The Spiritual Tempest of Bill Cosby

Bill Cosby is 77. He may well live another 5 years, but is unlikely to live more than 10 years. Still, there are no accounts suggesting diminished capacity for the bright, thoughtful Bill Cosby who has been a famous comedian and more recently a brave social commentator on failed fatherhood in black America. In his eleventh hour, accused of serial rape, but beyond the statute of limitations and therefore immune to legal prosecution, the public eye focuses intensely on him. Cosby has become a character of Shakespearean proportions.

Aristotle’s second law of thought is the excluded middle. Something is either true or false, there is no middle possibility. When it comes to drugging minors and having sex with them, there is no middle possibility, no possibility of consent, partial or complete. It either happened, in which case it is criminal rape, or it didn’t. In the days ahead there will be a hardening of public opinion in one direction or another and this will contribute to a broader cultural narrative of either fallen idols or queasy ambiguity and averted gaze. Exoneration seems beyond the pale even if accusations are discredited, because of the large and growing number of accusations. It will be interesting to consider how the re-casting of Bill Cosby, who represented black America as we would have wanted it, will settle into our dawning post-Obama self-understanding.

Before Obama’s second term victory George Will wrote about Jackie Robinson breaking the race barrier in major league baseball. He wrote that as much as the hiring, the firing of Jackie Robinson was equally momentous in transcending racism. Some might make a similar argument about Cosby. Are we sufficiently post racist to re-cast a black hero as a villain? But that would be misleading. A fallen Cosby won’t be about a black hero who was actually a villain, but rather a conservative hero who was a villain, “America’s dad” who was a child rapist. If and when Obama makes oblique or direct reference to Cosby, it will not be as a fallen black hero but as the ugly face behind the mask of presumed domestic tranquility.

But at a Shakespearean level a more interesting speculation is the Cosby solliloque, the circumspection of the man, innocent or guilty, as the vultures circle above.

What if he is guilty? Among many other things there may be a feeling of relief. Some criminologists speculate that criminals often wittingly or otherwise leave clues which lead to their apprehension because they want to get caught. The guilty are burdened by the cognitive dissonance of leading righteous lives as upstanding citizens, neighbours and friends, while harbouring a great, hidden evil. We all seek psychological wholeness and one would think this would be especially so at 77. If Crosby is a Christian, and whether one is a professed, creedal Christian or not, everyone in America lives within an abiding loosely Christian spiritual framework, there is also the spiritual dimension. There is an economy of salvation. Evil has its consequences and better to pay now than to pay later.

But what if he is innocent? If Bill Cosby is blameless he would be especially indignant at the hurt caused to his family who are shamed by association. He would be upset at the shadow of an allegation which will always linger between him and his family and the rest of the world. He will see it in the eyes, hear the mental reservation in the voice. It will be bitter and disillusioning. But what if Bill Cosby is a saint? In The Brothers Karamozov the holy monk, the Blessed Zosima is mocked and ridiculed by a scoffer, a cynic. The scoffer dies and Zosima’s student, Alyosha Karamozov, is amazed that Zosima is mourning his death. If Cosby is innocent, if Cosby is a saint even the most shameful and untrue allegations can be an occasion of spiritual mortification and sanctification. If Cosby is a saint his heart of hearts may find freedom in being abandoned by fickle fame and adulation, he may draw closer to Christ despised, spat upon and crucified.

It is too early to pan too wide or to focus too sharply. Real lives, real victims and real villains are not a morality play. That is, they do not exist as entertainment or even instruction for our edification. There is good and there is evil, there is a place for public disclosure and a just reckoning, there can be speculation on the psychological and spiritual and there can be a sociological analysis of the effects of observing, speculating and fossilizing all of the above into an artifact to be included among the clutter of the furniture of our imaginations. It is so, but it is not peacefully so.

(Photo credit: The World Affairs Council / Wikimedia)


Joe Bissonnette teaches religion and philosophy at Assumption College School in Brantford, Ontario where he lives with his wife and their seven children. He has written for Catholic Insight, The Human Life Review, The Interim, The Catholic Register and The Toronto Star.

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