imgresIt’s hard to cross the Internet these days without reading an update on Bill Cosby’s falling star. As of this writing, a planned NBC comeback sitcom has been cancelled, and other new initiatives (like an ill-conceived social media meme push) have been met with anger and sarcasm. Perhaps most salient: TV Land has quietly stopped airing reruns of The Cosby Show, the sitcom that rocketed Bill Cosby to the national spotlight in the 80s. I missed the golden years of Dr. Huxtable and clan on The Cosby Show, so I’ve been discovering in tandem the tremendous legacy of hope that was Cosby’s acting work and the very real grief that Cosby’s private life has caused. Lord Have Mercy.

If you need to play catch-up with this story, I’ll point you to Vulture’s frequently updated timeline of events. Be aware there’s some explicit stuff in there. It’s enough to know that well over a dozen women have claimed that they were raped or sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby over the past few decades. That sinking feeling in your stomach is understandable–nobody’s comfortable with the idea that “America’s Dad” from the 80’s and 90’s is a predator in real life. One of the more surprising outcomes of this difficult conversation, however, has been a healthy amount of introspection, remorse, and repentance from pop-culture critics.

Perhaps the single most palpable moment of repentance came from The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, who in the later 00’s published a profile on Cosby’s political and social passions without reference to the accusations of abuse.

The Bill Cosby piece was my first shot writing for a big national magazine. I had been writing for 12 financially insecure years. By 2007, when I finished my first draft, I had lost three jobs in seven years. I had just been laid-off by Time magazine. My kid was getting older. I was subsisting off unemployment checks and someone else’s salary. A voice in my head was, indeed, pushing me to do something more expansive and broader in its implication, something that did not just question Cosby’s moralizing, but weighed it against the acts which I believed he committed. But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting, investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I’d ever written.

It was not enough.

I have often thought about how those women would have felt had they read my piece. The subject was morality—and yet one of the biggest accusations of immorality was left for a few sentences, was rendered invisible.

I don’t have many writing regrets. But this is one of them. I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away.


There are plenty of other writers who have shared similar regrets. Via Jake Flanigan at Quartz:

Allegations of Bill Cosby’s sexual misconduct have been part of the comedian’s public persona for years, despite a recent surge in media attention around them… I don’t believe the majority of Cosby’s fans are genuinely skeptical of the allegations.

For most, like me, the information was set aside, ignored; shoved away in a shadowy corner of the mind, packed into proverbial cardboard boxes labeled “Stuff I’d rather not deal with right now.” Or ever, really.

Flanigan and Coates both wrestle with the fact that they’ve made conscious and professional decisions to ignore abuse allegations, and they’re not alone, which has prompted an appropriately titled piece from The Boston Globe titled “Why did we ignore Bill Cosby allegations for so long?”:

Behind the sad, sorry saga of Bill Cosby’s career meltdown is something possibly scarier: Our own long-delayed response to allegations that have been out there, much reported yet never gaining cultural traction, for a decade.

The question has surged into the popular consciousness: Is — or was — the beloved comedian, sitcom star, and commercial pitchman a serial rapist? Numerous women have come forward with queasily similar tales of being drugged and waking up with hazy memories and telltale signs of sexual assault. Some of the alleged incidents happened decades ago, while others are as recent as 2004. There are no legal charges pending; Cosby is being tried in the court of public opinion.

Why now? Why not when People magazine published an article in 2006 that discussed the comedian’s civil settlement …? Is it because our social media have reached such a critical mass that water-cooler conversations are, by default, national? Is it because it took another man — comedian Hannibal Buress, whose stand-up rant against Cosby went viral last month — to finally get our attention?

A very good question, and one worth exploring. Given the timelines in question, it does seem that Hannibal Buress’s viral stand-up routine was a catalyst for recent developments (the New York Times certainly thinks so), but that makes the question even harder to ask: why did it take a viral youtube video to get our attention, when dozens of well researched and well written pieces of journalism failed to do so?

imagesPerhaps because Bill Cosby presented the hope to 80’s and 90’s America that the Huxtable life was achievable for everyone, regardless of race: perfect parenting, children who didn’t screw up too badly, professional achievement, interracial peace, and unending familial warmth. Not only were these things achievable, they were achievable for the non-white families of America. To complicate the issue, these expectations of achievement have been compounded with decades of nostalgia. The Cosby Show seems to be linked with other early selected memories, which created a fictional past that became the goal for the future. For so many who are striving to achieve The American Dream a la Cosby, it’s understandable that there would be resistance to the news that the family on the pedestal has such a dark underside. It doesn’t just shake up hopes and expectations–it shakes up the past as well.

The reality of course is that parenting is impossible, monogamy is borderline impossible, achievement is overrated, racial reconciliation hasn’t happened, and very real darkness results when we idolize (in both the pop-culture and biblical sense of the world!) the stories and characters that prop up our resistance to this reality. I’m reminded of a very stark interaction between Jesus and some of his followers in John 8. Jesus says, famously, “the truth will set you free” and his followers respond saying “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone–what do you mean “you will become free?”

The denial in their statement is astounding: of course the Jewish people have been enslaved! Whether it was the original bondage in Egypt, or any of the numerous invading nations during the period of the Judges, the Babylonian exile–even the first century generation living in Jerusalem was subject to an occupying foreign army. This group of Jesus’s followers (again, not the Pharisees or the Sadducees, but the people who actually liked Jesus!) combined their ethnic nostalgia and obsession with political freedom into a very bizarre mish-mashed way of understanding the world. So when Jesus tells this group: “Truly, truly, I say to you–everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin,” he is forced to follow it up with “you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you.” It’s not a stretch to understand his subsequent crucifixion as the result of a blind nostalgia unwilling to see how the world works. There’s a similar injustice when nostalgia prevents us from talking or thinking about justice, the big “L” law, whether that’s Bill Cosby, Jimmy Saville, or for that matter, any clergy-related abuse scandal.

This nostalgia-loving blindness applies to me too. I won’t pretend that I avoided clicking on Bill Cosby related articles for some time. Nobody likes a kick to the childhood, for sure. But nostalgia can be as potent a coping mechanism as crossfit or foodie-ism when it comes to denying reality. So the promise from Christ that “the truth will set you free” has a new ring to it–an invitation to see past the sitcoms, through the nostalgia, and embrace the sin/slavery/freedom paradigm that was the heart of Jesus’s ministry. Which also, coincidentally, happens to be at the heart of reality.