Another in a long string of racist hoaxes has come to light this week. The story of a 12-year-old girl at a Virginia Christian school, who alleged that three white boys pinned her down, insulted her, and cut off some of her dreadlocks, has turned out to be false, after the girl admitted she made the entire incident up.
This particular case had the added bonus of taking place at the school where Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, teaches. And the media could not wait to leap to their assumed priors about what they view as the bigotry of the second family. It was perfect. Too perfect.
Such cases have become commonplace in recent years, perhaps the most celebrated being the well-choreographed hate crime hoax by actor Jussie Smollett in Chicago. And as it turns out, these fake racist incidents are exceedingly common. In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that as many as one in three reported hate crime incidents are hoaxes.
Many people today, specifically those on the right, have come to take a wait-and-see attitude in regard to these events. As George W. Bush once put it, “Fool me once, shame on you, but you can’t get fooled again.” Yet so many Americans and so many American news outlets do get fooled again, and again, and again.
But why, knowing so many of these incidents turn out to be false, do we lend so much credulity to them before we have any evidence to prove them? What leads us to suspend our disbelief and assume that the perpetrators of hate hoaxes are victims and not fabulists, even when we know so often they are the latter?
America’s Exercise in Self-Loathing
The answer to this question speaks to a unique aspect of the current American moment, a deep self-loathing that has convinced many people in our country that we are irredeemably bad and that, of course, these racist incidents are going on all around us, even if we have never witnessed one. Put simply, we believe because we want to believe.
The idea that the United States is an evil and racist place is a relatively new one. In the past, we were aware of the racist sins perpetrated throughout our history, but we also celebrated real progress away from such a state of affairs. For many on the left, this is no longer the case. They do not view slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, and a whole host of other horribles as a stain upon the nation, but rather as the fabric itself.
And this self-defeating attitude extends well beyond racist hoaxes. The absolute hysteria we have seen in recent weeks regarding climate change is also directly out of this playbook. Not only are we frightening our children with absurd apocalyptic predictions of imminent doom, we are teaching them the United States is a major force for this destruction, even though our own contributions to climate change and ocean pollution are minimal in comparison to other nations.
In some sense, this is egotism. Of course it must be the fault of capitalism, of Trump, of America’s failed and faltering leadership in the world. Of course we are to blame. Of course we are the bad guys. And for those who buy into this nonsense, there is a prize. They get to be the brave souls, willing to speak truth to power, the heroes unbowed by the might and power of America.
A Bad National Attitude
But ultimately, self-loathing is as bad for nations as it is for individuals. It is a crippling affliction that steals away any sense of pride or promise. It leads to hopelessness and anger, and it makes us believe things about ourselves and our country that simply are not true. At the end of the day, this, more than anything else, is why so many people fall for these hoaxes. Like a battered wife who is convinced it is her fault, we blame ourselves for fictions, and don a hair shirt we do not deserve.
Unfortunately, there is no therapy for nations, no couch long enough for our broad continent to lie upon and engage in the talking cure. There is no universal anti-depressant to put in the water. There are barely even friends to say, “Hey, stop beating yourself up, you’re pretty great.”
For nations there are only citizens. There are only the people who walk its streets and drive its roads and propel it forward. It is our responsibility to believe in the goodness of our country, to believe in the vast opportunities it provides, and to cherish its freedoms and diversity. Once we lose that, as too many have, it is easy to fall into depression and fall prey to hoaxes that confirm our baseless cynicism.
We can hope for a media that is more careful in reporting incidents like this, but what we really need is a better understanding of how rare these hate crimes are and a better understanding of the goodness of most Americans. If we can achieve that, then we ourselves will doubt when doubt is called for regardless of cackling in the news. It is up to us, but at the moment, we do not seem up to the task.