By Eric London, senior editorial commenter, wsws.org
22 February 2019
On January 29, Smollett, who is African-American and gay, reported that two Trump supporters physically attacked him in downtown Chicago, called him derogatory racist and homophobic terms, and put a noose around his neck—the symbol of anti-black lynching.
Immediately, a host of politicians and public figures unquestioningly accepted Smollett’s allegations, including Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris, who called the attack a “modern day lynching.”
The New York Times and other Democratic Party-aligned publications quickly picked up the story, advancing it as proof that race, gender and sexuality are the fundamental social divisions in American society.
In one of several similar articles, the Times published an opinion piece on February 2 that noted, without using the word “alleged,” that “the actor Jussie Smollett was brutally attacked in what Chicago police are calling a possible hate crime… The attack on Mr. Smollett,” the article continued, shows that “being black and queer presents a unique challenge” because of “the hate that drives white supremacy.”
Smollett and his defenders said that asking for corroborating evidence was racist. In an interview on Good Morning America, Smollett said, “It feels like if I had said it was a Muslim, or a Mexican, or someone black, I feel like the doubters would have supported me much more.”
On February 13, Smollett’s story was further undercut after police arrested two men who had been spotted on video walking away from the scene of the alleged crime. The men, who are Nigerian brothers and personal acquaintances of Smollett, were released after police questioning. The brothers say Smollett paid them $3,500 to help stage a false attack.
After police pivoted to investigate Smollett, the Times published a column on February 19 titled “Enough with the Hot Takes” by David Leonhardt. The article reads, “The Jussie Smollett case is the latest reminder: Don’t be too eager to make pronouncements.”
Leonhardt writes: “Making sweeping pronouncements about unverified criminal allegations isn’t a good idea—not now, not three weeks ago. It’s especially problematic with matters involving race, gender and sexuality, which ignite particular political passions.”
The filthy New York Times gets the Pulitzer Prize for Hypocrisy! The paper has spent the last year and a half splashing in the gutter, publishing “unverified” allegations and “sweeping pronouncements” of sexual allegations against public figures like Kevin Spacey, Ryan Adams, Woody Allen and Geoffrey Rush. Careers have been ruined and individuals subjected to ruthless social ostracism based on uncorroborated allegations that they are sexual predators.
Throughout the #MeToo campaign, the Times and the proponents of identity politics have advanced the line that all accusers “must be believed” and that anyone who demands corroboration before judgment is “victim blaming.”
Smollett’s lie was only exposed because the “attack” took place in a public place where corroborative evidence should have been readily available. Most #MeToo allegations conveniently take place in private between two people—one accuser and one accused.
If the accuser is always to be believed, if a denial by the accused only serves as further proof of guilt, and if no corroborating evidence is required, then the accused are in an impossible situation, like those accused of witchcraft in Salem. This repudiation of due process is antidemocratic and right-wing.
Smollett, like so many affluent #MeToo accusers, saw a career opportunity in this political climate and hoped he could advance himself by playing the “victim.”
This selfish opportunism has provided even more fodder for the extreme right wing, which is blasting the case as proof that all warnings of right-wing attacks and fascist provocations are “left-wing hoaxes.”
Under conditions where fascist Trump supporters have carried out terrorist attacks against anti-Nazi protestors in Charlottesville and against Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh, and where a fascist Coast Guard officer was arrested last week for plotting to massacre socialists, Smollett and all those who automatically accepted his allegations are strengthening the extreme right.
Smollett has the right to the presumption of innocence and the right to present his case before a jury. Worse than the lies themselves was how those lies became wind in the sails of the Democratic Party’s identity politics strategy.
As primary season begins, a new pattern is emerging: Every week, the Democratic Party and its backers in the corporate media pick a nonevent that is elevated to the level of a “national controversy” and presented as proof that identity—and not class—defines social relations.
Three weeks ago, Virginia Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax was pressured to resign based on unsubstantiated allegations of sexual assault. Two weeks ago Smollett was in the spotlight. This past week, Ryan Adams was the victim of the Times’ latest #MeToo takedown and his music is now being erased from the radio.
At its root, these media-created nonevents have definite political aims: to block growing interest in socialism and break the growth of the class struggle by dividing workers along racial, gender and sexuality lines. While the Democrats employ different methods and appeal to different social constituencies than Trump with his violent denunciations of socialism, all the warring factions of the ruling class agree that socialism is a threat and it must be stopped.
The proponents of identity politics are concerned that the collapse of Smollett’s story undermines their campaign. The denunciations of Smollett by erstwhile supporters will become increasingly ferocious. “Jussie the angelic victim” will be transformed by the media into “Jussie the lying monster.” The pronouncements of anathema will be as duplicitous as the earlier beatifications.
The real “monsters” are the corporate media executives, #MeToo proponents, Democratic politicians and New York Times publishers who created the conditions that made Smollett believe he would be unquestioningly believed. While Smollett faces jail time, those who profited off his lie will pick up right where they left off.
Jussie Smollett, #MeToo and the presumption of innocence
A reply to a commenter
By Eric London, wsws.org
25 February 2019
One reader, commenting on the article, wrote that the WSWS was hypocritical for calling Smollett a liar while defending his presumption of innocence in the criminal case against him.
“So Smollett is a liar but also has the right to the presumption of innocence?”, the commenter, Urfubar, wrote. “This can’t both be true. You can’t presume someone innocent of a felony you just declared guilty of a felony. Either Smollett is a liar who falsified a police report, or he’s innocent until proven guilty. Pick one.”
This comment provides the opportunity to further probe the anti-democratic rationale and reactionary implications of the #MeToo campaign.
As a preliminary matter, the WSWS opposes Smollett’s former supporters who are now rushing to condemn him just as blindly as they rushed to believe him three weeks ago. We oppose the criminal prosecution and the premature decision by Fox to write Smollett’s character out of the show “Empire” before his guilt has been proven. The efforts by the media to make an example of Smollett before he has been found guilty are hypocritical and serve to confuse, not clarify.
However, the facts that have emerged make clear that Smollett lied about the January 29 attack. He claimed that two white men he did not know hit him, poured bleach on him and put a noose around his neck.
Dozens of security cameras at or near the scene of the alleged crime failed to show any attack, and the two men seen leaving turned out to be brothers, who are friends of Smollett and of Nigerian descent. The brothers had bleach (which Smollett alleged was thrown on him) and magazines with missing pages (Smollett alleged he received a death threat with letters cut out of magazines) at their home.
Financial records also show that the brothers purchased the same piece of rope that was later found on Smollett’s neck, which the pair is shown on closed-circuit video buying at a store. Phone records show that days before the alleged attack, Smollett texted one of the brothers: “Might need your help on the low [i.e., in secret]. You around to meet up and talk face to face?”
The WSWS correctly characterized and condemned Smollett’s selfish, careerist behavior, which only feeds the growth of the extreme-right and casts doubt on future allegations of right-wing vigilante attacks.
But does this mean he forfeits the right to be presumed innocent? Does it mean he is necessarily guilty of a crime?
The answer to both questions is “no.” Smollett has the right to challenge the charges against him in court and the evidence presented. Moreover, even if the defense accepts the specific allegation—that Smollett filed a false report—a trial such as this, in the course of a vigorous defense, invariably raises issues as to the significance and context of these facts, which could lead to a verdict of not guilty.
For example, §5/26-1(5) of the Illinois criminal code penalizes anyone who “knowingly… transmits or causes to be transmitted a false report to any public safety agency without the reasonable grounds necessary to believe that transmitting the report is necessary for the safety and welfare of the public.”
Central to Smollett’s legal defense could be his state of mind. To be guilty of a crime, a defendant must have the requisite level of intent. In this case, he must “ know ” there is no “reasonable ground” to believe the report is “necessary for the safety and welfare of the public.”
This presents a complex question. Did Smollett perhaps convince himself in the present political climate that his race and sexual orientation justify his actions and make them “reasonable?” Did he think bringing attention to bigotry and right-wing attacks was “necessary” for the public welfare, even if this particular “attack” was invented?
Or, was Smollett blinded by ambition and acting under a passion and pressure that so clouded his judgment that he could not “intend,” with clear mind, to carry out a crime?
Could he argue in court that he was operating in conformity with the conventions of a sick and corrupt society that encourages professionals to use their racial and sexual identities in opportunistic ways? Could he say he was an avid reader of the New York Times, which tells him it is “reasonable” to assume accusations must be believed no matter what? Could he say that the #MeToo hysteria has made the reasonable unreasonable and the unreasonable reasonable, and that he can’t tell which way is up?
The prosecution will claim, as the proponents of #MeToo always argue, that the accused is a monster and that monsters always have evil intent.
But Smollett has the right to exercise all the rights that flow from the presumption of innocence. He is protected from the state by the Sixth Amendment, which grants him the right to present his case to a jury and cross-examine the Nigerian brothers to examine their motives. If the case goes to trial, Smollett’s attorneys will have the benefit of voir dire to keep prosecutors from loading the panel with prejudiced panelists.
The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments mean the judge may bar jurors from reading the New York Times so their ability to objectively hear testimony does not become clouded by the media hate campaign. The judge will tell jurors to ignore evidence, even if it is relevant, if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger that it is unfair, prejudicial, confusing or misleading.
How critical these protections are and yet how dangerous it is that none of them are available to the targets of the #MeToo campaign, whose lives and careers are ruined in the court of public opinion! The #MeToo proponents explicitly call for believing all accusers, having adopted the slogan “I believe.” Asking for corroborating evidence is “victim blaming.” Asking accusers about their intentions is “victim shaming.” If the accused claims innocence, it is presented as further proof of guilt.
It is precisely in such cases, however, that presumption of innocence and due process are so critical. Even in cases where everything appears clear on the surface—or, especially in such cases—it is in the course of a trial that the underlying complexities emerge.
The campaign to reject these basic democratic conceptions has been deliberately whipped up by the most powerful and profitable media corporations, working in conjunction with Democratic Party strategists and the editors of newspapers like the filthy New York Times. To advance their own money-grubbing, right-wing agendas, these powerful forces are creating a hysterical mood by playing on the prejudices, emotions, insecurities and ambitions of the affluent upper-middle class like keys on a piano.
Passionate public moods demanding vengeance have long been the vehicle for the most dangerous assaults on democratic rights. Hundreds of African Americans were lynched based on allegations by lying white women. One such woman, 85-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham, is alive and free today. The lie she told in August 1955 was “believed” and, as a result, 14-year-old Emmett Till was tortured and killed, his mangled body dumped in the river.
Progressive politics has always fought such right-wing popular sentiments, even where the accused is clearly guilty. In the famous 1924 death penalty case of Leopold and Loeb, defense attorney Clarence Darrow argued against hanging two young men who admitted to murdering a 14-year-old boy. The newspapers were demanding the boys be hanged and attacking due process as an obstacle to justice.
In a democratic society, Darrow said, the court must ignore the clamor in the press and the reactionary hidden agendas of those braying for blood. It meant, instead, “that you must appraise every influence that moves [the defendants], the civilization where they live, their living, their society, all society which enters into the making of a child.”
The same principle was captured by Theodore Dreiser in his masterpiece An American Tragedy. Clyde Griffiths’ defense attorney, Belknap, made an appeal to jurors inundated with hysterical calls to sentence young Clyde to death:
“And I venture to say that if by some magic of the spoken word I could at this moment strip from your eye the substance of all the cruel thoughts and emotions which have been attributed to him [Clyde] by a clamorous and mistaken and I might say (if I had not been warned not to do so) politically biased prosecution, you could no more see him in the light that you do than you could rise out of that box and fly through those windows.”
Irreconcilable opposition to such witch hunts in the face of popular pressure is the trademark of principled socialist politics. Leon Trotsky insisted that socialists are socialists only insofar as they maintain “complete and absolute independence of bourgeois public opinion.”
Writing in 1922, the co-leader of the Russian Revolution described bourgeois public opinion as “composed of two parts: first, of inherited views, actions, and prejudices which represent the fossilized experience of the past, a thick layer of irrational banality and useful stupidity; and second, of the intricate machinery and clever management necessary for the mobilization of patriotic feeling and moral indignation, of national enthusiasm, altruist sentiment, and other kinds of lies and deceptions.”
These words may as well have been written about the #MeToo movement, which genuine socialists rightfully oppose.
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