Today’s media storytelling has perfected a genre of intensely sentimental and spontaneously generated folk tales, especially stories dealing with race and sexuality. Social media and cable news pour forth vividly moralized tales that are sometimes true and sometimes not. The stories dramatize wrongs in order to amuse and polarize what has become the Republic of Maury Povich. They boost TV ratings, ignite apoplexy in our iPhones, and organize Americans along angry ideological lines.
Sentimentality, the regime of feelings, tempts people to exaggerate facts in ways that awaken grievances and encourage hatreds. Social media and cable news move faster than the speed of thought. They flash about in the collective mind, propelled by sentimentality and by sentimentality’s evil twin—rage.
The tale of Jussie Smollett will be remembered as a minor 21st-century classic—a would-be tragedy turned comedy, a self-sentimentalizing narrative of persecuted innocence.