Monday, July 27, 2015

841. We need to talk about Bill Cosby

We need to talk about Bill Cosby.

No, not in the simplistic sense that we've been talking about him.  And listen, I have every reason to take the allegations against him seriously, because I've been affected by this sort of thing personally.  It is never acceptable to take advantage of someone else that way.  But it's also never acceptable to gloss over the facts.  And there are certain facts about Bill Cosby that are being lost in the narrative being constructed around him today.

Remember the last time people talked about Cosby?  I bet you don't.  The thing is, he had finally become a social crusader.  After decades of Hollywood entertainment, being known for a succession of television series and as a stand-up comedian, Bill Cosby stood up in a different way, and attempted to address the problems facing the black community.  Not as they stood in the 1960s, the last time there was serious discussion in that regard, in the realm of civil rights, which was necessary in a different way.  This time, Cosby was addressing the problems in the black community itself.  This is an article about that.

He even released a book about it.  And this was years before the series of sensational police confrontations that drew national attention to race relations all over again.  Curiously, I've seen very little about any of this in the blogging community, at least the tiny corner where I happen to reside.  That's exactly how these things happen.  We actually like boxing ourselves into tiny little corners, isolating ourselves from the greater world, pretending that these things don't affect us.  But this is a national conversation, and it behooves us to participate.  We fear alienating each other, but that's exactly the problem, because we live in a culture that thrives on alienation, because there's very little connection between these segments of the population, these millions of segments that exist within the millions of inhabitants within the United States.  We have, in many ways, fragmented to a far greater extent than ever before in our history, which by the way is riddled with fragmentation.  You may or may not recall that even at its founding, during the Revolutionary War, there were those who were fighting, and those who called themselves Loyalists, who supported the British cause.  Which is to say nothing about the Native American population, never members of the official population, much less the slaves who belonged even to some of the Founders.

The transition from slavery to the population at large was a long and difficult one for black Americans, and for years we patted ourselves on the back because we had finally established what seemed like true social equality.  I don't know about you, but I never stopped hearing grumbles about Equal Opportunity.  Cosby existed, it seemed, completely outside of this whole conversation, much the way Willie Mays did in the Jackie Robinson era.  Mays was criticized then.  Cosby didn't seem relevant at all.  He starred in one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, and represented as a result what the culture thought as one of the greatest triumphs of the further integration of the black population into everyday American life.

If only.  And this is strange, too, because Cosby didn't start out his life on the national scene with The Cosby Show.  His first brush with fame was the mid-60s adventure series I Spy, where he starred opposite Robert Culp, and nothing was made of this interracial dynamic.  He next focused on Fat Albert, arguably his most famous creation.  The Cosby Show lasted for nearly a decade and at that point, when he had reached middle age, that was the end, more or less, of his popular career.  Ghost Dad was an abysmal failure at making him a movie star.  He continued landing TV projects, but the culture had moved on, somewhat reluctantly, from him.

So he changed his focus.  It's worth remembering how Cosby began life before we move on with this discussion.  His father was absent during Cosby's formative years, living a military life during WWII.  At this point, we ask ourselves, how much of an impact did that have on the young Cosby?  Because when we look at the legacy of The Cosby Show and his later message about the crucial importance of personal accountability in the black community, the further question must be, Was Cosby affected for the worse or the better by this absence?

The answer, I would argue, is more complicated than the current narrative would suggest, even as it neglects to look at the man beyond the current controversy.  His reputation and his accomplishments, indeed his entire voice is being threatened with total erasure.  I think this is wrong.  What he did was wrong, too, but needs further examining.  Desperately.

What Cosby himself was saying in later years, in effect, was that children need fathers. Without fathers they lose direction.  For most of his life, Cosby seemed like nothing at all had gone wrong with his life because of his absent father.  But when you look at the importance of fatherhood in The Cosby Show, you may come to a different conclusion, too.  This was perhaps the last great sitcom to celebrate the notion of fatherhood, which at that time was coming under fire by the evolving popular culture.  Married...with Children and later, Family Guy, began sending a different message.  The Cosby Show was the last time fatherhood was presented as a paragon of virtue in the household.

And yet what do we say about The Cosby Show now?  That it was a Bill Cosby vehicle.  And in fact it was, his last great platform to say something substantial to the culture around him.  Because the next time he spoke, nobody listened.  And, I would argue, he angered the black population he was seeking to help.  Because the very thing he sought to champion, personal accountability, has completely left the conversation in the current climate.  There has been no one arguing what he argued, just a few years ago, when Cosby's last days of popularity vanished in an instant.  Once he stopped being funny, nobody cared what Cosby had to say anymore.

All along, while taking the allegations seriously, I questioned the timing of bringing them up again.  Look around you and you'll find race relations charged as they haven't been in decades.  There have been no leaders, however, to emerge to try and make sense of it.  We live in a culture where everyone has a voice, but most of us feel like saying the same thing, and we don't much think about what we repeat.  And that's a shame and that needs to change.  When we have conversations at all, they're more argument than anything, ignoring and vilifying the other side.  There's very little intelligence in any of it.

What I'm saying is, someone became interested in silencing Cosby.  Whether in retaliation, because in a lot of ways he was one of the pillars of the black community and was easy to take down because of unrelated issues, or because he would have been voicing things in this climate that were not a part of the emerging message.  Yes, Black Lives Matter, but as Cosby had argued, they're as subject to accountability as anyone else's.

The other side of Bill Cosby worth talking about, which has been and needs to be addressed, is what he was doing to women for decades.  But also, what women were doing to themselves.  Yes, he was wrong, but those women should never have put themselves in those predicaments to begin with.  Their fathers failed them.  This is not me arguing, blame the victim.  But this was a man who had been famous for decades.  That's the other point of reminding you about I Spy.  Because while everyone remembers The Cosby Show these days, it seems everyone's forgotten that he was famous well before it.  What does prolonged fame do to someone?  It affects them, naturally.  Cosby wasn't just famous for one thing, but for at least four career successes, three TV shows and his stand-up.  He was married through all of it, by the way.

And yet, for whatever reason, woman after woman, because of that fame, kept presenting themselves to him.  Not to submit themselves to some wicked appetite, but ultimately, it was a temptation Cosby couldn't turn away from.  The thing is, these women were drawn to a famous figure.  Regardless of their motivations, this becomes, at least in part, a cautionary tale about fame.  Not just about what Bill Cosby did, but what led to it to begin with.

There have been various comments made that the Hollywood community knew, more or less, what was going on, and other comments that of course Hollywood knew, because that's what Hollywood does.  But is it really a Hollywood thing, or a cultural phenomenon?  This is what fame attracts.  Any time a male music act attracts crazed admiration from young women, that's what's happening.  It's completely irrational otherwise.  When you remember the reaction Elvis Presley provoked, or the Beatles, or One Direction, you should hopefully understand Bill Cosby a little better.

The problem is, figuring out how to equate, in your mind, Bill Cosby with Harry Styles.  There just seems to be too vast a disconnect.  But there it is, all the same.  Harry Styles didn't do what Bill Cosby did, but he's in exactly the same situation.  And that's what Cosby was trying to talk about concerning the black population, too, this issue of accountability.  The father figure of The Cosby Show doesn't seem capable of what Bill Cosby did anymore than you can envision Styles taking advantage of one of his fans, drugged or otherwise.  The Bill Cosby who was a comedian doesn't seem to have had any problems you might have associated with an absentee father.  He seemed far too well-adjusted, too successful.  But the successful Bill Cosby didn't emerge right away.  He was someone before he was a comedian, before he was famous, decades before The Cosby Show.  Yet at the height of his fame, he chose to address fatherhood, its incredible responsibility, as the important subject he viewed it to be.  Because he knew firsthand what happened when the father isn't there.  It negatively impacts a life.

He saw the black population losing its accountability, spiraling out of control, losing all its cultural momentum, the more fathers disappeared from the black community.  Cosby would have been the voice saying that it wasn't the police but the victims who should have been examined in all these shootings, questioning why they were in that position to begin with, not blaming them but asking why that scenario happened at all, not blaming white cops and ingrained racial problems, but looking further.  Questioning.

He knew this because he saw the flaws in his own life.  If you were to ask Bill Cosby today, instead of accusing and condemning him, he would be repeating that same message.  He tried to do what he could when he could.  This despite his own flaws.  What I'm asking now is, Are we going to lose his message because of the man behind it?  Or learn from it, and continue to learn from Cosby himself, because this seems like the last opportunity we'll ever have.  Because we seem poised to stricken Bill Cosby from the record.

And that would be a mistake.  That's why we need to talk about Bill Cosby.

8 comments:

Pat Dilloway said...

His message was a good one so hopefully someone else can champion it.

msmariah said...

This is a difficult conversation because Cosby's crimes are so heinous. It doesn't mean that everything he's ever said about children needing father's is wrong, but it does call into question his credibility. How can one pull a splinter out of someone else's eye while not removing the plank in their own?

Admittedly, no one is a perfect person, but Cosby's crimes go so far beyond that. Despite being a rich and powerful man, he felt the need to drug and rape women, which he didn't need to do. Having adulterous affairs outside of his marriage is immoral, but raping women is horrific and criminal. He destroyed some of these women's lives. Thus, I cannot in good conscience listen to anything Cosby has to say...despite the merits of the conversation.

Tony Laplume said...

The sad part is, the message seems to be lost otherwise.

Maurice Mitchell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony Laplume said...

I do not "blame the victim." The point I made was that they, and any male at that, gravitated toward him in an irrational, need-to-be-close-to-a-famous-person manner. Which I then discussed in a way anyone should be able to recognize, because people clearly do that all the time around famous people, which is an entirely different scenario than how rape tends to occur. When Cosby allegedly took things further, he certainly crossed the line, which I also discussed. Because as I indicated, I take rape very seriously. Thanks for stopping by. Have fun writing about Superman.

Maurice Mitchell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony Laplume said...

"Temptation" in that these women were in some way approaching him, despite the fact that he was married, and finding themselves alone with him (again, despite the fact that he was married). By his own admission (from testimony, no less), he was under the impression that he could "read" women and whether or not they wanted to go further. What I'm saying is, these women should never have been in that situation to begin with. That's why I go on to talk about women behaving similarly toward other famous people, however irrational it seems to be from anyone else's perspective. What makes Cosby exceptional is that he did, allegedly (I see no reason to cast judgment, which everyone seems to have done quite easily), cross the line, dozens of times across decades.

What I'm trying to introduce to the discussion is a broader view, including Cosby's motivations, his frame of mind, his perspective, in and out of context (although one eventually goes along with the other), and yes, address, assuming things happened as they seem to have, the situations from more than just what happened, which is to say why. Rape victims don't ask to be raped. To suggest otherwise is completely ridiculous. But there's a difference between a rape victim and someone infatuated with fame. A rape victim does not walk into a situation wanting to be raped. Cosby's alleged victims did not want to be raped. The thing is, they should never been in that situation to begin with. Famous people are not magnets.

If Cosby did what he seems to have done, he is certainly the monster he now seems to be. But the very fact that he dedicated so much of his life to helping create circumstances where other people would never fall into the same trap he did (and here is the crucial distinction: Cosby is the one who fell into his own trap, not the alleged victims; fame didn't make him do it, but it presented the opportunity), because a society that values accountability (which ironically is very much what the public is demanding of him) promotes citizens for the good decisions they routinely make and helps curb the bad decisions we otherwise see all around us on a regular basis. That's what he was trying to say a decade ago, and what his famous sitcom served to illustrate every week.

It's unfortunate that what's being lost, in- and outside of the Cosby situation, is a rational, intelligent means to a solution. All we're doing is causing further alienation. To my mind, it's by far the saddest outcome possible. We're a society that loves to sensationalize everything, and forget the consequences, and judge, judge, judge. We're all guilty of it. And when we want to pretend this worst impulse doesn't exist, we bury it, pretend it isn't the worst thing we can do. And we become passive-aggressive, making friends while demanding something in return, denying those friendships if this absurd demand is denied. We opt for selfishness instead of selflessness as if that's what it's all about. It's my silly opinion that if we want to pretend to be such good people, we maybe ought to be good...Life in a bubble is only good until the bubble pops.

It sucks that when I finally got people reading my blog, I ended up concluding that no one does want to know what I think. I have nothing of value to say. And so I'll just shut up...

Maurice Mitchell said...

No, I've deleted my comments. You make valid points

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