Opinion

A fear of doubting the Jussie Smollett incident

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There are few places as inhospitable to conservatives as the city of Chicago.

In the 2018 election for governor in Illinois, for instance, the city of Chicago voted for Democrat J.B. Pritzker over incumbent Republican Governor Bruce Rauner by a whopping margin of 81.34 percent to 15.19 percent. The Democratic margin of victory was even larger in the 2016 presidential contest.

And those Republicans that do exist, being city dwellers in a major American metropolis, are — at least in my experience — almost certainly a different breed of conservative. Less Trumpian, more Chamber of Commerce.

I don’t have any statistics on this, but my guess is that Chicago may in fact have the lowest percent of MAGA hat wearers per capita than anywhere in the country outside San Francisco.

Inside of this intensely Trump-hostile city, there is a neighborhood known as Streeterville. Highly wealthy, highly gentrified and full of high rises, this neighborhood is described by resident Agin Muhammad as incredibly diverse and welcoming. “I’ve been in this neighborhood five years,” he said. “Half the people are gay and the other half are black.”

Yet on Jan. 29 at roughly 2 a.m., inside this city and inside this neighborhood, there were allegedly two angry white men, possibly wearing MAGA hats, carrying around rope and a canister of bleach, waiting around for someone to commit a hate crime against.

And supposedly, these people stumbled upon Jussie Smollett, attacked him, tied the rope around his neck like a noose, sprayed the bleach-like substance on him, assaulted him and then shouted, “This is MAGA country!”

Anyone with any semblance of common sense should have immediately heard that story and treated it with extreme skepticism. Reporters charged with covering the story should have treated it with extreme caution.

But that certainly isn’t what happened. Breathless columns were written, talking heads talked, Twitter melted down.

Washington Post global opinion editor Karen Attiah said that the attack was “yet another reminder that Trump’s ascendance and the resulting climate of hate has meant that lives have been increasingly at stake since 2015.”

And actor Ellen Page, in an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show that has been seen and shared tens of millions of times through social media, accused Vice President Mike Pence of being responsible for the attack on Smollett.

This was repeated thousands of times in the first week after the attack allegedly occurred. People couldn’t get out of their own way fast enough to jump on their soap box and start virtue signaling.

Meanwhile, people who thought the story sounded fishy said nothing. I told a few friends privately the day that I read the story that I thought it was a lie, but I sure as hell didn’t say that publicly.

And why did they say nothing? Why did I swallow my actual opinion, which was not only entirely reasonable and logical, but also increasingly appears to have been accurate?

Simple. Anyone questioning Smollett’s version of what happened would have immediately been attacked as a racist and a homophobe who is excusing incidents of hate crimes in America.

Even worse, you’d be chastised for not reflexively believing a victim.

Even expressing a wait-and-see attitude about this type of thing is basically impossible today. Certainly publicly doubting it is. And that is a real problem.

So silent many of us sat, intimidated, even believing it was a lie.

And a lie it appears to be. But that doesn’t mean that racism and homophobia don’t exist. They do. Attacks on people for who they are do, in fact, happen, and happen too frequently. My skepticism of Smollett wasn’t that he was attacked, but in the preposterous story of his attack.

But members of the media apparently don’t operate with that level of skepticism, no matter how ridiculously concocted the story sounded, if it fits into the established narrative that they believe and are committed to promoting.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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