Say It Ain’t So, Dr. Huxtable!
Obama has been promising (or threatening, depending on your opinion of him) unilateral action on our illegal immigrant saga. Police and demonstrators are poised ominously along a figurative battle line in Ferguson, Missouri, until the grand jury finally decides whether to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of black teenager Michael Brown. (I suspect they’re afraid to announce their decision.) ISIS continues to decapitate helpful Westerners while we amass “advisors” in the vicinity. And Putin, that unpleasant and inscrutable mini-Stalin, has still been puttering around the eastern fringes of Ukraine without taking decisive action.
But the shoes have been dropping like thunder in the room occupied by one William Henry Cosby, Jr., a man revered not only for his comic prowess but for his once-unimpeachable air of benevolent moral authority. His accusers have re-emerged from the woodwork, insisting that the beloved paterfamilias drugged, groped, molested, sexually assaulted and/or raped them over a span of decades. The accusations first surfaced nearly fifteen years ago; there were rumblings and at least one out-of-court settlement, yet the accusations didn’t stick. Cosby appeared to be coated with more Teflon than Ronald Reagan.
Fast-forward to the social media era. Cosby’s P.R. team concocted an Internet challenge that invited creative Cosbyphiles to adorn photos of the star with catchy slogans — in the meme-generating manner of the Dos Equis Man or Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. It would be great publicity, they reasoned.
Never in the history of public relations — at least not since the White Star Line touted the virtues of its “unsinkable” new passenger ship back in 1912 — has a publicity scheme backfired so disastrously. Here came the meme slogans:
It’s Not Rape if You’re Famous
I Don’t Always Eat Jell-O but When I Do It’s Not Consensual. And by Jell-O I Mean Have Sex
14 Allegations of Rape? Zip Zop Zubittybop!
That Feeling You Get from Being America’s Most Beloved Serial Rapist
… and many, many more. You get the picture. Almost immediately the renewed accusations from Cosby’s female acquaintances went viral.
This is serious business. Very serious. Rape allegations are notoriously hard to prove, especially after the passage of time. And of course, wealthy men are easy targets for extortionists and unstable women with faulty memories. But the sheer number of accusations, coupled with the similarity of circumstances from one story to the next — well, let’s say it’s looking as if “America’s Dad” is due for a painful trip to the woodshed.
I always liked Bill Cosby even before he became an institution. I’d catch him occasionally as that amiable paternal authority figure, Dr. Cliff Huxtable, in his 1980s TV megahit, The Cosby Show. I was pleased to see him soaring in his middle age, creating a stable and prosperous black family for the home screen and making it go mainstream.
But it was the early Cosby that dazzled me most memorably, back in the 1960s, with an immortal series of comedy albums. Half a century later, I can still hear the sound of Cosby’s Noah sawing planks for his ark: VOO-pah, VOO-pah. And the adolescent Cosby’s early attempt at shaving with a razor: “ZIP-ZOP — my face is ripped to shreds.” And of course, the first appearance of that inimitable Cosby icon: “Come on out… FAT ALBERT.”
As a former white guy, I also liked Cosby for transcending race in those early routines. Back in the fractious ’60s, he made a positive statement about race by not making statements about race. Yet he was nobody’s Uncle Tom. He never forgot his roots, and neither did we: a trace of the ghetto always lingered in his delectable vocal mannerisms. He wasn’t implausibly impeccable like the saintly Sidney Poitier. He seemed real and vital. And yet, without ever raising the subject of race, he seemed to say that it was possible for blacks and whites to come together over shared experiences and a mirthful enjoyment of stories told with wit, nuance and gusto. I still think he was the most inspired comic storyteller of his time.
Numerous comedy buffs would vehemently disagree, of course. Even before the rape allegations dominated the headlines, the anti-Cosbyites typically accused him of catering to white middle-class sensibilities… of playing it safe and shunning controversy for the sake of mass acceptance. Richard Pryor was their idol: the manic, trash-talking bad boy whose world-view was permeated by the pungent comedy of race. Pryor was Elvis to Cosby’s soothing, cardigan-clad Bing Crosby.
Bill Cosby always worked “clean” — eschewing profanity on principle — and he castigated comics who habitually spewed four-letter words. He also castigated poor inner-city blacks — with the tough love of a disciplinarian father — in a series of controversial lectures to black audiences. Even I thought he went a little overboard in mocking ghetto speech and exotic African American children’s names, but his central message was clear and on target: that poor blacks couldn’t continue to blame all their misfortunes on white folks… that they needed to get focused, apply themselves in school and disown the more insidious elements of black street culture that dragged the community down. He risked his reputation among black Americans to make those statements. It took courage and conviction to say things that blacks (and the white liberals who made up a sizable share of his audience) didn’t want to hear.
I have to suspect that Cosby’s assumption of moral authority led to his undoing, and that’s his tragedy. Society has always reviled its hypocrites. Here he was, lecturing black people on how to live and how not to live — while he was allegedly drugging susceptible women for furtive and even reprehensible amorous adventures. Diehard feminists, black activists and other enemies of patriarchal authority must be having a field day.
Still, we need to ask ourselves an important question: do Cosby’s purported sins invalidate his message? Should we go back to obsessing about institutional racism, white privilege and all the rest of the convenient left-wing academic excuses for the woes of African Americans? Of course not. The messenger may have been flawed, but the message remains as relevant as ever. Look inward. Stop blaming others. Take responsibility. Prevail against the odds.
I just hope that, in the swirl of ugly accusations that will most likely unseat an idol from his lofty perch, the essential message doesn’t end up in the dumpster.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.