A few weeks ago, a somewhat famous man, half-black and half-Jewish and gay, alleged he had been accosted on a Chicago street in a fancy neighborhood near a Subway sandwich shop sometime after midnight during a polar vortex by two men wearing masks and therefore unidentifiable by their skin color. They referenced his once-hot, now-not TV show in a slighting manner before proceeding to beat him up while informing him this was “MAGA country.” Oh, and they put a noose around his neck.

The only proper response to this claim was, first, to scratch your head at the sheer blazing oddity of it all before realizing in about ten seconds that the whole story was utter nonsense, hooey, balderdash, bushwah—and that Jussie Smollett had made the story up for reasons that remain elusive. Except for this fact: Smollett was celebrated, lionized, made a hero and a martyr all at once merely for spinning the story out. Within hours, presidential candidates and other major political figures were lining up to tweet in his favor. Showbiz people fell over themselves to praise him. A significant element in the American commentariat reacted with all the sorrow and anger and rage that Twitter’s 280 characters could allow.

And all of them together, all these pro-Smollett voices, joined as one in assuming that the hate crime committed against him was par for the course in Donald Trump’s America.

Rather than expressing their shock that this could happen here, the Jussies were beyond eager to believe it was true. So eager that they disconnected from reality. They had to. You had to be delusional to believe the story made a lick of sense.

Those among us who have responded with glee to the growing evidence the story is a hoax are doing so for reasons the liberal commentariat cannot understand—meaning, the ones who either fell for the story or were too terrified of the accusation of insensitivity and unconscious racism even to question it. The point is, when such things happen, those who disregard the reality do not only do so themselves; they insist that everyone else do so as well. Indeed, not to believe in an alleged hate crime is implicitly to participate in a hate crime itself. To question the story is an act of hate. Why, after all, would you do such a thing?

Well, because the thing about crimes is, yes, they happen, and happen all the time—but so do false allegations. And when a certain crime is (for all sorts of reasons) elevated above all others, a certain type of disturbed person can be triggered by the elevation and decide to participate in it. During an outbreak of anti-Semitism, for example, it is wise to be prudent and hold fire when you hear about the defacing of a synagogue with swastikas and the like, because chances are the villain will not be a Nazi but a disturbed Jew. Indeed, following Donald Trump’s election, a series of bomb threats to Jewish institutions terrified people nationwide until it turned out they were the work of a psychotic Israeli teenager working out of his family apartment in Ashkelon.

The same is true of any sort of high-profile crime when the crime becomes a focus of public attention. The horrors visited upon innocent people due to accusations of child sexual abuse and molestation in the 1980s and 1990s should remind people of the potential danger in an atmosphere in which we are told we must “believe all” accusers. In those cases, skeptics were told we needed to “believe the children” when the children were being coached and the stories that emerged from these coaching sessions sounded like fourth-rate horror-movie plots with Satanic clowns violating them on basement altars.

It is precisely at times when people are prone to believe that you begin to see the genius of a common-law system that does not allow accusations to serve as evidence alone.

Culturally, though, the legal standard of reasonable doubt does not apply, which is why we need it in law.

It has ever been thus: For whatever reason, people believe something has happened and then believe the evidence that supports their view and damn others who find that evidence problematic. Say that Christine Blasey Ford’s claims against Brett Kavanaugh cannot be the standard by which he should be judged because she knew neither the place nor the time of the alleged assault and had no contemporaneous evidence to support the claims, and you are part of her ongoing victimization. It’s a perfect tautology, whose purpose is simple: It is there to make you shut up and let the loudest and most truculent arguers control the conversation.

This used to be the province of gossip; now it is the sacred coin of the social-media web. And the social-media web poses increasingly serious dangers to people who do not go along. Their employers can be contacted. Their addresses can be exposed. Thus, their livelihoods and their personal safety can be compromised. That too was always true in a moral panic, but the gossip was limited to those in earshot. Now the attack can come from anywhere on the planet. Almost literally.

In 1984, O’Brien insists that Winston Smith agree 2+2 = 5, and tortures him in unimaginable ways to compel him to do so. The social-media mob’s insistence that one believe an outlandish story or be accused of the worst cultural crime there is thus has some of O’Brien’s sway.

So for those who took a look at Smollett’s cock-and-bull story and thought these thoughts, the fear that accompanied them was particularly discomfiting because they—we—knew we were right and the mob was wrong. People don’t actually get mugged when it’s zero degrees outside; muggers get cold too, and while people who commit hate crimes might be more insensible to the elements owing to their rage, they too might give it a pass to get inside. Nor, generally speaking, do people head out to buy a sub in such weather. I lived through a Chicago polar vortex in 1982. The cold entered my bones and stayed there—inside my apartment. I would sooner have lit myself on fire than willingly gone outside; it would take something more powerful than wanting a sandwich, like a planned staged event.

And where did the muggers get a noose? Why would you carry around a length of rope when it was -15 with the wind chill?  And how did they recognize Jussie Smollett in the first place? Was his face exposed to the elements and not covered with a scarf or a hood? Why not?

The skeptics saw all this. And we were feeling the pressure to say 2+2 = 5. And we feel a great relief that the pressure is gone. The glee is born of the relief. But not just that. It’s also the result of watching people who believe themselves to be morally superior because of the views they espouse and the pathological ideas they have about the United States being brought down more than a few pegs because their views led them into such foolish error. Also, as the Twitterite @neontaster said,  “it’s A LOT easier to be happy when it turns out something horrible didn’t happen. Gloating if it turns out a terrorist was Muslim (or white) is gross because you’re gloating over an actual incident, not a lack thereof.”

Whatever reason Smollett had for concocting this story in the wake of an unfortunate encounter or for conceiving it and then executing it with paid actors might make for a good TV movie sometime. But that assumes a person in Hollywood would choose to make a picture about a progressive gay black guy doing something wrong.

So I guess I won’t be holding my breath for Ryan Murphy to make “American Crime Story: Jussie Smollett.”

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