Bill Cosby is no Julius Caesar, but if I am reminded of Mark Antony’s funeral oration it is because the Coz crossed a Rubicon of his own making and by that deed—those 47 deeds and counting—has reached a point from which there can be no turning back.
The sadness I feel in this hour is not for Cosby the man. Whatever comes to him now he has brought on himself. Nor is it for Dr. Huxtable or Fat Albert who will now certainly be killed off—murdered, really, by the hand of their own creator. Nay, not by his hand but another body part.
My sadness is for the women who were victimized twice by the man Joyce Carol Oates has described as the Rasputin of serial rapists. First because of what happened to them during drug-assisted rape—and second, because they were not believed. It may be that they feel vindicated, as some have already stated, by unsealed court documents in which Cosby admitted to buying drugs in order to have sex with women. But their allegations, coming late in the game and all at once still raise concerns about the peculiar way so many piled on at the same time and well after the criminal statutes of limitations had run out. Although similarities in their various stories seemed to lend credence to their accusations, a dispassionate observer could not be faulted for feeling the whole thing was being orchestrated. But by whom, and for what, and why now?
That lawyers for the Associated Press were able to convince a federal judge to unseal documents from a 2005 court case does not remove those questions. But they no longer matter very much. If by conspiracy of one sort or another, someone was out to get Cosby—to halt development of his new TV show, muzzle his neoconservative call for black self-responsibility, put him in his place, expose him as a liar, fraud, or criminal—they have succeeded. But not without his help.
It must be noted, as Whoopi Goldberg has vehemently pointed out on The View, that no court has convicted Cosby of anything. In the United States of America, you are innocent until proven guilty. And may that staple of our democracy never change.
The thing is, there is this unsealed testimony now. Unlike the Duke Lacrosse players who were condemned in the media before allegations against them were proven false, there is a damning record of Bill Cosby in his own words. Even if he is never convicted of rape, lawyers representing the alleged victims have already said they plan to use the unsealed documents as evidence that he perjured himself in subsequent court proceedings involving their clients. If nothing else, his $400 million-dollar fortune will become fodder for a settlement machine. To say nothing of the damage to his reputation.
Which brings me to my Mom, who in her 90’s suffered from Padgett’s Disease and arthritis and began the slow decline that eventually took her mobility and ended her life. I lived with her during that last difficult year. She was not a fan of medication and took only NSAIDS and vitamins to get through the day. Once an avid reader whose interest in books strongly influenced my career as a journalist and writer, she relied heavily on television for entertainment and diversion during her final years. She was especially fond of the Huxtables and sometimes watched reruns twice a day. I’d pass her room on the way from the kitchen to find her clapping and laughing—she was a laugh-out-loud, large-living woman—at some scene from the deservedly popular Cosby Show. Sometimes I’d watch with her, grateful the series generated endorphins that helped ease her suffering.
I am equally grateful now that my mother had already left this world when allegations of rape leveled against the comedian became credible with the unsealing of documents from the 2005 court case. That news would have felt to her like a kick in the gut.
My mother’s generation looked to black figures on the world stage as heroes for the cause of freedom and equality. For her, that cause meant proving to the white world that we were not the despicable things too many of them took us to be. She loved Joe Louis, that Brown Bomber of a boxer, because his victories in the ring made the rest of us look good. She became a Dodgers fan only because they hired Jackie Robinson. She adored the first African-American to have his own TV Show, Nat King Cole, so much so that my siblings and I still joke about having to hide his albums because she played them ad nauseam.
Sidney Poitier was in that group too. Although she was not likely to understand this, I learned something from Poitier that not only influenced my own life decisions but which helps me now as I reflect on the undoing of Bill Cosby. It was this: the pressure to represent an entire race is an unreasonably heavy burden. While I understand the psychological necessity of working-class blacks in the time of segregation to find heroes in black super stars, the time for that kind of “sacrelization of identity” is past. People like OJ Simpson, Tiger Woods, R. Kelly, and now Bill Cosby have shown us that celebrity images are just that. What we see on the screen is not real. The image-making apparatus shows only the part that can be useful for selling rental cars, instant pudding, and music downloads.
When I was a young news reporter, I once interviewed James Earl Jones, who also helped me gain some perspective on all this. We spoke by telephone—I in San Francisco where I’d worked as a TV news anchor and he in New York where he starred in a production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. To curry favor, I pandered to his ego, a strategy that often worked when interviewing politicans. I told Jones that he’d been a hero of mine for a long time and a significant role model. But he was having none of it. “Had to be somebody else,” he said. “Someone a lot closer than me.” He was right, and I felt ashamed that he saw through my insincerity. Of course, there had been others: my father, my uncles, and the necktie-wearing school teacher who became a father figure for my brothers and me after my Dad died.
I am sorry that Cosby is about to have a hard landing in these, his late years. But as the song says, “We don’t need another hero.” The real heroes are around us where we live. Not on TV or in the movies. They ride rapid transit, get up early in the morning to make sandwiches for school lunch, help their children with homework. When someone opens fire in a church, they fight tears to forgive the man who took the lives of people they loved.
The Coz is about to get his comeuppance. Those who follow scripture will see the inevitable in this. For as Luke 8:17 makes plain: “There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.”
Those familiar with Aristotle, however, may feel a sense of pity and fear in the sad fate of Bill Cosby, which begins to look more and more like a Greek play in which a heroic figure is undone by his own tragic flaw. Be it by hubris, lust or both, Cosby is going down. And he is taking with him those two good fellows who were not real but whom so many of us loved: Fat Albert and Cliff Huxtable are dead.
As reprehensible acts are recounted and recriminations mount, we can expect much more than the removal of Cosby’s bust from a Disney theme park or the end of his syndicated TV shows. This is only the beginning of a tragic demise, whose truest lesson it seems may be found, appropriately enough, in Sophocles: There is no happiness where there is no wisdom; no wisdom but in submission to the gods. Big words are always punished. And proud men in old age learn to be wise.
But of course by then, it is usually too late.