The Jussie Smollett claims of surviving an attack by racist, homophobic, MAGA-hat wearing supporters of President Trump prompted a swathe of too-soon takes about what his reported incident says about the country, with an assist from all too gullible members of the media, and a few presidential candidates too. Now, with a bit of a remove and thanks to the dogged reporting of local Chicago reporters, the story of this botched attempt at a hate crime hoax takes on a very different character. John McWhorter argues that it’s an indication of the rise of “victimhood chic” – and he’s right. But there’s something else here, too – a lesson in the shifts in assumption about our political opponents, and the decline of grace in America.
Consider Aaron Sorkin’s twist on the dramatic tale of another race-focused hoax, in his Broadway version of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. As you may know, this Jeff Daniels’ led version of the story is meant to be the tale from an adult perspective, and Sorkin does a good job of explaining the differences in a recent sit-down with Marc Maron. Sorkin struggled with giving Atticus Finch a flaw – necessary for the iconic figure to have a character arc. From the perspective of Scout the child, Atticus can do no wrong. But this is an adult take, so Atticus must become Atticus over the course of the play.
The flaw Sorkin chose to inject into Finch is telling: that he shows too much grace and forgiveness toward racists. In the interview with Maron at around the 30 minute mark, Sorkin explicitly says that “There were fine people on both sides” is the same as “liberal high mindedness that we’re going to try and understand everyone” and that “it’s bullshit.” In Sorkin’s view, it speaks to the aggressive politics of the times – that Finch is too forgiving of the racism of those who surround him, and that “sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and fight.”
The flaw he finds in Atticus is his tolerance… 18 years after he wrote this scene:
Sam: “I am so off the charts tired of the gun lobby tossing around words like personal freedom and nobody calling ’em on it. It’s not about personal freedom. And it certainly has nothing to do with public safety. It’s just that some people like guns.”
Ainsley: “Yes, they do. But do you know what’s even more insidious than that? Your gun control position doesn’t have anything to do with public safety, and it’s certainly not about personal freedom. It’s about that you don’t like the people who do like guns. You don’t like the people. Think about that the next time you make a joke about the South.”
This Aaron Sorkin vs. Atticus Finch storyline is a great example of where we are today, particularly considering it comes from the writer who created the modern vision of high minded do-gooder liberalism on the screen. His fantasy of Bill Clinton as a Northeastern Kennedy Christian, with abounding faith in humanity, where the other side plays to tribalist notions, was a warm blanket for liberals during the years of W. Then, it was okay to say most people are good and bad, and that they are on both sides. But that was when the ideas Sorkin espoused were viewed as culturally ascendant – now that he is unsure, the tone has changed. Essentially this depiction of Atticus Finch is Aaron Sorkin saying: Jed Bartlet was wrong.
What Sorkin is attacking here is not some faux idealized “liberal high mindedness,” but what we used to call Christian charity. This is what we’re losing. It is not a view based on an understanding that racism was good, or that racists are good; it’s that all have sinned and fallen short. Everyone is selfish and prideful and cruel, and we are tempted to act on these motivations every day of our lives.
To think that the heritage of the west, including post war liberalism, was a selfish, secular, practical arrangement of politics is a fiction. Instead, born of the knowledge that none of us are angels, we can have a culture that rests on humility and charity, not pride and spite. From the churches and meetinghouses of the founding, the American legacy that we inherit still makes up the timbers of the house, surrounding us in our lives. In its absence in the modern secular world, we can and will be reduced to the tribalism that is inherent to our nature. Only then can we assume that things like the attack Smollett described are really representative of our fellow Americans.
Tolerance as practiced by the Christian, enlightened West was never about thinking that bad people are good, but that we are all called to love the sinner and hate the sin. These are radical concepts, at odds with our natural impulses, running counter to the pride in all our hearts.
C.S. Lewis put it this way in Mere Christianity, in a passage that speaks to both Sorkin and Smollett:
“For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. . . . Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.
“Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere, he can be cured and made human again.
“The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker.
“If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”
As the voice of the American-left cultural zeitgeist, Sorkin believed and wrote one thing in the past, and is now much harsher and eliminationist in the present. And so deep down, in places he doesn’t like to talk about at parties, Aaron Sorkin wants all the people he thinks are more racist than him to hurry up and go away. And until they do, he doesn’t think they deserve to be treated the same way he does. Only when you see the other tribe as beasts can you invent the kind of hoaxes the fictional Ewells and the very real Smollett did.
This is a question about whether we are going back into darkness. Belief that your tribe is good and other tribes are evil is what everyone thought for most of human history. The human heart tends toward tribalism before tolerance. We can go back to that world. It still lives in all of us. Fighting it is the challenge, particularly at a time when the most audacious thing you can do is show some grace.