The disgrace of Bill Cosby, and what you can do about it

November 21, 2014 Originally published on SFGate

Bill Cosby is, allegedly, a serial rapist. A sexual predator. Long known and carefully buried, but now, finally, come back to harsh and devastating light.

It’s not exactly easy to swallow. How to process this monstrous incongruity? “America’s dad” and one of the funniest, most talented humans in your lifetime apparently got away – legally, anyway – with some truly shocking, repellant acts of sexual aggression and abuse multiple times, with multiple women, spanning upwards of 30 years, due to the ferocious power of his celebrity, his unblemished image as beloved American icon and, of course, for the same reason many sexual predators get away with it: by inducing so much fear, pain and “no one will ever believe you” confusion into his young victims, it (almost) ensured they would stay quiet forever.

Did you cringe, reading that paragraph? Deny? Refuse to believe? Is the story of Cosby’s (belated, perhaps long overdue) downfall as a result of his multiple acts of sexual abuse the saddest, most disheartening story of the year, of the decade? Just might be.

Surely you know by now: As of this writing, 15 women have come forward over the years, two very recently – and word has it that many more still wait in the shadows of shame and fear – with allegations that Cosby’s gross sexual predation aren’t merely true, but also indicative of one of the most successful, calculated suppressions of criminal behavior in recent entertainment history.

The funniest/most trustworthy, AND a serial rapist? The soul recoils.

Not that Cosby hasn’t been accused before. People Magazine, of all places, ran a detailed account of some similar allegations nearly 10 years ago. (Gawker sums up Cosby’s vulgar history quite well, and Vulture has a good timeline). As comedian Hannibal Buress so famously said in his now-viral comedy bit, you just needed to Google “Bill Cosby rape” and boom, there it all was.

Except no one wanted to believe it. It was just too bizarre, to incompatible with the image of safe, eminently trustworthy Cliff Huxtable, with Cosby the legendary family values advocate, with our cozy, rose-colored collective memory. What’s more, Cosby’s celebrity wattage was still too bright.

Not anymore. Thanks to the Internet, thanks to more women than ever coming forward, thanks to increased attention on issues of rampant sexism and rape culture, thanks to the fact that Cosby doesn’t have the superstar power he once had, the story appears to be taking hold.

And getting larger, and more damning, and more bizarre, and more antagonistic to the Cosby-as-forever-loveable reality we all thought we were living in. So it goes? If you must.

Do you need a refresher? Because Bill Cosby wasn’t just funny, or clever, or successful. He’s a downright legend, an American icon across multiple mediums for upwards of 50 years, and deservedly so. He sold millions of comedy records. He was a brilliant, groundbreaking standup. He won the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award in 2003 and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2009. He recorded one of the best comedy albums of all time. He voiced Fat Albert, sold a billion tons of gross Jell-O pudding, starred in a variety of mostly terrible movies, et al.

And of course, “The Cosby Show” changed the face of TV for a generation, was the number one show in the country for five straight years, in very large part because Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable was the perfect Everydad, honorable and accessible, beloved across all races, demographics and socioeconomic classes. And so on.

How does it affect your fuzzy, wacky-sweater memories of those fairy-tale TV years to learn that Cosby was (allegedly) back in his dressing room in between some of those Cosby Show tapings, drugging young women and molesting them?

Cliff Huxtable, wacky, warm and eminently trustworthy, in better days.

Harsh stuff indeed. This is the thing: It’s not merely that the allegations can’t be ignored anymore. Nor is it that Cosby, who is now 77, can’t be arrested, or even charged. Years have passed. There is no extant evidence. As Hanna Rosin points out, as far as Cosby and his legacy are concerned, the court of public opinion – i.e.; public shaming – is all we have left. So far, it might be working.

What about the possibility that Cosby is innocent, and all those women are, for some reason, collectively out to get him, a strange and inexplicable conspiracy? It’s possible. But also utterly baffling. As Ta-Nehesi Coates puts it in his thoughtful mea culpa over at the Atlantic, “A defense of Cosby requires that one believe that several women have decided to publicly accuse one of the most powerful men in recent Hollywood history of a crime they have no hope of seeing prosecuted, and for which they are seeking no damages.” To what end?

What about the idea that a belated public shaming, if it really reaches a fever pitch, might actually serve as some sort of cautionary deterrent to other powerful, grossly predatory, sexist men with similar Cosby-like tendencies? Impossible to say. Far more problematic is the fact that so many men like that exist in the first place.

Which leads us to something more important to ponder, a looming, sour question in the heart.

Few things worse than a cherished memory, fouled by reality

Few things worse than a cherished memory, fouled by reality

It’s not, as I first imagined for this column, a question about the murky psychology of it all, how one of America’s funniest, most-loved entertainers can also be one of the most predatory and hurtful to women. There is no easy or satisfying answer available, and hunting for one might be a waste of time.

Nor is the question about an “appropriate” punishment for the aging Cosby. Public shaming might well have its say. Will Cosby even hear it? Will sexism apologists?

Perhaps the most important question of all is: What can you do about it? What is our response – on a personal, intimate, day-to-day level, the only one that really matters?

Because we have to be careful. When a trusted cultural icon (or priest, or athlete, or parent, or friend) is revealed to be corrupt, to be not at all what s/he seemed, the bait of corrosive cynicism is deviously tempting; it’s easy to be disgusted by the darker impulses of the human animal, and our demons of suspicion love nothing more to be proved right. This way bitterness lies. And it’s pure poison.

But what about more direct action? Things you can actually do? Maybe you do the only thing you really can do. You observe your own world. You re-double your efforts to understand and upend the signs and machinations of rape culture. You become hyper-wary of sexist trolls, rape apologists, harassment of women, everyday sexism, threats to basic decency.

You look more closely at the toxic messages hurled at young boys and girls regarding how to behave, love, communicate with, value the opposite sex. You change the story from the inside out. In other words, you work on your own karma. Because at this point, Cosby’s is far too foul to comprehend.

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Mark Morford

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