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Bill Cosby, Greek Tragedy, and Yet Another Tabloid Scandal

Even on a day full of news of grave international import, the most compelling story here in the United States was probably comedian Bill Cosby being convicted on three counts of sexual assault. The tale is tawdry enough for tabloid fare, but it also involves complicated matters of race and class and sex and celebrity and various other downright vexing aspects of American culture, and you’d have to go back to the days of classical theater to find a more riveting tragic fall from the heights to the depths of human existence.
Even if you’re one of our several non-American readers or slightly more numerous under-30 American readers, you’re probably aware that Cosby was once a much beloved entertainer in this land. He was handsome and humorous and endearingly humble, his home-spun observational comedy had a familiar appeal to just about anybody. He had best-selling comedy albums, appeared on all the network variety shows, went on to co-star in a hit television series, had a Saturday morning cartoon, made some popular movies, starred in an even bigger hit television series, was a well-paid pitchman for various sugary foods, and earned the nickname of “America’s Dad.”
He was black, too, and of course that is unavoidably involved in Cosby’s rise and fall. His best-selling comedy albums and variety show appearances and prime-time co-starring role in “I Spy” were civil rights breakthroughs back in the ’60s, and both black and white audiences felt good about it. Cosby had ghetto cool, but he was not at all threatening, which white people appreciated and even the most burn-it-down sort of black radicals in the ’60s didn’t mind. He played an inner-city high school teacher in a fairly popular television show in the ’70s, then had a runaway hit with “The Cosby Show” in the ’80s playing a physician married to a lawyer with a cast of lovably mix-upped sit-com kids in a ritzy Philadelphia neighborhood. Some black and white critics complained that Cosby was presenting an atypical slice of black American life, but far more black and white fans praised him for an aspirational portrait of America’s possibilities, and he parlayed his popularity into a lucrative career in commercials.
As he got older and richer he gradually retired from show business, but he became more outspoken in his political opinions. The Temple University graduate and up-from-the-ghetto success story spoke the usual civil rights rhetoric about white racism, but he more frequently preached the importance of education and frankly stated that the middle class values of both black and white America were superior to the social pathologies of the black and white ghettos, and for the first time in his career Cosby was controversial. By the time rumors that Cosby was a serial rapist were widely circulated, it was because of the edgier black comedians sharing what was long regarded as common knowledge in show biz circles, along with some of the edgier feminist white comediennes, and after 60 or women had gone on record alleging that Cosby had drugged and molested or raped them Cosby wasn’t getting the same sort of support that O.J. Simpson enjoyed in his race and sex and class trial for a double murder he sure seemed to have committed.
When Cosby faced his first indictment a couple of years ago celebrity still had its California privileges, and the trial ended in a hung jury. The second time around the judge allowed an extra four of those 60 of Cosby’s alleged victims to tell their stories, which were unsettlingly similar to the complaining witness’ tale, and by then countless women had brought down numerous Hollywood and news media and political big shots accused of lesser outrages, and the guilty verdicts on all three counts of sexual assault surprised no one. No one rallied around the once-beloved entertainer, and neither will we, but everyone had some sense it was nonetheless a damn shame.
Cosby used to be an undeniably funny fellow, but his classic routines with their universal home-spun verisimilitude will never again sound the same. His classic sit-com about a classy American family will look too different for any future late re-runs, too. Cosby’s hectoring arguments about the superiority of middle-class values to ghetto pathologies are still valid, as far as we’re concerned, but they obviously now lack Cosby’s previous moral authority.
It’s good news, we suppose, that most black Americans no longer rally around even a sold-out-to-the-man sort of brother the way they once did with the odious and obviously guilty and already convicted wife-beater O.J. Simpson, although we worry that’s at least partly because they resented Cosby’s more sensible advice. It’s good news, too, that all those undeniably victimized women out there are getting some righteous payback on their victimizers, but we expect that sooner or later they’ll ruin some innocent fellow’s life. We note that some of the right-wing talk radio hosts who routinely stand accused of racism are among the few sympathizing with Crosby, but they’re usually suspicious of even the most credible women’s allegations that some powerful man has abused them, and they don’t deserve any credit for the opportunistic color-blindness.
It’s a damned shame, too, that such a handsome and humorous and seemingly humble fellow as Crosby, who did so much to enrich America’s culture, was also such a seriously flawed human being. By now we’ve read enough Greek tragedies and tabloid scandals to know that’s how things go, though. We’ll hold out hope that Crosby and his victims and the American culture and the rest of humankind continues its fitful pace forward, and that we all find peace somewhere along the line.

— Bud Norman

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Simpson vs. Trump in the Ratings War

On an otherwise nice early spring Monday, two remarkably unsurprising headlines grabbed our attention. One was about former football hero O.J. Simpson’s “hypothetical” confession to double murder in an old but only recently aired interview with the Fox News Network, and the other was about the Republicans on the House committee investigating the “Russia thing” soon releasing a report that there’s nothing to it.
At this point we won’t worry about a libel suit and will come right out and say that Simpson damned sure seemed guilty of that long-ago double murder from the start, and we never doubted that sooner or later he’d eventually get around to confessing it in some weaselly way. Still, if you were anywhere near a television or newsstand way back when the trial occurred you couldn’t escape it, as it was the runaway reality show hit of the year, even if the whodunnit part of it was obvious from the outset. It featured a handsome football hero and a gorgeous ex-wife and her hunky younger suitor, it happened in a famously ritzy Los Angeles suburb, there were colorful lawyer characters involved, so Hollywood’s best screenwriters couldn’t have written a more blockbuster script. The handsome football hero and accused murderer was black while the gorgeous ex-wife and her hunky younger suitor were white, too, and with the combination of Los Angeles’ troubled racial history and the ritzy suburban location and the domestic violence it also made for all sorts of think pieces about race class and gender in the more serious media.
The prosecution had Simpson’s blood at the crime scene, the victims’ blood at his home and on his automobile, serial numbers and credit card receipts proving Simpson owned the bloody glove found at the crime scene, and the fact that Simpson had attempted to flea justice on the a live broadcast that got bigger ratings that any Super Bowl or the series of finale of “M*A*S*H.” Simpson’s defense offered no plausible alibi and a bundle of vague conspiracy theories so crazy they wouldn’t fly on “InfoWars,” and if you were sticking to the facts it was pretty simple. At the intersection of race and class and gender it’s hard to stick to the facts, however, especially in our reality show culture, and the Simpson trial provoked all sorts of reactions.
We had several white friends — mostly women, oddly enough — who insisted that Simpson couldn’t be guilty of such a heinous crime because he seemed such a nice guy in all those post-game interviews and the movies and commercials he’d done after his playing days. Pretty much all of our black friends bought into the conspiracy theory that the racist police had pulled off an elaborate conspiracy to frame the black guy. All in all it made for a damned convoluted debate about the outcome.
Two of our better black friends are a couple of colleagues at the newspaper where we labored at the time, both of them fine journalists who usually adhered to the facts of a story, but they both believed the conspiracy theories, and it made for some strained conversation over coffee. We tried to point out that it would take one hell of a conspiracy to so quickly plant the defendant’s blood at the crime scene and the victims’ blood on his automobile at at his home, not to mention that very specific glove, and that the same racist police had let Simpson off lightly after repeated complaints of domestic abuse, but they were unconvinced. Simpson’s ex-wife’s had put pictures of her bruised and bloody face in a safe deposit box to document the repeated domestic abuse, just in case she wound up murdered, but several of our mostly women white friends still insisted he seemed too a nice guy to murder his wife.
At this point in the distant future pretty much everyone figures that yeah, O.J. did it and might as well confess, as there’s not much to do about it now, but the same sort of superficial considerations still cloud the public’s assessment of more pressing matters. The Republicans on the House committee investigating the “Russia thing” have their own obvious reasons for concluding there’s nothing to it, as do many of our white friends and fellow Republicans, and by they have own ┬álegitimate racial grievances and are as obstinate about as their conspiracy theories as our black friends once were about Simpson’s innocence.
We try to point out that even the Trump-appointed heads of all the intelligence agencies agree that the Russian government meddled in the past presidential election on Trump’s behalf, and that various Trump campaign and administration officials have already either pleaded guilty or been indicted or recused themselves for various suspicious and undisclosed contacts with Russian officials. We note that the top-notch special counsel investigation has come up with even more circumstantial than those hapless LA County prosecutors could muster against Simpson, that the hapless Trump defenders on his legal team in the House investigating team and talk radio are offering up conspiracy theories that would have embarrassed Simpson’s lawyers, and it makes for some strained conversations over coffee.
Sooner or later the heat of the moment dissipates, though, and the cold hard facts of the matter become apparent. In retrospect we’re not at all surprised that a mostly black jury from Los Angeles would vote to acquit Simpson, and even in this moment we’re not surprised that an all white group of House Republicans would conclude that there’s nothing at all to that whole “Russia thing.”
People are like that, no matter their color nor their political persuasion.

— Bud Norman

On Race, Gender, Class, the Olympics, and Of Course Presidential Politics

The 2016 Olympics won’t wrap up until some sort of bizarre post-modern samba-dancing and gender-bending closing ceremony on Sunday evening, but already the American team is assured of heading home with by far the biggest haul of gold, silver, and bronze medals. America’s athletic dominance of the international games has provided a pleasant distraction from the dispiriting domestic presidential election, but of course these days it’s impossible to keep the two events entirely apart.
Over at the reliably liberal Politico.com site a longtime Democratic operative is smugly noting that Republican nominee Donald J. Trump hasn’t yet spoken or “tweeted” a single congratulatory remark about the American champions, reasonably inferring that it’s because their success seems to contradict his campaign theme that “Crippled America” just “doesn’t have victories anymore” and he alone can “Make America Great Again.” The author also rightly notes that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has been a far more full-throated rooter for the American squad, and has happily seized on the politically convenient fact that the medal-winners are an exquisitely diverse group according to the racial and sexual and economic class categories that are a Democratic obsession.
A proportional share of those gold and silver and bronze medals have been won by American women, a gorgeous lot of athletes who recall the great Walt Whitman’s poetic notion of an American womanhood as “tann’d in the face by shining suns and blowing winds, their flesh has the old divine suppleness and grace, they know how to swim, row, ride, wrestle, shoot, run, strike, retreat, advance, defend themselves,” but we wonder how many of these women who are “ultimate in their own right — they are calm, clear, well-possessed of themselves” are going to vote for Clinton’s campaign themes that women are victims of American society and she alone can make them great. One of our favorite Olympians of this leap year has been Kim Rhode, who picked up her fifth Gold medal in as many Olympic games for skeet shooting, a sport we have tried and found we have absolutely no talent for, like us she’s a Second Amendment absolutist with no intention of voting for Clinton, and even that Democratic operative at Politico.com concedes that America’s Olympic champions are “presumably as politically diverse as they are culturally.”
Economic class plays its usual role in these Olympics, too, but we don’t expect that any Democratic nominee would want to delve too deeply into that. We’re pleased to note that Great Britain is once again a world-class sporting power, and is currently going nose-to-nose with Communist China for a distant second-place in the medal count, but across the pond there’s usual grousing that too many of those medals are being won by equestrians and rowers and fencers and other sorts of upper-crusty athletes, even if they can’t explain why their more yobbo athletes can’t compete with America’s ghetto stars in the more proletarian events. A lot of America’s medals were won by the sons and daughters of upper-middle class suburbanites who woke up early to get their kids to a swim club or volleyball practice before a long day of school that yielded high grades and SAT scores, and there’s no telling how they’ll vote, and even the sons and daughters of the working class parents who did the same are probably politically diverse.
Over at the reliably Republican National Review, which is so reliably Republican that it’s still NeverTrump, they’re smugly noting that America’s overwhelming Olympic success has come despite the lack of a Ministry of Sports or any other top-down bureaucratic central planning. They argue that America has won “bigly” at these Olympics because individuals of all races and sexes and classes were free to pursue the natural talents they alone knew they possessed, and that such independent and competitive institutions as the members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association were there to provide some much-needed assistance. This strikes us as a more compelling argument, and we can only wish that the Republican nominee wasn’t so cocksure that only he can make America win again that he can’t be shouting “USA, USA” during the closing ceremonies.

— Bud Norman

That White Woman in Seattle and All the New Rules

By now you’ve probably heard about the white woman who was “passing” for black in Seattle, well enough to have to become the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and are aware of the chuckles it provoked in the conservative media and the indignant outrage that has resulted over in the liberal press. Count us among the amused rather than outraged, as we’re the live-and-let-live types who indulge people in all sorts of amusing foolishness, but we must admit we’re finding all the new rules hard to keep up with.
Why does that once-august civil rights organization retain the now-offensive term “Colored People” in its name, just to begin with, and why is that term offensive while the eerily similar “people of color” is considered impeccably polite? We’re also confused about why a white person can’t head the local chapter of a national association devoted to the advancement of people of certain colors, because a whole a lot of well-intentioned white people were involved in its founding, and a whole lot of other well-intentioned white people have devoted themselves to the same admirable cause in a variety of other and even more heroic ways, and the advancement of just about everyone in this fissiparously diverse country depends on everyone getting along with one another. Of course there’s also the frequently asked question of why a man who insists on being regarded as a woman must be indulged in his fantasy, but a white woman who insists on being regarded as a black woman is subject to the usual chuckles from the right and the full indignant outrage of the left. We’re further confused about why, given all the hectoring we endure about our supposedly privileged position as heterosexual white Christian males, nobody seems to be trying to pass as something like us.
Way back in our childhood we’d stay up well past our bedtime to catch such old-time late-night movies as “Imitation of Life,” “Pinky,” and “Showboat,” all of which involved light-skinned black women trying to “pass” as white in order to escape the undeniable racial injustice of that black-and-white era, which lasted well into the technicolor days of the “Imitation of Life” and “Showboat” re-makes, and even into our own childhood, but these days all the race-crossing traffic seems to go the other way. That white woman from Seattle is only the most recent to make the news for colorizing her heritage, following the news of some Indian-American sit-com actress’ brother shaving his head and adopting a black-sounding name to get admitted to a medical school with a surfeit of Asian-American applicants and a dire shortage of black ones, and that visibly white Massachusetts Senator whose career at Harvard benefited from her claims to be a high cheek-boned Native American and is currently the fantasy presidential nominee of all the same people who are tsk-tsking about that white woman in Seattle, and even old hippy-dippy folk-singing and obviously white Joni Mitchell’s claims to authentic blackness. The phenomenon of white folks acting and wanting to actually be black is at least as old as Norman Mailer’s famous ’50s essay on the “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” was quite apparent at our junior high school in the early ’70s when almost all of the white kids eagerly adopted the slang and fashions and defiant attitude of the black kids who were too often fearful of being accused of “acting white” to keep up with the lessons, and by 1978 the great heroin-addicted Lou Reed was singing a hilariously vulgar song about how “I Wanna Be Black” rather than an, ahem, neurotic middle class college student any mo’. Since then it’s become all the cooler to be black and all the dorkier to be white, whatever “privilege” whiteness might confer on bills-paying and sexually-frustrated honky schlubs such as ourselves, and we can hardly blame that white woman from Seattle for wanting to get in on it.
Still, it hasn’t been adequately explained why her racial preference should be any more controversial than her sexual preference. Had she insisted that her prosthetic status as a male be met with unquestioning social acceptance we doubt that the such respectable liberal publications as Salon.com would be giving her grieve about it, and we notice that most of the surgical crossing of sexual barriers are also away from our side, despite whatever “privilege” our seemingly irrelevant sex might confer. There’s the usual blather about how “gender” is merely a social construct, and “race” a biological fact, but from way back in our childhood we can remember all the blather about how “race” was a social construct and “gender” a biological fact that proved the superiority of women, and the evolution of polite opinion has never been explained. A few years ago those foul-mouthed wags at “South Park” had a vulgar but worth-watching episode about the transgendered teacher and the addled dad who thought he was a dolphin, and how we’re supposed to recognize certain implausible claims but not others, so the subsequent confusion makes it all the more confusing.
There’s something in the arguments we read about “cultural appropriation” and its insidiously racist effects, but we’re only further confused. We have some belly-dancing white women friends who have been accused of degrading the Oriental cultures they’re intending to perpetuate, and we’ve read countless column inches from college-educated black columnists about how Elvis Presley stole the sounds that he couldn’t help hearing through the open windows of his subsidized housing right next to Beale Street and the heart of the blues, and we’ve yet to read a single word about Kathleen Battle or Jessye Norman or Wynton Marsalis or any of the other truly great black musicians who have done similarly well with the undeniably European repertoire of classical music, and we dare anyone to say anything bad about Johnny Otis, who was the undeniably white son of Greek immigrants who grew up in a black neighborhood and went on to be one of the notable and best-selling in the black neighborhoods rhythm and blues artists of the “race record” days, and all of this racial purity cultural stuff, even from the most well-intentioned of the liberal press, has a slightly odious Nazi whiff about it.
Straight and Christian suddenly seems unfashionable, too, and we wonder about how few people are now pretending to be either of them. Way back in our childhood we’d stay up late enough to come across such old movies as “Tea and Sympathy” and “The Trial of Oscar Wilde” which oh-so-subtly conveyed the hard time homosexuals had in the world we were growing up in, and even by the time “La Cage aux Folles” was the fabulously gay hit of ’78 it was about how a homosexual couple had to hide their identities from society. Now the same guy who made the original French “La Cage aux Folles” has a Francophile hit about a man who pretends to be homosexual in order to enjoy social and legal protection from being fired for his incompetence, and the American popular culture acknowledges the same preference. The obscure professional athlete who was about outspoken about his homosexuality got a congratulatory call from the president of the united, the male athlete who was once prominent about was outspoken about his self-proclaimed identity as a woman got the cover of Vanity Fair, and the more recently prominent football play who was outspoken about his Christianity was widely rebuked to keep his crazy beliefs to himself. None of this has been adequately explained, either, but that seems to be where we are.
That white woman in Seattle should be able to survive all the chuckling and indignant outrage according the theories of white prevail, once she re-straightens her hair and stays away from the tanning salons long enough to regain her freckles, and that recently prominent football player should be able to take of himself, judging by his undeniably male physique, but all this talk about racial and sexual and religious identity won’t come to any happy conclusions. Let that white woman pursue all that is appealing about the undeniably cool black people of America, let that prominent football player proclaim his love for Christ, and hope that it has some similarly salutary effect on others, and stop hectoring those bill-playing white male schlubs, and let the likes of Elvis grind out rhythm and blues and those great black divas sing their arias, and perhaps most importantly let those poor black kids out there start learning their lessons in reading and writing and arithmetic without fear of “acting white.” Act however you want, and however will make for your happiest life, and so long as it contributes to everyone with getting along with one another it should further advancement of just about everyone, even such unfashionably straight and white and male and Christian bill-paying schlubs such as ourselves.

— Bud Norman

Race, Class, Gender, and the New Rules

Race, gender, and class are the trinity of modern liberalism, and all three are becoming increasingly complicated.
While growing up in the heroic era of the civil rights movement we were taught that the race issue was a rather simple of matter of judging a man by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, but such simplistic notions of racial equality are apparently no longer applicable. The great civil rights cause of recent months has involved a black teenager who was fatally shot while attempting to kill a white police officer, and we read that the organizers of one of the many protests demanding the officer be punished for not allowing himself to be murdered are insisting that only “people of color” participate, although they will generously allow “non-people of color” to stand nearby in solidarity. Aside from the new civil rights movement’s curious insistence on a return to racial segregation, we’re also jarred by its terminology. “People of color” has always struck as uncomfortably close to “colored people,” a phrase that was banned from polite conversation way back in our boyhood days, except at meetings of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which seems to be exempted by some sort of grandfather clause, and we’re not sure if the unfamiliar description of “non-people of color” is meant to imply that we’re not people or just that we’re not sufficiently hued, but in any case the new rules will take some getting used to.
The latest news is also forcing us to reconsider our past lessons regarding what were once called the sexes but is now known as the genders. In our formative years the feminist movement insisted on that same simplistic notion of equal treatment that the civil rights movement once championed, to the point that such old-fashioned acts of chivalry as opening a door or offering a bus seat to a woman were considered insulting and women were allowed to be as irresponsibly promiscuous as the most libidinous man. Feminism thus defined proved predictably popular with the least chivalrous and most libidinous men, and the resulting bacchanal that is contemporary college life has predictably proved so unsatisfactory to those women who retain a traditionally feminine desire for love and commitment that it has been deemed a “culture of rape” and the feminists are now insisting that any woman who has been unhappily seduced be able to have the cad thrown out of school without due process. Contraceptives are still to be subsidized, and anyone who who thinks less of the women who choose to be irresponsibly are faulted for “slut-shaming,” but any man who still plays by the earlier rules would be well advised to get himself a lawyer. The issue is further complicated by the recent invention of several new sexual categories other than male and female, including such exotic and seemingly rare categories as transgendered and omni-gendered and a few others that we’ve had to look up on the internet because the dictionaries haven’t yet caught up with them, and we shudder to think how arcane the rules for their relationships might be.
Class used to be simpler, too. In our younger days rich people were all right so long as they earned their money in an honest and socially beneficial way, poor people were all right so long as their poverty resulted from hard luck or heredity, and most people considered themselves somewhere in between and thought themselves all right as well. Back then the rich people were presumed Republican, the poor people Democrat, and the folks in between chose sides according to their personal preferences. Now the very rich and the very poor tend to be Democrats, which imbues both with a sense of nobility, while the folks in the middle tend to vote Republican, which earns them a reputation as boobs. Because the Democrats’ candidates are invariably from the wealthier end of the party, usually having earned their wealth through political connections and speaking fees and marrying rich widows and other not very honest or socially beneficial ways, it requires a more complex theory of class than Marx and Engels ever conceived. The wealthiest and most liberal communities in America are the most segregated by both class and race, the poorest and most liberal communities can be counted on to continue voting for the policies that have created their segregated squalor, and the new rules somehow allow the former to retain their sense of moral righteousness and the latter to retain an even more spiritually satisfying sense of victimhood.
Keeping up with all these changes is proving exhausting, and we’re inclined to stop trying. Better we should keep on judging men by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, treating women with the respect we would want for ourselves, and assuming that the rich and the poor and the folks in between are all right unless we have reason we think otherwise. This might make us racist, sexist, and classist, but we’re unlikely to avoid those charges now matter how hard we try be up-to-date.

— Bud Norman