Wednesday, October 3, 2018
"How Long Can You Tread Water?" The "Drowning" of Bill Cosby
Image & quotations from "The Best of Bill Cosby" WS 1798 Warner Bros Records 1967
When we were young, Bill Cosby was a positive force for encouragement and reconciliation. Growing up in a hyper-conservative church, coping with a spirit of marginalization that typified the us and them estrangement of fundamentalism, I and my peers found Bill Cosby’s borderline irreverent Noah routines startlingly refreshing. His 1963-64 album Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right!” included several comic dialogues between Noah and God that captured the humor often missing from sermons, but all too accurately portraying humanity in all its foibles, cleverly typifying our own struggles to be the people God wanted us to be, even though we were clearly not. Being teenagers, my friends and I regularly amused and assailed each other with the payoff line of Noah’s snide reply to his puzzled neighbor about the purpose of this gigantic thing he’s building that’s spilling across his neighbor’s driveway: “How long can you tread water?” (“Noah: And the Neighbor”). In the final routine, “Noah: Me and You, Lord,” God fires back the same words to the exasperated Noah’s angry complaints and resistance to finish the project in obedience to God’s will, “How long can you tread water.?” Suddenly, amid the sound of crashing thunder and driving, a chastened Noah bleats, “Me and You, Lord – all the way!”
As is still true today, those were days of great tension between white and black people, as the trajectory arced from the white-entitlement resistance to the civil rights movement, through the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the responsive riots in many cities, including my birth city, Plainfield, New Jersey, where a policeman was stomped to death by an outraged crowd of citizens. But Bill Cosby’s was a consistent voice of reconciliation in those years.
Wikipedia notes, in its excellent entry, updated on September 30, 2018, the Sunday after Bill Cosby was incarcerated, that he remained a positive force for peacemaking: “While many comics of the time were using the growing freedom of that decade to explore material that was controversial and sometimes risqué, Cosby was making his reputation with humorous recollections of his childhood. Many Americans wondered about the absence of race as a topic in Cosby's stories. As Cosby's success grew he had to defend his choice of material regularly; as he argued, ‘A white person listens to my act and he laughs and he thinks, “Yeah, that's the way I see it too.” Okay. He's white. I'm Negro. And we both see things the same way. That must mean that we are alike. Right? So I figure this way I'm doing as much for good race relations as the next guy.”[i]
When Aída and I were ministering in Newark, one of our most enjoyable times of snatching a little relaxation on a Saturday night was to join the mothers and babies, the young men and women on dates, the elderly residents and other neighbors, all of us squirreled away in small apartments, many crowded into walk-up efficiencies above the city stores, gathering together at the local theater to see the latest urban-oriented action movie. By the time we arrived, those who had been there all day were quoting the lines before the actors up on the screen did and hooting at their various pratfalls and foibles. One of the best was Bill Cosby’s Let’s Do It Again, in which he co-starred with the distinguished actor Sidney Poitier. VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever dismisses this film with the words, “Lesser sequel to ‘Uptown Saturday Night,’” and rates it with a mere bone and a half, but that, I believe, is because their reviewer did not see the movie with an urban audience and so missed how exhilarating a movie it really is for its target crowd. A milkman and a factory worker on a mission for their lodge struggle with gangsters and all other comers by using completely non-violent tactics to succeed. What a salutary message for 1975 – or any year!
That same spirit of reconciliation filled “The Cosby Show” (1984 and on), and its celebration of family, which, along with all his other prolific work, earned Bill Cosby numerous honors and Emmys and honorary degrees (besides his earned degrees, including a doctorate in education).
So what on earth happened? How is it that this past week on Tuesday (September 25) he went to jail for three to ten years on three counts of “indecent assault” amid a host of allegations of drugging numerous young women with methaqualone (Quaaludes) and sexually assaulting them. How could this have happened over so many years to a person who worked so hard to promote a spirit of reconciliation in some of the modern United States’ most difficult times of estrangement? How could this public paragon of peace, end up being revealed as a private predator, destroying so many women’s lives? His crime was not a one-time event when someone gets drunk, inhibitions drop, he rapes someone, and sobers up horrified and repentant from then on. His pattern of sexual violence went on and on and on, year after year, victim after victim. This was an addiction to violent assault and Bill Cosby became a permanent victim of his violent addiction.
In that way, his own life less paralleled Noah’s (who himself may appear to have had an addiction to alcohol [see Genesis 9:21]) and more paralleled that of King David, whose own sexual addiction (see 2 Samuel 5:13) escalated to his rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband (see 2 Samuel, chapter 11), a failing passed on to his heirs: Amnon, his first born, who violently raped his half-sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13:14-15), Absalom, who slept with his father’s ten concubines in order to steal the kingdom from him (2 Samuel 16:22), Solomon, his surviving heir, whose “seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines” “from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, ‘You must not intermarry with them,because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods…led him astray,” having “turned his heart after other gods” (2 Kings 11:1-4). David’s, Amnon’s, Absalom’s, Solomon’s sexual weaknesses destroyed their rule and blighted their lives.
Addictions unchecked in private, lead to headlines like this in public: “The Bill Cosby Case: Glimpses of a Downfall” and “Bill Cosby, Once a Model of Fatherhood, Is Sentenced to Prison.” A reputation of honor so carefully constructed, destroyed at the end in a ruin of disgrace.
The lesson is obvious: an addiction, whether it be to criminal actions like rape and other instances of violent assault, child pornography, use of illegal drugs or even to such common and somewhat currently socially accepted yet predatory, invasive, and pernicious habits as use of soft core pornography, marijuana, alcohol use to drunkenness, all undermine one’s well-being and ultimately threaten to destroy one’s health, positive image, and walk with God. If we don’t take effective steps to eliminate it, trying to live with an addiction is like trying to tread water as the sea of their consequences engulfs us. It’s only a matter of time until we drown in it, for how long can we tread water?
Please see our video on Aída’s and my new novel, CAVE OF LITTLE FACES (Wipf and Stock), an uplifting adventure full of mystery and romance, https://youtu.be/084TpLK2mac.