out unjustified leniency like that sends such a bad message.)

Lastly, there’s a pink-elephant-in-the-room parallel which I think kind of has to be mentioned in the same breath as all this. The principle just overlaps too neatly… For similar reasons as aforementioned, anyone who makes a false rape accusation — again, this is a tiny fraction of outliers — should be punished harshly. They harm not only the falsely accused person whose reputation they have permanently tarnished in the most egregious way possible, but also the real rape victims whose claims may face added resistance because of (irrationally) weakened public confidence in them as a whole. That’s some evil shit right there.

Whew. We ended on a pretty grave note, huh? Tell you what, let’s have a little palette cleanser. How about a photo of a cute kitten batting around a ball of yarn to send you on your way?

Well…. fuck. I tried! Please tell me you know that I tried!

[UPDATE 28/03/19: In a fittingly bizarre conclusion, the prosecutors have decided to drop the case against Smollett. Even though they still maintain that charging him in the first place was justified (i.e. they believe he is provably guilty). And what price did he have to pay to get this inexplicable leniency? Surrendering a $10,000 bond and performing sixteen hours of community service. Yes, that’s right. That was all it took to escape the 16 felony counts he was facing. A comically insignificant amount of money for a man in his position and two days worth of perfunctory, low-effort community service. That’s nothing at all really. And he has not even had to make an admission of guilt for the record. Which means he got the best of both worlds. For an absolute song.

Whether or not you suspect he’s guilty-as-charged, this outcome is just insane. Does anyone in their right mind believe that someone who wasn’t famous and rich would get this soapy handjob of an (informal) plea deal? I mean, for real. Can you imagine the average Joe getting such kindly treatment? Because I sure as fuck cannot. And I’m glad to see that so many other people have noticed how outrageous this is.

I don’t know exactly what unseemly behind-the-scenes bullshit led to this about-face happening, but I think it’s obvious that the whole story is being withheld. Why this might be is fascinating to consider. Although generally it is smarter to err on the side of assuming incompetence rather than malfeasance, something is very fishy here. And just like Smollett’s alleged tall tale being exposed, I expect the hidden truths of this situation are going to seep out of the mire soon enough.]

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