Editor’s note: We received such a strong response to this column that Sandra Shea, managing editor of Opinion, wrote a piece. Read Shea’s take on the controversial Cosby column here.
The jury is deliberating, and all we know at this point is that no one will be happy when the verdict is returned. We don’t know the answer to the question “guilty or not guilty?” but we know that the six or nine words will not be enough to put an end, a coda, to one of the saddest stories that has been spun about a man who made us laugh. The debates, the doubts, the recriminations will go on long after the lawyers put their papers back in their briefcases and shuffle, slowly, out of the courtroom.
If I had my way, we’d never come to verdict on this case. The greatest damage has already been done, and that is the shattering of beloved myths and comforting relationships by the proxy of television and nostalgia. Bill Cosby is Cliff Huxtable, regardless of what the critics say. We are all made up of perception and reality, fact and fiction, aspiration and confirmation. It is ridiculous to argue that a man who was capable of creating the character that fathered a generation did not, at some deep level, possess those nurturing characteristics.
And, yes, he is an adulterer who admitted to giving women drugs for sex. He has confessed in a secular confessional to betraying the trust of his wife, and perhaps of the women who considered him a mentor before he moved them to another spot on the sliding scale of human interaction. I’m not able to say, now, that he is completely good and that his legacy is one of pudding pops, gentle mugging and pitch-perfect tributes to a disappeared city on the edge of a cultural revolution.
It now includes quaaludes, sex with women not his wife, and betrayal.
But I am allowed to refuse to believe that it includes rape. I am entitled, at least while this jury is out and well beyond, to craft a different narrative from the bits and pieces of complaints and testimony of women who waited years — decades — to come out of their own self-imposed shadows and say “me too, listen to me, too.” I will be called a slut shamer, a cruel skeptic, the reason that rape victims hide their shame in silence.
I’m prepared for that, even after the verdict is announced, because I think this case is sui generis. There is too much of everything here, too many women reciting the same story (and instead of showing consistency, I think it could signal the mob effect.) Too many people willing to pull down a man who, because he happened to say the taboo things that shamed young black men for living down to expectations, is considered a traitor to the race. Too many women who see in this an opportunity to exorcise the ghosts of all the meanness in the world, the assault on their presumed dignity, the Trump effect. This, I think, is the real reason so many people want to see a conviction: It will confirm that the world is a dangerous place for my gender, and get a condemnation, by proxy, of the patriarchy.
And that’s my problem with this prosecution. Bill Cosby is an easy target, able to stand in for all the men who might have mistreated us in a distant past, and a cautionary tale to those college frat boys who might take advantage when we lie supine and drunk on the floor in the future. After a year of leaked commentaries and conversation, evidence and prognostication, we are left with the words of one woman and one man, and yet it’s as if the tidal wave of feminist history is set to engulf that one man as some kind of vindication for all the women who’ve been wronged. The 50 other accusers, like a finger-wagging Greek chorus in the back of the courtroom, stand in for the wronged women of the past. Gloria Allred leads them in righteous chant, and we look on.
It’s not that I think Bill Cosby is a victim, here. He’s lived a good life, and he’s reaped the bounty of serendipity, hard work and just reward. Right place, right time, right stuff.
But I do hate these trials that pit an evolving societal ethic against a flawed human being, one person, albeit a person greatly privileged, to make a point that “we’re better, because now we get it.”
This type of proceeding, with breads and circuses and wailing choruses, shows we really haven’t, after all.