I've been trying to understand my feelings for the Cosby revelations, the accusations from many women of various ages (is it now more than 20?) that Bill Cosby assaulted them, sometimes repeatedly, sometimes after drugging them, over the course of decades. Cosby has had a shady reputation as a philanderer for years - but then what famous male entertainer hasn't? - and when the initial charges from Andrea Constand surfaced in 2002 everyone remembered a weird extortion attempt against him in 1997 that seemed at the time to be unhinged. The very same emotional resistance to the notion of Cosby the philanderer helped push Autumn Jackson into Crazytown; the thoroughly tragic death of Cosby's son in 2001 in a botched robbery, and his cranky-old-man lecture tour where he somehow found the nerve to tell black kids that they needed to be better than white kids, all that made it just much easier for those of us who were male and of a certain age to hope for the best so we could continue to fondly remember the man who taught a generation of young men comic timing and the art of the anecdote.
Bill Cosby was, ultimately, just an actor. But he was an actor so good his portrayal of how to be a loving father and husband - and a funny man - is one of the foundations of the modern American liberal male's self-image. Many (if not most) of the men in my generation had few positive role models in our immediate families; our fathers were often self-absorbed, distant, petulant, unsure of who they were or why they wanted to be fathers and what you might do with a young man aside from suppress his emotional range and act disappointed. And that's when they weren't just outright drunks, or physically or emotionally violent. That wasn't universally true, of course, and maybe that's also true of fathers throughout time. Its distinctly possible that my friend's fathers would say the same of their fathers. Its also true that many men are more patient and just plain fatherly with other people's kids than they are with their own, something I find disturbingly true as my life goes on.
And so, like it or not, we took our lessons where we could get them. It didn't really matter to me that Bill Cosby was black, to be honest; I didn't know any black people, growing up where I did, and I didn't see any reason to assume there was a question about the similarities of childhood or family life. That's not to say I didn't think that Cosby being black hadn't made his experience different than mine; I was a white kid, after all, and anyone with half a brain can see now that racism is alive and well in most of North America, and must have been even more so in 1980. But I laughed at the routine about the dentist, and memorized it word-for-word including the timing, because I'd gone to the dentist too.
You hope your role models aren't just acting. So much of the western world now seems to be enamored with pretending. Howard Stern runs the best interviews in the interview business; he's adept at puncturing the superficial gloss that covers most of his subjects, but he will for some reason seriously ask an actor about how hard it is to pretend to do something actually hard. Esquire magazine habitually puts out lists of achievers where the majority of the men are just actors, and so instead of lauding scientists, athletes, doctors, lawyers, writers, environmental activists, teachers, we get a short list of people who actually do stuff and a long list of people paid to pretend to do stuff and look good doing it. Its a bit sickening. Actually its a lot sickening, and its hard to know how to counter it.
And so Cosby is just acting, it turns out. Perhaps it was all just aspirational. Its good to have something to shoot for, after all, although speaking as a practitioner of fatherhood and husbandhood and heterosexual-manhood it would be good to know the aspirations had some actual living success stories, instead of just a pretty shell covering a rotten interior. (There are still some men I know who do live up to the example, who have set a bar suitably high and suitably attainable. At least I think they have.)
But the first thing I thought when the allegations against Cosby resurfaced this fall - a fall that capped a year where we've seen extraordinary progress in people refusing to shut up about their oppression- was the similarities with the Jimmy Savile case. Savile was likely significantly more destructive, not least because he was a pedophile who initiated and nurtured a large ring of men protected by celebrity and peerage. But the protection consisted of exactly the same thing: an unwillingness on the part of the men in power to believe that such a good guy was capable of such despicable things. This is not the same as the pedophilia ring in Oxford protected by a basic cultural oversensitivity; I suspect now that any Pakistani-looking man in England who even looks sideways at a young white girl will have multiple CCDs tracking his every move. Savile's path of destruction was facilitated with hero worship, with aspirations attached to evil: he was the wolf in sheep's clothing. His predatory instincts weren't just accidentally served by his function as a role model; those instincts pushed him to become the role model in the first place. And there was really never any reason for him not to be a role model, because all of the feedback for him pretending to be a good guy was positive. Cosby did the same thing. He could both attract his targets - what's referred to as "grooming" - and immunize himself from accusation once he'd accomplished his goals.
There have long been accusations on various conspiracy websites about gigantic pedophile rings among the rich and powerful. These rings get exposed - like the one in Belgium, or the one connected to Savile - or they get covered up, like the one connected to the Franklin Savings & Loan, which only became a topic of conversation again when Jeff Gannon showed up as a shill in George Bush's press corps.
But like most conspiracy websites, they generally miss the point about this problem. If the rich and powerful are getting away with something, its only because there are many many people who are neither rich nor powerful who choose to look the other way. Cosby was able to attack women repeatedly through the years because no one in a position to do something about it was willing to do something, for whatever reason. There are probably lots of men in Cosby's position, and lots more men who are unwilling to do something about those men.
But that's kind of par for the course: When a superpredator like Cosby or Savile is found people wonder "how could he have gotten away with it for so long?" The fact is, men (and women) ignore much more prevalent violence committed by just plain regular predators. Why should they act against charismatic superpredators when they can barely act on their friends and neigbors?