Category Archives: Current Events

My thoughts on current events

Death of a Cultural Hero

Cos1

The cover of this week’s New York Magazine features 35 of the women who were assaulted/raped by Bill Cosby.

I, like many people, was shocked last year to hear of the allegations against Bill Cosby. At first, my reaction was, as it apparently was for many, a vague disbelief.

Couldn’t be.

Not Bill Cosby.

Not Cos.

My wife and I had seen him a few years ago when he came to Eugene. While he was funny and had a lot of great stories…I didn’t necessarily feel he was on the top of his game.

“Cos is gettin’ old” I thought to myself.

Since last year when the issue first came to a broader light (due to a viral video of comedian Hannibal Burress’s stinging stand up piece on Cosby), as the number of women accusing Cosby grew, people started lining up to take sides…most folks seemed to be either loathe to condemn Cosby without more ‘evidence’ or were strongly in the camp of the accusers, pointing out that this was another case where the victims were not getting the support they deserved because the accused was a powerful man.

For many, the story, and their opinions changed this week with the release of Cosby’s 2006 deposition from one of the civil cases brought against him. Reading in his own words his admission of not only his philandering ways, but the utter disregard he held the women he assaulted was eye opening to say the least.

Much discussion has gone on both in the world and in my household about the case of Cosby. At one point during some of our conversations I realized that my two daughters don’t have a clear understanding of the place Cosby holds in the zeitgeist of generations previous to them.

Bill Cosby & Robert Culp in
Bill Cosby & Robert Culp in “I Spy”

Cosby was a ground breaker. His first television series, “I Spy” was the first weekly dramatic television series to feature an African American in a starring role. In 1965 my Dad bought our first television set specifically so he could watch “I Spy”. Having a Black man on a primetime drama was important.

And his comedy albums were hilarious. I don’t think I every laughed so hard at something on my stereo as I did the first time I listened to his “Noah” bits from his first album. And to be sure…Cosby’s comedy was a cultural bridge. In the 1960s, to mainstream (read, white) America he and his comedy were “safe”. He was…”clean and articulate” as the saying goes. Whether talking about the trials of going to the dentist, or being a kid who was annoyed at his little brother, his humor transcended race and focused on the universal. Even White people could relate.

The Cosby Show ran from 1984-1992

In the 1980’s his status as a cultural bridge was increased with “The Cosby Show”.  Barely 19 years after his groundbreaking debut in “I Spy” he became “America’s Dad”…a concept that would have been as foreign to the television audience of the 1960s as the concept that Bill Cosby is a rapist seems to many today.

During one of our recent discussions my daughter mentioned the concept of finding a way of “separating the art from the artist”.  While I said that I appreciated the concept, the problem with doing that with Cosby is…his art WAS him…or at least it was how he represented it. All of his standup and much of his on-screen persona was a representation of who he said he was. On the Cosby show he was the “EveryDad”… knowing, empathetic, supportive, etc. In his comedy, he gave us his perspectives on life…HIS life….HIS family…HIS friends…he shared who he was with us….or at least who he wanted us to believe he was.  Unlike, say a painter who we can look at a painting and say “That’s a beautiful painting” without knowing that the artist is a sadist or a criminal or whatever….it is nowhere near as easy or even possible to look at Cosby’s works and separate the person from the persona.

This speaks to the increasing cultural trend towards the cult of personality. We hang any number of our expectations on the famous among us…who we think they are….and we add to that our perceived dichotomy between good and bad. People can only be one or the other. In the zeitgeist of the last half of the 20th century, Bill Cosby, as we knew him, could only fall into the ‘good’ category.

Cosby giving his “Pound Cake Speech” in 2004, taking African American parenting to task.

Even when Cosby first came under some criticism a decade ago for his moralizing in speeches criticising African Americans putting higher priorities on sports, fashion, and gang culture, he came across more as “America’s Cranky Grandpa” than anything else.

He still represented something.  A moral center for many.  The ideal for many – an educated, eloquent Black man who stood up and represented…who not only told us the right thing to do, but lived a life that exemplified it.

 

But now….

I’ve read much of the 66 page deposition. While a good part of it seems consists of Cosby’s lawyer interjecting to object to a question and clearly trying to keep Cosby from answering questions that would incriminate himself, the questions Cosby does answer and the words Cosby ends up speaking are damning regardless of their criminality.

Beyond just the fact of the philandering, the utter arrogance and disregard Cosby shows for his victims is appalling.

In reading through the deposition I kept thinking…

“He’s a sociopath”.

Some of the aspects of the character of a sociopath:

• Charming – While the sociopath is unable to fully understand the emotions of others, they are capable but rather highly adept at mimicking them and might appear to be charming and normal at first

• Lack of empathy – Inability to feel sympathy for others or to understand the emotional consequences of their actions

• Cold, calculating nature – The ability and willingness to use others around them to personal gain

• Narcissism – A personality disorder in itself in which the individual feels strong love and admiration toward themselves (often a defense mechanism against deep seated low esteem)

• High IQ – Often sociopaths will exhibit a high IQ which they can use to manipulate and plan

• Manipulative – Sociopaths use their superficial charm and high IQ to manipulate others to get their ends, and their lack of empathy allows them to do this with no sense of guilt or remorse.

In the deposition, Cosby demonstrates all of the above.

“…I think I’m a pretty decent reader of people and their emotions in these romantic sexual things, whatever you want to call them.”

Yeah, Cos, not so much.

So where does that leave us. In light of the deposition release, some are feeling extremely justified in their earlier condemnation of Cosby…some former supporters of Cosby are shocked, saddened and disappointed with the exposure of their cultural icon….I can only imagine what the victims are feeling….hopefully some sense of vindication.

For me, it’s a reminder that people are not all they seem. That we should be careful of putting people, anyone too far up on a pedestal, regardless of how admirable they appear to be.  But most importantly, that we as a society should, no, we MUST reexamine how we treat the victims of assault…..we have to be able to do this better.

Our systems have to change to provide a better way of dealing with, and helping assault victims from the beginning….not leaving it up to chance that the truth will come out 5, 10 or even 20 years later.
While there are plenty of specifics that may help…changing police procedures to take into account the specific issues and concerns regarding assault and what assault victims need, but the drive to make this happen, the place the change needs to happen is with us. We have to drive the change.

I have lost a cultural hero. I’ll live. I’ll move on. But as I do, I will be pushing for changes in how the system works, how people think, how we as a society view and respond to cases of sexual assault….so that we can avoid another Cosby…or more accurately, avoid another 35 46 victims.

Honoring those who risk their lives for us….

Today…

As I write this, a little window in the corner of my computer screen is showing the funeral of 4 slain Oakland Police officers live from the Oakland Coliseum.

At the same time, I am finishing up the planning for a going-away party for a friend & work colleague who is heading to Iraq in the upcoming deployment of his unit of the Oregon National Guard.

This juxtaposition of events has me thinking…..

I grew up in a left-of-center household during the 1960s. I became politically aware at a time when our society was undergoing some significant upheaval. The Civil Rights and the Anti Vietnam War movements had been challenging the moral authority of ‘the Establishment’ for the first decade of my life. The Norman Rockewell image of the friendly beat cop had given way to the much different images of the police from 1963 Birmingham and 1967 Chicago as brutal, armed protectors of the political establishment.
Cops were now ‘the Pigs’ and the American Soldier was no longer the brave WWII liberator, but were being chastised as pawns for taking part in conflicts that were not of their making or their
choosing.

Coming from that beginning, sometimes I have to make an effort to overcome some of the prejudices instilled from that era….to remember that not all cops are out to bust heads ….and
not every soldier is a jingoistic ignorant kid who is either to poor or too dumb to know better than to get sucked in by some predatory recruiter.

Sometimes it is hard to avoid the stereotypes…especially when, for example, the same week as we are honoring the slain Oakland Police officers, another story regarding a police encounter comes to light:

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/032609dnmetcopstop.3e9c080.html

A police officer detained an NFL player in a hospital parking lot while the player’s Mother-in-law died inside the hospital.

While there are always different perspectives to any story, from my viewing of the video, the officer in Dallas who detained Ryan Moats seemed more interested in imposing his authority than
dealing reasonably with the situation. These are the stories that strengthen the stereotypes rather than help us overcome them.

<sigh…>

Over the years I have known policemen and women whose only desire in taking the job was to help and serve their community, NOT just for gaining the power that some seek in that position.   And
I also know some incredibly intelligent, caring people, like my friend James, whose decision in joining the military came from a deep-seated belief in participatory democracy, and
from not wanting to let ‘others’ do the hard work in his name…

Yet, sometimes my own instict is to fall into the trap of viewing the police through an adversarial lens….and to view those in the military as ill-informed at best….even though I know this is not always true.

So, as the words from the friends, family and colleagues of officers Dunakin, Romans, Sakai, & Hege come to me across this little screen, I shed a tear for the senseless loss of life.  And as I prepare to say goodbye to my friend James who his heading for Fallujah soon, I pray for his safe return.
Finally,  I write this note to remind myself and others that there are brave and good people who put their lives on the line each and every day for every one of us….and this is an amazing and admirable thing.  It is a thing we should never take for granted.

And we should be eternally grateful.

-PEM

539w2

The Meaning of Today…

barack

01/20/2009

Today is an amazing day.

I’m sure I am not the first person to say that, and I won’t be the last.

Today is a special landmark in the political history of our country.  Regardless of your political leaning, be you Liberal, Conservative, Republican, Democrat, Green, Independent….you would be hard pressed not to acknowledge that this is something wholly new in our country’s experience.

Hundreds of talking heads have been saying the same thing for months now, and with all the hyperbole about today’s inauguration, it can be hard to discern what the true meaning of this today is…and what it will be years from now in retrospect.

Since I can’t begin to say what it means to others… maybe I can try to say what it means to me.

Since election day just over 2 months ago, I have been reflecting how much has changed in our society during my lifetime.  That seems like such an…”old person” thing to say, but when I stop and think about it, I see how true it is.  When I look at a timeline of my life, the arc of change that has happened has been remarkable.

momdad
Mom & Dad at their wedding in 1962

When my parents married in 1962, interracial marriage was illegal in 18 of the United States.

My Mom had taken part in freedom rides into Maryland to help desegregate lunch counters.  In 1963, when I was 6 months old she and friends took part in the famous March on Washington.

In 1969, the year after Martin Luther King was assassinated, my Dad returned to visit to his hometown in rural Georgia for the first time in 20 years.  On the main North South freeway on his drive down, just as he passed over the border into North Carolina, he passed this billboard:

klan

1969.

40 years ago this spring.

I don’t know if there is any clearer indication of how far we have come, than the fact that the same state of North Carolina that greeted visitors from the North with this sign in 1969, voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

Later that year, when my Mom and I flew down to Georgia to meet my Dad’s relatives, my Mom gave me one of the sternest lectures of my life:  She explained to me that we were going to a place where some people did not like other people because of the color of their skin, and to it was very important that we (meaning me) were well behaved and that I had to mind her if she asked me to do anything.  To this day I remember the tone in her voice…I had never heard her be that serious before.  It frightened me.  “Yes Mom” was all I could say.  And I did behave.

I grew up as a mixed race child who embraced all of the cultures from my family.  I spent my summers in both rural Georgia with my Dad’s family, in Norway with my Mom’s and in Crown heights, one of the largest black communities outside of the continent of Africa.  My family taught me the same lessons that Dr. King preached…it’s WHO you are that is important, not what you look like.  The content of your character.

So, on this past election night, when I watched as they announced Barack Obama as the projected winner, tears came to my eyes.   I was looking at my 12 year old  daughter Isabel, and realized that there was NO way she could fathom how momentous this moment was.  Yes, Isabel knew that our family supported Obama.  Her 16 year old sister Sofia had worked hard for two months interning for the local Obama headquarters.  But she has grown up in a place and time where overt racism has not been an integral part of her life.  It has never occurred to her to refer to her friends at school as her Black friends or her White friends (or Hispanic or Asian for that matter).  She goes to school with kids of all different hues, all different ethnicities….  And they are just…her friends.  The kind of racism that was reported about on the front pages of almost every newspaper when I was young, is absent from her life.

That is not to say that racism doesn’t exist…but with the events of last November and today, it feels as if it’s grip on our society has been loosened to a great degree.

Later on Isabel will understand….and hopefully, she will do so from having to study it as a relic of a society and a time gone past…not from current events.

Yes, we have come a LONG way in my lifetime…and my prayer is that we will progress further still before I am gone.

So, what does today mean to me?

It means that I will be calling my Mom and saying “Thank You”.

Because what Today really is, is a testament to what she and others did when they picketed and marched and shouted and sang and stood up, when picketing and marching and shouting and singing and standing up were dangerous things to do. And some of them were hurt, and some of them died…to help make a better future for everyone.

1963 March on Washington
1963 March on Washington

So, to me, ultimately today is a day of thanks.  Thanks to those who went before. And hope that we are creating a NOW that is worthy of the sacrifices they made then.

-PEM

“Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place,”

-South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, said in a letter of congratulations to Obama.