Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Bill Cosby chronology

I find myself at odds with a lot of the explaining being offered about and around Bill Cosby. For starters, I never thought him a great performer. I sat through three or four episodes of the Cosby Show at various times during its how-ever-many-years' run. I didn't like it. I thought it not only preachy and condescending but also sentimental and mushy.

He was funny for a while but, like Woody Allen, he had an appeal to liberals that greatly exceeded his actual achievement. Which is to say, liberals revered Cosby more as an act of piety than anything else.

Rebecca Traister makes a similar argument in The New Republic:
White people loved “The Cosby Show,” especially liberal white people. They loved it because it was a great, funny, well-written, and beautifully performed television show. But also because it offered a warm vision of a world in which shared experience might help Americans of all colors to see past racial divisions and instead focus on the places where they connected.
She credits the show as being better than it was but, otherwise, she and I agree this far.

It gets interesting, though, when she goes on to argue why the allegations against Cosby took so long to reach the popular consciousness. 
But in addition to what it had, there was what “The Cosby Show” lacked: Any suggestion that white people were culpable in the history of racism that the show addressed mostly through reference to mid-twentieth-century activism. White audiences were never made to feel bad about themselves or confront any hard questions about how they had benefitted from American systems from which black Americans had not benefitted. White fans never were forced to wrestle with the question of what made this brownstone-dwelling African American family so exceptional. Rather, we were consciously invited to consider them a new normal. It was its own purposeful message, and not inherently a bad one. But it did permit white Americans to buy into one of their fondest (and falsest) wishes: to consider the sins of the past as past and believe that true racial parity was not only possible but perhaps upon us.
Well, maybe. But the allegations against Cosby go way back, all the way back to the 1970s at least.

Another way to approach the problem would be to ask the reverse of the question; instead of asking why the allegations didn't come out before, ask why they are coming out now. When you do that, you get a far more plausible chain of events, not least of all because it fits the timeline.

In particular, we want to ask about the role of the media. Media figures notoriously say things like, "the allegations were ignored," while conveniently forgetting that they were the ones doing the ignoring. That's the biggest lie in Traister's argument. It's not like "white fans" were wilfully ignoring allegations that everyone knew about, as is the case with defenders of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. No, white fans didn't have a clue that there were allegations because the media had failed to look into and then report on these allegations. And now, in Traister's view, it's the white fans fault!

If we approach it my way, the chronology looks like this:
  1. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Cosby gave people working in the media a warm fuzzy feeling because he supported the story they wanted to believe. A story that focused on the positive achievements of activism for racial equality. 
  2. Media liberals began to be disenchanted with Cosby in the decade following 2000 as he placed more and more emphasis on self-reliance and on social pathologies that exist in many black communities.
  3. Because Cosby was an icon, they criticized him more in sorrow than in anger and chose not to place much weight on the allegations as these would obliterate the older, sentimentally pleasing Cosby story they so much liked.
  4. Now that Cosby is more of a  forgotten man and, not incidentally, can be attacked with much less risk to their careers, journalists are rushing in for the kill.
  5. Because they held back, even though they knew there were problems, for so many years, there are a whole lot of allegations to bring forward.
  6. Desperate to avoid any conclusion that would reflect badly on the media tribe, Rebecca Traister blames white America for not feeling guilty enough.

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