The Social Media’s Misguided Mandates

From Opus 348, February 2016

LET’S BE CLEAR about one thing: in nothing I say about Bill Cosby should you find anything remotely resembling an endorsement of his behavior with women. Cosby in his prime was a sexual predator—seeking, and finding, sexual gratification wherever he roamed. He simply couldn’t keep his pecker in his pants, and in that behavior, he violated most civilized standards.

            But we can say much more than that about the Cosby case.

            Something like 50 women have come forward in the last couple years to say that Cosby seduced them with drugs. Seducing that many woman is deplorable enough by its number, but employing drugs to accomplish the task is despicable. But if that many women have lined up to accuse him, how many more are there who haven’t said anything? My guess: a lot.

            Perhaps all of those uncomplaining others enjoyed sex with a famous tv star as an amusing recreation. But whatever they thought, there were undoubtedly a lot more than 50 Cosby conquests.

            If we count the 50 as “failures” (because they haven’t remained silent), simple logic suggests that there are a lot more “successes” who have said nothing. Cosby’s technique was, then, successful. Surely he wouldn’t have amassed such a large number of “failures” if there hadn’t been many more “successes.” Every “success” taught Cosby that his technique worked. Every “success” persuaded him to try the same technique again. And again. So the very number of “failures” suggests that there were many many more “successes.”

            And why was Cosby so successful? Two things: fame and ambition.

            Cosby’s career as a seducer began in the late 1960s at just the moment that his career in television achieved its first resounding success. Co-starring with Robert Culp in “I Spy,” Cosby was the first African-American to achieve a starring role in a weekly dramatic tv series. He was already a successful stand-up comedian, but “I Spy” made him an icon. He was famous. And fame is an aphrodisiac. A famous man—a celebrity—will attract young women for either (or both) of two reasons.

            First, young women, like young men, are finding themselves, discovering their allure, and they do that by flirting with men, young and old. Young women spying Cosby and appreciating his fame can be imagined as eager to discover it they can charm him into their arms. Maybe not into bed, but at least into a promising embrace. That’s simple human nature, kimo sabe—nothing sinister about it. Young women spend a certain amount of their youth in finding that they have power over men. And the final exam is to exercise that power over a famous man.

            Second, some young women—the kind Cosby might be likely to encounter on the sets of “I Spy”—can be imagined as aspiring to careers as actresses themselves. And from that supposition, we can easily imagine that they saw Cosby as a possible avenue to success, even fame, in television. If he liked them, he might help them. And Cosby realized that many of the young women around him in those days saw him as a way to achieve a career in tv acting. He realized he could get them to come to his room by promising to help them achieve their ambitions—to give them some acting tips or career guidance.

            Surely none of these women were so naive as to suppose that Cosby invited them to his room to play chess. Could be that they didn’t think they’d wind up in bed with him. Maybe they thought only that a little heavy necking might ensue. And maybe some of them thought sex between the sheets was a distinct possibility. What they thought about why they went to his room is a little beside the point.

            The point is: when they went to his room, they were drug-free. Cosby’s routine did not include giving them drugs to get them to follow him to his room. They went on their own volition—for any of a number of reasons, a couple of which I’ve just described. And so far, Cosby isn’t quite as sinister a seducer as he has been pictured in the news media.

            Up to this point in this imaginary (but highly likely) progression of events, Cosby hadn’t yet deployed drugs. That came after he got the women to his room—if, that is, we are to believe the stories many of the 50 accusers/victims are telling. They were invited to his room, and there, Cosby drugged their drinks.

            And what drug was he using?


            Quaaludes were first synthesized in the 1950s as something between a sleeping pill and a sedative. By fighting the sleep-inducing effects, a state of euphoria could be reached in which inhibition was reduced and libido enhanced. Quaaludes became a very popular recreational and legal drug in the 1960s and 1970s. Many users found that taking quaaludes relaxed them and made sex better. The effects in some users were different: they fell asleep. Others suffered more severe consequences. But that didn’t stop the general trend towards quaalude parties.

            Then in 1984, Reagan signed into law a ban on the production and sale of prescription quaaludes. Some were still around, and it was possible to obtain them for years thereafter.

            What Cosby was giving the female visitors to his room was a drug he expected would make their sexual experience better. It also made sex possible by reducing inhibition. And for at least twenty years, ’ludes were a widely used recreational sex drug. And they were legal until 1984.

            Although more powerful in reducing inhibition than, say, a glass of wine, ’ludes were not that different than any number of other devices by which men for generations have plied women for sex. The women who have lined up against Cosby say they were raped. Cosby says the pills and the sex were consensual.

            That doesn’t make it right. That doesn’t excuse Cosby.

            But it does raise a question or two.

            Did Cosby commit a crime? Is it a crime to seduce young women who are smitten by your fame or fortune—young women who may be seeking to advance their own fortunes by having sex with you?

            Assuming that there were considerably more than 50 women whom Cosby seduced—and we are, I think, safe in that assumption—they apparently had no complaints. And they had no complaints because they believed they were participating in a sexual custom of the times—a quaalude recreation, a sexual sport widely practiced in nightclubs nation-wide.

            As the allegations against Cosby have surfaced, numerous organizations have severed ties with him, and previously awarded honors and titles have been revoked. Reruns of “The Cosby Show,” the historic sitcom that presented for the first time the experiences of a middle class African-American family as those of an ordinary American family, have been pulled from syndication.

            Due to the excessive reaction of an all-powerful (and completely unrestrained) social media, our society has done its best to erase Bill Cosby and everything he has done—the good with the bad.

            Isn’t that a bit much? Does the punishment fit the crime? Or is it a bit excessive?

            Rachel L. Swarns, an African-American woman, writes at the New York Times that she “felt a stab of grief” as she watched Cosby on television being led to the courthouse.

            “Not for Mr. Cosby,” she explains, “—but for the genial father and devoted husband who once filled my television set, the funny man who felt like family. I’m talking about Cliff Huxtable, Mr. Cosby’s alter ego, the amiable obstetrician he played in ‘The Cosby Show’, the pioneering tv hit of the 1980s” (it ran 1984 - 1992).

            Swarns was a high school senior when Cliff Huxtable first came into her livingroom. There had been, she admits, other shows about black Americans—“Sanford and Sons,” “Good Times,” and “The Jeffersons”—but in them, “portrayals of African-Americans sometimes edged toward caricature. Watching Dr. Huxtable, who embodied so many of the fathers, grandfathers and uncles we knew, was electrifying.”

            In many ways, she goes on, the Huxtables’ lives “mirrored ours. We had lively dinners, battles over report cards and curfews, and days when we were just plain silly, delighting in the delicious minutiae of family life.”

            She knew Cliff Huxtable. “I knew lots of Cliff Huxtables,” Swarns said. “We all did. ... Dr. Huxtable was finally making families like mine visible on national television.”

            After “The Cosby Show” ended, Swarns liked knowing that Dr. Huxtable “lived on in late-night reruns. ... It was hard then to know where Dr. Huxtable ended and Mr. Cosby began. Mr. Cosby inhabited the role so completely that for a long time, I thought character and creator were pretty much one and the same.”

            And then came the allegations of rape. Swarns was forced to admit that Huxtable and Cosby were no longer the same person. But she takes solace, she said, “in the knowledge that Dr. Huxtable helped to lay the groundwork for the remarkable range of African-American roles showcased on television today. I like to think that I see him in the diverse faces of a new generation of characters.”

            She admits that she’s not ready to watch Cosby as Dr. Huxtable yet. “Maybe,” she goes on, “in time, I’ll find a way to reconcile my conflicted emotions, to separate the character from his maker, and to resurrect the vital and upright Dr. Huxtable who had lingered for so long in the back reaches of my memory.”

            For now, however, she leaves us with a disturbing question: when an artist is disgraced, what happens to his art?

            When we found out Michelangelo was gay, was his ceiling at the Sistine Chapel suddenly less than a masterpiece? Was his David less than exquisite? Or the Pieta? Does knowing Picasso’s unconventional sex life devalue his paintings as wonderfully imaginative works of art? What about Rembrandt’s sex life? Modigliani’s? Toulouse-Lautrec’s? Are we supposed to stop watching the cinematic genius of Charlie Chaplin because he preferred very young women (teenagers was it?) as sexual partners?

            What effect—if any—will our knowing some unconventional detail of their lives have upon our appreciation of what they created?

            Because of Bill Cosby’s exploitation of his fame, is the thing he created—a new and more accurate vision of African-American family life that revitalized a medium—doomed, now, to oblivion? Can we ever again see this historic, medium-shaping creation? Is that vital piece of cultural history now lost to us forever?

            For the time being—in February 2016— “The Cosby Show” can still be seen, all of it, on Hulu. But how long will that last before the power of social media condemns it, too, to extinction?

            Aren’t we going overboard more than just a little?


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