Friday, April 27, 2018

Guilty! - A Teachable Moment

Bill Cosby's TV family - the Huxtables
‘I brought you into this world, I can take you out!’ With those words Bill Cosby became an icon, ‘America’s dad’, if you will. That is the nickname he achieved with his ground breaking situation comedy, The Cosby Show. That comment was made in the pilot episode.

The Cosby Show was one of the most watched comedy series in television history. And for good reason. It broke the negative stereotype many people had of black people. Although the Civil Rights Era had begun the process in the 60s, black families had nonetheless continued to be portrayed mostly as impoverished uneducated  slum dwellers, with their men being jobless; or drug dealers;  women as single mothers unable to impart wholesome middle class values to their children; and black adolescents were often portrayed as vicious gang members... and not much else.

Unfortunately the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not undo that stereotype. It took Bill Cosby to do that. His show portrayed an upper middle class black family where the father, Heathcliff Huxtable, was a successful doctor (an Ob/Gyn) and the mother was a successful high-powered attorney. The family was a loving one that lived in an upscale neighborhood; had wholesome middle class family values; and placed a high value on education. All of which they instilled in their children.

Not only that, but the family established itself as the standard for good parenting.  The opening line of this post was in response to his son Theo’s laziness about school. When confronted by his father about it Theo said something to the effect of ‘Can’t you just love me for who I am? Instead of the expected response of ‘Of course I do’, Cosby retorted sternly about the importance of a good education emphasizing his stern approach with the above quote. His ‘no nonsense’ attitude about education and the many seasons portraying a black family with wholesome family values forever changed to negative stereotype to a positive one.

Cosby’s private life seemed to be no different. He was a staunch advocate for a good education, self sacrifice, and a strong work ethic… and criticized many black civil rights leaders for not emphasizing those things enough - instead looking to the government for more help.

I will never forget the interaction Cosby had with Arie Crown Hebrew Day School. Just before his meteoric rise to super-stardom his comedy series gave him, he had a career slump.  Arie Crown’s board of directors (of which I was a member at the time) had contacted him to perform at one of our  fundraiser. He agreed to do so for a relatively inexpensive fee but conditioned it on a possible Las Vegas deal that would supersede his commitment to us - since that would pay him considerably more money. That is what happened. But he promised to show up next year for the same fee. And he did. 

We asked him to keep his routine clean and he did. It was one of the funniest performances by a comedian I have ever heard. Shortly after that his comedy series debuted. And the rest as they say is history. Almost.

Bill Cosby’s contribution to his community is second only to Dr. Martin Luther King’s contribution. 

I mention all of this to underscore the significance of what happened yesterday. Bill Cosby was convicted on 3 counts of aggravated indecent assault against  Andrea Constand in 2004 at his mansion .She was one of multiple women that accused him of drugging and raping them over a period of 50 years!

I was shocked when I originally heard those accusations back in October of 2014. But nothing made it as final as yesterday’s verdict. I was shocked all over again when I heard the word ‘guilty’ as the jury’s verdict. Cosby may spend the next 30 years in prison. Which for this 80 year old probably means the rest of his life. 

Frankly 30 years for taking advantage of his celebrity and sexually abusing - even raping so many women - which causied so much pain to those innocent survivors does not even seem like enough. Nor does all of his efforts on behalf of his people seem all that significant in light of it. 

On the other hand it must be said that I don’t see his conviction changing all the good he did.

How the mighty have fallen. So many prominent people, highly respected and highly honored like Cosby have bitten the dust. It seems to never end. Just today one of the most respected broadcast journalists, Tom Brokaw, was accused of sexual misconduct by a former female colleague. (He denies it!) Their true character has been revealed. Cosby is a Jekyll and Hyde. He is a great humanitarian and a human piece of garbage – all rolled into one.

This is a teachable moment. What we can learn from this is that people are complicated. I truly believe that Cosby was completely dedicated to bettering the lives of black people. Which he succeeded at – probably beyond his own wildest dreams. That was his ‘day’ job’.  His ‘night job’ was as a serial rapist - ruining the lives of dozens of women over a period of 50 years. And he almost got away with it!

The lesson we must take from this is that great people… people that seem beyond reproach… people that are worshipped as icons... people that contribute greatly to society can still do really bad things. So bad that all their good works almost pale by comparison. 

Cosby had so much respect; had done so much for his community and for the world, for so long - that accusations of sexual abuse could not be possibly be true. Not Possible! But they were true. In spades. Thankfully the system worked. To quote one of the survivor’s attorneys - in this case,  ‘Justice delayed was not justice denied’.

Which makes me wonder about what we would do if something like this happened in our world. If a religious icon in Orthodox Judaism were accused of sexual abuse, how would we react? Would we say. ‘Impossible’ and accuse the victim of lying? Or would we investigate the charges? And how would we implement an investigation?

This is where the lesson of Cosby’s conviction comes in. It takes a great deal of impartiality to get at the truth. A man with the achievements of a ‘Cosby’ might be treated differently than the average Jew. Especially if he has a life long history of tremendous service to the Jewish people and was beloved by them. The belief by his colleagues in the improbability of doing something so terrible can easily result in giving the accused the benefit of the doubt. And by default discrediting the victim, thereby traumatizing them again!

If anything can be learned from this event, it is that any individual accused of wrongdoing, no matter how accomplished, no matter how many or how great their contributions should be treated like anyone else accused. Which means the kind impartially that can only come about from the outside. Because of the obvious bias that an icon like that generates o the inside. No one that knows him, or even heard of him ought to be involved. Impartiality is key to the truth. Which is why those rabbis who insist on vetting all accusation through them are so wrong. If anything makes that clear it is this.