Jussie Smollett’s staged hate crime hoax is not the only incident of its kind to be discovered recently. LGBTQ activist Nikki Joly has been charged with first degree arson for allegedly setting fire to his own home and then framing the arson as a hate crime.
Much has been made of the immediate problems created by hate crime hoaxes. Police departments waste time, money, and manpower on investigating fake crimes. If the hoax is not discovered, innocent people can go to jail. Hoaxers accept this as collateral damage. Joly allegedly sacrificed animals on the altar of faux victimhood: His 3 cats and 2 dogs died in the blaze.
These short-term issues are all valid but they don’t get to the heart of the issue. The longer-term problem is that rational people in vastly different situations see hate crimes as a viable way to boost their careers and social standing. This is a symptom of some societal toxicity in several ways.
The two hoaxers have more similar lives than first meets the eye. Smollett was making $125,000 per episode as a cast member on the HBO show Empire. For many people, that’s a dream job. Nikki Joly also had a sparkling career, albeit in a different field. An activist for decades, Joly was the driving force behind Jackson, Michigan’s first gay pride parades and the town’s LGBTQ community center. In 2017, at Joly’s urging, the city passed a non-discrimination ordinance that protects LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in employment and housing. In 2018, the city named Joly “Citizen of the Year.”
Both of these people had been publicly celebrated. And yet, they both decided victimhood was so valuable that they would risk everything to attain that coveted status. A good (or even just non-terrible) person who wants to achieve more in their career would be motivated to work hard and perfect their skills. Joly and Smollett, however, thought they had found a cheat code to success.
It is easy – and lazy, I contend – to dismiss these people as simply crazy. Their crimes were carried out according to a defined plan, not a rash impulse. And the last step in that plan has always been “tell the media.” Their plans worked, albeit for a short time.
In addition to their planning, the two hoaxers also underestimated the police. They would not have committed crimes if they thought they would get caught – because getting caught means losing their careers. The decision to fake a hate crime is based at least in part on a distrust of law enforcement. Anyone who thinks the police are competent would know that they would get caught.
Thirdly, these crimes also count on a complicit media to bring the “victim” sympathy without scrutiny. In that respect, both plots were successful for a time. Joly and Smollett each blamed right-wingers for the attacks, and their stories caught on like, well, fire. Smollett received an outpouring of support from Hollywood, and prominent members of Congress like Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren offered their support (who, of course, condemned the horrible racist Trump supporters who carried out the “attack.”) Joly got his name in the newspapers again, and he took advantage of neighbors and allies to the tune of $50,000 in donations. They both blamed the Right and cashed in. And who could be surprised that they chose to pick on Republicans? One need only look at Covington Catholic to see how the media will run with a Mean Conservative story without any fact-checking. The Right is collateral damage to the hoaxers. It is one thing to blame an entire group for the actions of one of its members. It is another to blame that whole group for the actions of none of its members.
This is not to say that real hate crimes do not exist; they do, and the victims deserve our sympathy. Their stories also deserve scrutiny, because everyone deserves the truth.
Joly and Smollett people assessed their plans and found the risks acceptable and the benefits substantial. They were right about the media but wrong about law enforcement. But this problem will not go away until tales of conservative hatred are no longer a rocket ship to public acclaim.