I've been thinking for several days about what to write about Bill Cosby. Writing about the subject of his recent public relations troubles presents several challenges for me.
It's a story that involves the tearing down of a black American icon. As a white guy, albeit a very progressive one, especially on racial matters, I believe it's necessary to proceed with caution. There are too many white folks who are eager to tear down black icons whenever the opportunity presents itself.
It's a story that involves rape. As a man, albeit a very progressive one, especially on matters relating to women's empowerment, I believe it's necessary to proceed with caution. There are too many men who are eager to cast doubt upon claims of rape, if not to excuse rape outright, whenever the opportunity presents itself.
It's a story that involves allegations of criminal conduct from long ago. As a lawyer, and as one who believes strongly in the Constitutional protections afforded to the accused, I believe it's necessary to proceed with caution. There are too many people who are eager to convict people, or acquit them, in the court of public opinion, whenever the opportunity presents itself.
It's like a subway where all three of the rails are electrified. But I have something to say about all of this, after a lot of careful thought.
I have always viewed Bill Cosby as a comedian first and foremost. I watched the Cosby Show because it was popular and funny and seemed culturally significant. I watched his later sitcom (the underappreciated Cosby, with Phylicia Rashād, Madeline Kahn, and Doug E. Doug) mostly because it was funny. His stand-up comedy--or, really, sit-down, as he mostly told stories from a chair--was and is brilliant. Like the best comedians of his era--Bob Newhart in particular comes to mind--he has an exquisite sense of timing. If you want to learn to tell jokes and stories in a comedic way, study him.
Aside from being a comedian, he's a highly educated man. He holds an earned doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. When he speaks on serious matters, people listen to what he has to say.
Psychologically, it's hard for me to square my mental image of this man who's made me laugh for so long a time with the very ugly accusations against him.
It is, in a very real sense, the same as the very ugly accusations against Stephen Collins. I have been a Stephen Collins fan since he starred in Tales of the Gold Monkey--another underappreciated show--and while I thought 7th Heaven was a treacly mess of bad writing and worse acting,* he was my favorite character.
* - Despite that, I have seen every episode, because one makes concessions when one's wife likes things that one doesn't.
And yet during that time he was apparently forcing a young girl to touch his penis. It's just hard to square the one image with the other.
Unlike the allegations against Stephen Collins (who admitted to his criminal conduct on tape), the allegations against Bill Cosby are of a nature that they probably can't be fully substantiated, and Cosby isn't talking. It's of course possible, though extremely unlikely, that the women (or some of them) who have come forward to accuse him of forcible rape have done so in hope of getting something for themselves. But the truth is that there has long been a trail of whispered accusations of affairs and such, and the oldest contemporaneous allegation of rape is nearly fifteen years old.
There is a tendency for people to hold celebrities up as heroes. I've never been one of those people, but even I have to admit that until recently if you were going to pick a celebrity to be a personal hero, Cosby wouldn't have been a bad choice. There are a lot of people, especially white people, who, upon seeing the Cosby Show, came to view black people--especially black professionals--in a different light...namely, as people, rather than black people. It was a watershed moment in American television and American culture.
The problem is that when you pick humans to be your heroes, they have an annoying tendency to blow up in the face of your hero worship by being human. Humans do bad things. They make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are tragic. Sometimes those mistakes are crimes, repeated many, many times, and sometimes those crimes affect the victims for the rest of their lives.
I don't know whether the allegations against Cosby are true or not, but there is an awful lot of smoke for there not to be any fire. I do know that even the possibility that it could be true has left me profoundly disappointed and sad. And that's not something I ever expected out of this guy.