Ethics & Public Policy Center

Jussie Smollett and the Hazards of Moral Sentimentality

Published in The Wall Street Journal on March 2, 2019


A well-known story says that when President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he remarked, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

Stowe’s 1852 novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”—with its melodrama of Eliza’s flight across the ice, of Simon Legree’s cruelty, of Uncle Tom’s martyrdom—had so roused American feelings on the subject of slavery that nothing less than a great civil war could have done justice to either the crime or the novel.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a supreme work of moral sentimentality—of feelings stirred to noble and lethal purposes. The story tore sentimental 19th-century America apart. It ended not with Uncle Tom’s crucifixion but with Appomattox.

Sentimentality may enlist in the cause of justice. Beware: It serves just as often in the ranks of evil. Hitler and Joseph Goebbels deployed sentimental storylines of the Volk, of Aryan purity and blood and soil. Righteousness sometimes waxes sentimental, but so do monsters. Anyone who ever organized a lynch mob in Alabama knew how to sentimentalize white womanhood.

Today’s media storytelling has perfected a genre of intensely sentimental and spontaneously generated folk tales, especially stories dealing with race and sexuality. Social media and cable news pour forth vividly moralized tales that are sometimes true and sometimes not. The stories dramatize wrongs in order to amuse and polarize what has become the Republic of Maury Povich. They boost TV ratings, ignite apoplexy in our iPhones, and organize Americans along angry ideological lines.

Sentimentality, the regime of feelings, tempts people to exaggerate facts in ways that awaken grievances and encourage hatreds. Social media and cable news move faster than the speed of thought. They flash about in the collective mind, propelled by sentimentality and by sentimentality’s evil twin—rage.

The tale of Jussie Smollett will be remembered as a minor 21st-century classic—a would-be tragedy turned comedy, a self-sentimentalizing narrative of persecuted innocence. Gay and black Mr. Smollett was assaulted by improbable Nigerian Klansmen on the coldest night of a 2019 polar vortex in Emmett Till’s hometown of Chicago. Mr. Smollett’s story was even dumber than Tawana Brawley’s tale of racially motivated gang rape, and it fell apart much faster. The shoe bomber was more competent.

Mr. Smollett’s performance was an affront to the memory of Matthew Shepard, a gay man brutally murdered in 1998. It was an insult to the ghost of Emmett Till—and to those of James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and others—the heroes and martyrs who made it possible, eventually, for Jussie Smollett, a well-paid young black actor, to star in a TV epic of black success.

In fact, his story was an insult to the intelligence of anyone who heard it. Nonetheless, Pavlovian opportunists—Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, among others—could not help but salivate when Mr. Smollett first told the tale. It was not the details that interested them, but rather the generalized claims of “homophobia” and “racism,” which, like slavery in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s time, provided a master narrative.

The same impulse arose in people who last September cried, “I believe Christine!” The details of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh did not matter so much as the larger generalization—the fact of life, they’d say—that vile males do such vile things as Christine spoke of, and get away with them.

An invidious sentimentality was the entire story of the encounter not long ago at the Lincoln Memorial between Catholic high-school students and a drumming “Native American elder” and “Vietnam veteran”—sentimental characterizations that turned out to be not quite true. When the story was told upside-down, with the Native American cast as the victim, millions accepted it upside-down because it affirmed their own sentimentalities. Sentimentality is like the flu—people infect one another.

None of which is to deny that racial prejudice, sexual assault and animus against homosexuality exist and are destructive. But many have discovered how effective it is to sentimentalize the politics of race and sexuality. The very words “racist” and “homophobic” now possess a generalized and imprecise political power that is careless of the truth or falsehood of one particular case or another and may be lobbed at the enemy lines like artillery shells.

The false victim—Mr. Smollett, for example—is attracted by the radiant power of blamelessness. To be a victim is to be justified—heroic, if you tell the story right. Abstractly speaking, a victim is sublimely, metaphysically, inherently not responsible, least of all for himself. This promises a paradoxical kind of freedom. The oppressor is the one to blame. In that sense, if not in others, the victim is sitting pretty.

Some victims fare better than others. Emmett Till was savagely murdered and sunk to the bottom of the Tallahatchie River. Jussie Smollett got written out of the plot of a TV show. That is one difference between the 20th century and the 21st. No doubt it is a measure of progress.

Mr. Morrow, a journalist and essayist, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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