Christopher Smith explores the mysterious world of modern victimhood


I have generally been hiding from news broadcasts recently, but I did pick up on a story that seems to have had little exposure outside the United States, but which New Directions readers might be intrigued to hear about.  It concerns a young American actor called Jussie Smollett. Jussie, it seems, is a diminutive of Justin, and is known to my spellcheck. I mention that because it suggests that he is considerably better known across the Pond (where the spellcheck comes from) than he is here, and the redoubtable Wikipedia tells us that ‘In 2014, Smollett was cast as Jamal Lyon—a gay musician who struggles to gain the approval of his father—in the Fox drama series Empire.  His role was hailed as “groundbreaking” for its positive depiction of a black gay man on television.’

You might suppose life would be great for him, having a regular and well-paid acting job in an ongoing TV show, with spin-off pop records selling well enough to get him to number two in the Portuguese hit parade.  But no. At the end of January this year, Jussie Smollett appears to have done something rather extraordinary, although we will only know whether he is guilty as charged at the end of the judicial process in which he now finds himself.

It is common ground that, on 29th January, Smollett claimed that he had been attacked in the small hours of that morning by two masked men who battered him about the face as he left a sandwich shop in his home town of Chicago.  We will pass over the matter of why a well-paid actor came to be in a branch of Subway at two in the morning on a bitterly cold Chicago night, but, according to the police log, he claimed that the men ‘gained his attention by yelling racial and homophobic slurs and began to beat him about the face with their hands.  They used their hands, feet, and teeth as weapons in the assault’. He went on to allege that the men had put a noose around his neck and poured some liquid over him which he feared at the time might have been bleach. Finally, as a sort of cherry on top of the cake, he told the police that one of the men was wearing one of those red Donald Trump baseball caps, and had shouted ‘This is MAGA country’, M.A.G.A. being an acronym of the Trump campaign slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’.

Smollett later claimed that he originally hadn’t wanted to report the incident but was ‘convinced by his creative director to notify authorities’ (according to an ABC news report) at half past two that morning, and when the police arrived, they found a rope around his neck, which was indeed tied into a noose.  He was checked over in a local hospital, and released ‘in good condition’.

Any road up, it seems that his story started to unravel with some speed, and, less than three weeks later, the police had concluded that Smollett himself had concocted the whole business as a publicity stunt, using a deck of ‘hot button’ issues that are consuming public life in America at the moment, which he imagined (rightly) would garner the highest possible degree of attention.  Indeed, he had earlier, according to the prosecution, faked a letter to himself containing a death-threat, which he had been careful to leak to the press, but which hadn’t had quite the impact he’d hoped.

If it weren’t so pathetic, it would be funny.  Smollett has been charged with a raft of offences (to which he has pleaded not-guilty) which could cost him three years in chokey.  But if he did stage the attack because he was unhappy with his salary and wanted publicity to further his career, he did it with breath-taking incompetence, employing two blokes he’d worked with to rough him up (but not too much), and paying them by cheque!  Unsurprisingly, he has been written out of the TV series, and a conviction would presumably end his career altogether.

What intrigues me, though, is the process by which he apparently came to believe that this stunt, which has wasted police time, risked wrongful convictions, and further stirred the already bubbling cauldron of American public life, could be worthwhile.  The way we live now, there is something going on about victimhood which is deeply unhealthy. This is not to suggest that victims of crime shouldn’t report what has been done to them, but nowadays, being a victim is worn almost as a badge of honour, a handbrake turn from the old, and perhaps equally problematic, way in which we were all expected to soak it up and be brave and not tell anybody.  And this case, if Smollett turns out to be guilty, shows how dramatic that reversal has been: if you can’t lay claim to any genuine victimhood, you might need to make something up! His narrative was immediately believed by scores of politicians and celebrities who could signal their own virtue by ladling out sympathy for this ‘victim’. And their presumption that the story was true rather exposed their own assumptions about the society in which they live.

It is a strange world in which the murder – the martyrdom –  of 150 Christians in Nigeria in six weeks can go unreported by Western media, but an alleged attack on a TV star resulting in nothing more than a scratch on his face sends the American establishment into a frenzy.  Jussie Smollett had it all going for him in a culture in which people have never been less victimised for their colour or their sexuality, and he has probably thrown it all away.  But then, as Sir Walter Scott once said: ‘Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive’.