Friday, November 21, 2014

The Fall of an Icon

Cosby as Cliff Huxtable with his TV daughter, Keshia Knight Pulliam (Time)
Bill Cosby is about the closest thing we have to being a cultural icon in this country. His contributions to the advancement of interracial relations are exceptional. His hit television series, ‘The Cosby Show’ (1984-92) literally changed the way Americans saw their black neighbors. For the first time blacks were portrayed as people with the same middle class values as their white counterparts. Cosby’s character, Cliff Huxtable was a successful obstetrician and Felicia Rashad who played his wife Clair was a successful attorney. Their children were as normal as any middle class white family’s children would be… having the same lifestyles, goals, and problems any middle class family would have. 

For the first time there was a major TV series that went against the stereotypical portrayal of blacks as an underclass living in slums and leading a life of poverty, violence, and crime with no decent values at all.

The fact that it was such a hit is what made his contribution so significant. I truly believe that this series changed the way most white Americans saw blacks.

Bill Cosby had a wonderful reputation before that. He was a man of honor who kept his word. My children’s elementary day school, Arie Crown, hired him for a concert fundraiser one year – at a very reasonable price. He accepted with a caveat that if a better deal came along - he could break his contract with us. That is exactly what happened.  But being the gentleman he was he promised us that next year he would come perform for us guaranteed for the same price. He kept his word. It was one of the most successful fundraising events we ever had up to that time. What made it special is the type of humor he presented. It was completely clean and it kept us in stitches. Shortly after that he debuted his series.

Bill Cosby did not stop keeping his eye on his community after his series ended. He was a man of conviction and did not let the political correctness of black leaders like Al Sharpton influence his actions. He ‘told it like it was’ despite enormous criticism from black leaders like Sharpton. He believed that the image of ‘Cliff Huxtable’ was obtainable for a lot more blacks than was currently the case. But that the culture of disinterest in education – that is so prevalent in impoverished black neighborhoods prevented it. He urged young black people to ‘pull themselves up by their own bootstraps’ and get out of the cycle of poverty and crime they were in which they were immersed in their own neighborhoods.

All of the made him a hero for me.  But there is a ‘fly in the ointment’.  First there were accusations of an extra-marital affair that produced a child. That proved to be true. He admitted it. And more recently there have been accusations of rape. Multiple accusations by women who described their ordeal in similar ways. Rape that occurred decades ago when Bill Cosby was a young man – albeit already a successful comedian.

Cosby has remained silent about these accusations refusing to admit them to deny them. Of course as is always the case, a man should be given the benefit of the doubt when one is uncertain of the truth. That is what our system of jurisprudence is about. Innocent until proven guilty.

That said, it is highly unlikely that so many different woman have come out recently to describe what happened to them so many years ago. All with a similar modus operandi.  It is doubtful that these women collaborated in some sort of conspiracy to ‘get their stories straight’. I don’t see what they could gain by lying about it. I doubt it is about money. If I understand correctly lawsuits are not available to them because of the statute of limitations. Why did they take so long to come out?  There are many reasons. Perhaps they thought nobody would believe them. Maybe they just wanted to get on with their lives and not spend the time and energy in what they probably thought was a lost cause in making accusations against a popular celebrity. I don’t know. But I believe them. There are too many accusations - similarly described - for them all to be false.

For those of you that felt the way I did about Cosby, perhaps we can see why there is so much disbelief and denial when a local icon is accused of it. It is very understandable there is disbelief when a community hero is accused of such despicable acts. How can a man like’ Bill Cosby’  (fill in your own icon) have done what he is accused of? Everything he stands for - stands against those accusations. They must be lies. And the person making these accusations are the real despicable ones. Who knows why they’re doing it. They are evil people. Or sick people. But liars either way.

I believe that this is what generates protocols  by Agudah like telling rabbis first before reporting it to police… and let them sort it out. Those rabbis know their ‘Bill Cosbys’. And they simply cannot fathom that it could ever be true about a man whose entire life has been dedicated to doing so much good for the world. My guess is that unless there is hard evidence of sexual abuse, accusations about icons are rejected. And then those abusers are free to continue their abuse.

Obviously it is the wrong approach to be biased in favor of an accused sex abuser whose entire life up to this point seemed to be exemplary – albeit a natural one. And that is why rabbis who are not experts - and are Nogieh B’Davar (biased) knowing well the accused and his pristine reputation - are not the ones to determine the veracity of an accusation.

I was therefore very gratified to hear the address given by Rabbi Avrohom Nesanel Zucker at the Agudah convention last week who made some of these very points. Perhaps his words and the events with Cosby will turn the tide.