Huxter: Why Did We Look the Other Way?

2 Posted by - February 9, 2015 - In My Humble Opinion, In The Magazine

Bill CosbySince last October, allegations of sexual assault by Bill Cosby have spread like wildfire as dozens of women have come forward. I’ve noticed a common thread in the media’s hind-sighted handling of the revelations: Cosby was intimidating, he was respected, and he was a beloved figure. These characteristics contribute to a terrifying scenario—as they seem to mean that he was held unaccountable, and therefore, untouchable.

From his biographer Mark Whitaker to Erin Keane of Salon, the coddling Cosby coverage allowed him to slip through the cracks, despite mounting allegations of the most heinous order. The media had remained so complicit in coddling him that when NPR reporter Scott Simon finally broached the subject in a radio interview, Cosby was shocked into silence. Cosby had long benefited from the unspoken rule that such unspeakable things would remain unasked—especially of a man of his stature in popular culture.

But what if there are other conditions that condone compliance with criminal activity—and they have nothing to do with a person’s popularity?

In an op-ed in The New York Times in September, titled “Rape and Rotherham,” columnist Ross Douthat wrote about a small industrial town in England where gangs of Pakistani immigrants raped approximately 1,400 girls. According to Douthat, a combination of political and racial correctness had led to the perpetuation of these crimes, and more so, to them being deliberately ignored.

“The crimes in Rotherham,” Douthat wrote, “seem scripted to vindicate a reactionary critique of liberal multiculturalism: Here are immigrant gangs exploiting a foolish Western tolerance; here are authorities too committed to ‘diversity’ to react appropriately; here is a liberal society so open-minded that both its brain and conscience have fallen out.”

When Douthat wrote his op-ed, he was unknowingly describing the similar circumstances that have allowed Cosby’s alleged predatory behavior to continue over the years. The tide finally began to turn against the celebrity a month later when stand-up comedian Hannibal Burress’s bit about Cosby’s sexual assault history went viral. Suddenly it seemed that women were coming out of the woodwork every week brandishing new accusations of sexual harassment, ranging from forced oral sex to drugged date rape and worse.

Cosby has declined to comment on the disturbing allegations—even the few times when journalists actually dared to ask him about them. His long-standing wife Camille, however, did make a public statement in December asserting her husband’s innocence and asking the public to consider just “who is the victim?”

Who indeed?

In a society that idolizes celebrity above all, that elevates certain personas as “successful” based on their box-office dollars and their book value, it seems we have unwittingly created a culture of exploitation. By equating mass popularity with power, Hollywood has built a system whereby a sovereign can rule (and overpower) underlings.

This dominance is not unique to Hollywood. We’ve seen this in the Roman Catholic Church. We watched it unfold in the football locker room at Penn State. We have been here before.

But there is another dimension in this case: Is it possible that in our effort to elevate a successful African-American celebrity to such royalty in an effort to show just how liberal and just how post-racial our society has become, we gave less credence to women’s accusations about his sexual impropriety? Is it then possible that we not only created the culture that allowed him such omnipotence, but celebrated it as a way to revel in our open-mindedness?

Though these allegations had been first reported by white women, it’s important to realize that they only caught the nation’s attention at the hands of Hannibal Buress, also a black male comedian. Was this the only scenario that could have brought such a damning indictment on Cosby out in the open? Have we learned that political correctness does little more than to hide an underlying problem and that racism, sexism, and a rampan rape culture is alive and well in President Obama’s America?

And is this something Bill Cosby not only recognized, but cultivated as a cloak under which he hid his alleged misdeeds? Cosby has been known in recent years less as the pioneer who brought the Huxtables into our living room in the ’80s, but as a harsh critic of contemporary black youth culture. His rants have taken no prisoners, challenging his fellow African-Americans to “do a better job.”

For example, in a speech to the NAACP, he launched this invective: “People putting their clothes on backward: Isn’t that a sign of something gone wrong? People with their hats on backward, pants down around the crack, isn’t that a sign of something? Or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up? Isn’t it a sign of something when she has her dress all the way up and got all type of needles [piercing] going through her body?”

I wonder if it’s possible that Cosby’s offense was also his best defense. Was he pointing fingers away from himself so forcefully so that no one would dare look his way? It certainly seemed to have worked well—until the accusations were too much to ignore.

Douthat counsels us to look not at the old framework from which sexual predators have come before, but at the circumstance through which we enable them to be born. Precisely, those to whom we give a blank check in the form of respect, love, and the power of intimidation. To those we are afraid to challenge publicly.

“Show me what a culture values, prizes, puts on a pedestal, and I’ll tell you who is likely to get away with rape,” observes Douthat.
Bill Cosby was a man we could feel good about not only because he presented an uplifting vision of a truly progressive America but in part because he made us feel good about ourselves, by showing us how non-racist we were.

And yet by not holding his feet to the fire we demonstrated exactly how unequal the system is. In very much the same way we tend to dismiss all criticisms of President Obama as racist. Are most critiques of Obama based on some racial bias? Most likely. But denying that some opposing viewpoints may have actual legitimacy does a disservice to us all.

Holding a popular figure above suspicion—failing to challenge anyone who wields power when the powerless raise doubts about them—is the first step to creating a mask behind which evil can fester.

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