The Virtuous Can Never Be Guilty

Actor Jussie Smollett leaves court after charges against him were dropped by state prosecutors in Chicago, Ill. March 26, 2019. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters)Virtue-signaling is now the refuge of scoundrels.

Since ancient times, it has always been scary when moral auditors audit their own. Or as the Roman satirist Juvenal put it of male guardians entrusted to shield chaste girls from randy males, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (“Who will watch the watchmen?”)

When humans sense that there’s neither an earthly nor divine deterrent between them and social acceptance, power, riches, or their appetites, what follows is a foregone conclusion.

Such exemption is precisely the problem with modern American progressivism. It currently enjoys almost a captive mainstream media. It assumes the lockstep approval of the university. The movies that come out of Hollywood pound progressive themes. Most foundations fund race, class, and gender agendas. Popular culture has defined cool and hip as left-wing. In sum, all the secular dispensators of moral approval are hard left.

The result is that progressive actors and institutions understand that even their bad behavior will be contextualized rather than audited. Such medieval-style exemption gives them a natural blank check to overreach and to act unethically, crudely, and even unlawfully — as they might not have if they had expected ramifications.

After all, Johnny Depp, Peter Fonda, Robert de Niro, Madonna, Snoop Dogg, and other exhibitionists factored into their obscene presidential vituperation that the powers that matter to them — movie moguls, film critics, media hosts, neighbors in their tony zip codes, universities — would award their hate or at least nod at it. Far less vitriol aimed at President Obama would have earned social and career ostracism, whether one was an erstwhile birther like Donald Trump or a Missouri State Fair clown wearing an Obama mask. Had Mike Pence hugged, kissed, squeezed, and blown the hair of women and girls in the serial fashion of good old liberal Joe Biden, he would have likely been asked to step down from his vice presidency.

The career of liar, conspiracist, racist, and anti-Semite Al Sharpton took off after his Tawana Brawley hoax — soaring onto cable TV and into the hugs of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The likes of a Bill Maher, Alec Baldwin, Barbra Streisand, Joe Biden, and Harry Reid know they can say almost anything they wish, on the premise that their occasional racist, sexist, and hate-filled slurs were long ago indemnified by cheap progressive virtue-signaling.

Say what one wishes about President Trump, but his first two years were the most scrutinized, audited, and examined of any presidential tenure in memory. It was not so much that Donald Trump’s inner moral voice would never have approved of a Lois Lerner in the IRS, or of his intelligence services and FBI sandbagging a Democratic presidential campaign, or of his attorney general surveilling Associated Press and Fox journalists or flying on a government jet to the Belmont Stakes with his family.

The point was instead that Trump likely could not have gotten away with any of that in his first two years. And that fact was known to Trump — given media coverage that was more than 90 percent negative, a hostile administrative state, and a censorious culture.

The exact opposite geography characterized the governance of his predecessor — and it showed, from Benghazi to the 2016 systematic subterfuge of the Trump campaign and transition.

In the past three weeks, we’ve seen an epidemic of all sorts of progressive exemption.

The ‘Dossier’

Christopher Steele, Fusion GPS, Perkins Coie, the Democratic National Committee, the Hillary Clinton campaign, and Hillary Clinton herself all assumed that a likely soon-to-be president Hillary Clinton, a 90+ percent obsequiously loyal press, and their own smug moral superiority could trump facts: To allege that Trump was a treasonous Russian stooge was to prove that he was, and thus such allegations need not be convincing or even sane.

I emphasize “sane” because anyone with a laptop, an Internet connection, and a high-school diploma in three days could have mastered the intelligence lingo and the scare capitals of Christopher’s Steele’s silly dossier format. An eighth-grader could have googled all sorts of Russian names, collated social-media conspiratorial websites, and come up with something far better. “Dossier” is a euphemism for Steele’s collected adolescent farces.

That is, an amateur sleuth at home in the basement in his proverbial pajamas would probably at least have double-checked to make sure that Michael Cohen’s wife was Ukrainian not Russian, or would not have claimed that her father (who apparently visited Russia once) was a mysterious leading property developer in Moscow.

In any make-believe scenario, certainly I would not have claimed that Carter Page was in line for a huge multimillion-dollar Russian commission — allegedly a 19 percent stake in Russia’s state oil company. Steele did not need to exhaust all the ways to make up titles and names to authenticate gossip and fabrications, given that within a few pages his anonymous tropes grow monotonous: “former top Russian intelligence officer,” “trusted compatriot,” “a number of Russian figures,” “Trump associate,” “Source E,” “source close to,” “an official close to,’’ “Kremlin insider,” etc.

Still, Steele’s sinister genius was in knowing that the more outrageously sensational his dossier, the more likely it would be read by the influential — as a titillated Clapper and Brennan knew when they first briefed Obama on the crude and salacious details. And in turn, the more daring Steele became in disguising his legends as fact, the less chance his liberal enablers would ever call him to account. And he was right, from his allegations of naked prostitutes to the golden showers desecrating Obama’s former hotel bed.

The former directors of the FBI, the CIA, and National Intelligence, top-ranking officials at the Department of Justice, FISA justices, all the media networks, CNN and MSNBC, and newspapers swallowed Steele’s pseudo–Mission Impossible grammarese and page footers in the mumbo-jumbo capital letters “CONFIDENTIAL/SENSITIVE SOURCE” because 1) they saw his clownish product as useful in ridding themselves of the hated Trump, and 2) they knew there would be no downside to being wrong.

They too were all correct, at least for three years and notwithstanding a lot of damage done to the country. When former Obama official John Brennan swore in May 2017 that before the election he’d had no direct knowledge of the Steele dossier, he knew that he was lying under oath to Congress, as he had in the past, and also that, as in the past, there would be no consequences for his perfidy. Do not underestimate the power of the current apologies that amount more or less to: “Okay, you finally exposed our con. Sorry — so can we now move on to the next one?”

Consequences? Not much. Perhaps the walls will close in on James Clapper’s cable-television gig. Or a contrite John Brennan might make one last televised accusation that his confidential, top-secret, oh-so-covert source misled him.


Would the right-wing doppelgänger of Jussie Smollett in 2019 Chicago even have tried to pull off a commensurate victimhood caper?

In a bizarro world, imagine a diminutive, white, straight, MAGA-hatted Trump supporter who was a minor actor in the reality show Ice Road Truckers who was by chance out walking in his MAGA-friendly, left-wing Chicago neighborhood on a frigid night at 2 a.m.

In such an alternative scenario, he would claim that by accident he suddenly encountered two large, gay, black, Farrakhan-hatted toughs, themselves out prowling in search of just such an obnoxious, white, straight, Trump-MAGA-hatted actor.

So of course, on their nocturnal hunting for white prey, the Farrakhan toughs came readily equipped with black shoe polish and a spare hoodie — to both hurt and humiliate our straight, white hero. They naturally attacked, in furious and instant recognition of the “hit” show’s actor, our twangy Alaskan semi-driver so popular in the black community — yelling something like “F*** you, honkey ‘Ice Road Trucker.’”

But they had no idea of the mettle of our heroic small, white ice-trucking actor, who bravely fought off the gay black racists. And he did so while recording his heroics on his cellphone and without disturbing his sandwich — though he struggled back, bruised, to his apartment with the humiliating hoodie still wrapped around his neck and a few drops of the shoe polish staining his coat.

Perhaps in 1960, in To Kill a Mockingbird fashion, such a white “victim” might well have gotten away with so surreal a con job, the same way that Smollett assumed he most surely would in 2019, given the left-wing ideological deterrence that shields lying, conning, and fabricating. So Smollett calculated that his wealthy-gay-black privilege would conquer all — and he was right, as he assumed all the indulgences that prior biases had earned in the past. The Kavanaugh hearings, the Covington kids, and the Smollett fraud offer us lessons: The fake victim not only gets off and will always get off, but he usually translates the concoction into profit and sympathetic victimhood.


Southern. Poverty. Law. Center.

By any liberal definition, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) had long been a fraud. It targeted mainstream conservative “hate” groups and non-liberals who did not hate anyone, in a systematic half-century effort to “make hate pay” in a country where the number of would-be victims now vastly outnumbers the diminishing number of the truly victimized. Think of old Jimmy Swaggart shakedowns on Sunday mornings, with secular “virtue” substituted for God.

SPLC’s co-founder Morris Dees and his team rightly understood that once you rail loudly against poverty and racism, especially in the assumed Neanderthal South, where it is “brave” to be so progressive, then almost any self-interested act is condoned in the name of higher morality and rationalized ethics — even if that anything includes office harassment, endemic sexism, racial condescension and bias, cronyism, and defrauding millions of liberal small donors in the North into thinking that their donations to Mr. Dees and his operatives serve the poor and the national good and their own sense of virtuous inner selves.

The wonder is not that at last even the embarrassed liberal media called for an accounting of the SPLC, but that it took so long. After all, the fraudulent nature of Dees’s hate knock-off industry and the damage it has done to innocent Americans were widely known. But then again, who is not against the old South? Who does not wish to stamp out Poverty? Who does not want to use the Law to go after evil? And who would not wish to focus such efforts in a Center? Add it all up and we get a half-century-old quite profitable nonprofit: SPLC.

Virtuous Money Instead of SATs

The subtext of the nationwide college-admission scandal was that mostly wealthy white liberals wanted their children to be eventually branded with degrees from liberal elite and near-elite colleges, whose admissions standards they had not met on their own merits. The miscreants did not have either the $5 million to $10 million or the sort of acceptable grades and test scores to buy their kids admission through the front door, so they did it on the down-low and on the cheap. The assumption was also that it was all an in-house affair of good progressives simply being properly matched up with good progressive universities. Surely such noble ends justify occasionally ignoble ends to achieve them. Why should white liberals in the trenches of social-justice warfare not enjoy the same sort of fast-tracking as upper-middle-class minorities?

There was certainly no concern by diversity-memo-writing deans that a deplorable truck driver’s son in Reno without white privilege but with superior grades and test scores might have lost a meritocratic slot to a rich liberal family’s real white privilege. By now, we know that those enjoying such privilege virtue-signal against those who do not enjoy it, either as a psychological mechanism of justifying their own elitism or as a crasser careerist effort to solidify their left-wing fides — or both.

The Steeles, Smolletts, and Dees of the world will continue to con their way to fame and riches while damaging the country — until it no longer pays. And it will no longer pay when we have the collective courage to accurately and matter-of-factly label Steele a pathological liar and fraud; and Smollett for what he is, a racist con artist; and Dees for what he has become, a virtue-signaling grifter; and our elite college system for what it has descended to, a non-meritocratic, cattle-branding operation that fast-tracks its chosen herd into green careerist pastures.

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NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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