Death of a Cultural Hero

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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.

One thought on “Death of a Cultural Hero

  1. Allen Barber went to school with Bill Cosby. I didn’t read all your comments but Cosby was so much and now has become so old and disappointing.
    Lynn

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