Crimes Against Family: What do Bill Cosby and the United States Military have in Common?

28 Nov

I’m sure I watched I Spy a time or three back in the day, but I didn’t watch it regularly. I DID watch The Cosby Show regularly. My all time favorite bit was when the dad and the kids lip synched a Ray Charles song – “The night time, is the right time” – for mother, with little Rudy being particularly delicious. I also appreciated the fact that Cosby would have jazz musicians on the show. His father-in-law was played by a jazz musician, singer Joe Williams. He had Dizzy Gillespie on one show and, much to my delight, he had Frank Foster on another. I’d studied improvisation with Foster when he taught at UB (that is, the State University of New York at Buffalo).

As much as I am a fan of anyone – which isn’t all that much, fandom isn’t how I roll – I was a fan of Cosby’s. I was a bit startled when he started coming down hard on the lifeways of some poor black folks. Understand him, yes. But it seemed a bit harsh, especially in the overall ecology of racial attitudes and discussion. Is that how Cliff Huxtable would speak?

And then he was accused of rape. I don’t recall precisely when I first heard about that, but it was awhile ago, well before the current round of accusations. Was it before or after he’d become Mr. Public Morality? I don’t recall. The accusation certainly didn’t seem consistent with the behavior of Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable. Cliff, of course, was just a fiction, a part Cosby played. But we do tend to identify performers with the parts they play, as though that’s what they are like in real life.

Of course, I know that Cliff was just a role. As a performer myself I’m keenly aware of the difference between one’s performance persona and one’s “real” self. Give me a trumpet and put me on stage with at kick-ass rhythm section and I’m Mister Confident Superhero Sex God John the Conqueror, but in real life I’m shy, reserved, and ridiculously intellectual, though leavened with a bit of wit. So I never actually believed that Cosby played himself when playing Heathcliff, but nonetheless, Heathcliff became my default for Bill Cosby himself.

The upshot: those accusations were dissonant. At this point I don’t recall what I thought of those accusations back then. I’m pretty sure my initial reaction would have been denial. I’m also sure that I thought about it beyond that initial denial. Mostly likely I just put the accusations on a mental shelf without either denying or affirming them in my mind.

That’s not possible now. There are too many accusations. I think he did it.

But why?

I can understand being sexually attracted to a woman, to lots of different women. That’s life. And I can understand making advances – though I find that painfully difficult myself. But the rapes he’s been accused of, we’re moving into a zone where my understanding is irrelevant. Given that he did them, of course I can understand the silence and stonewalling. What do you expect him to do, come clean?

What I’m wondering, though, what I’m trying to fit into my understanding, is whether or not his public moralizing has been a surfacing of his sense of shame and guilt about his sexual predation? That makes a kind of twisted sense. Privately he feels guilty about what he’s done to women; he knows it’s wrong. Has he talked about this to anyone? His wife? So he takes those feelings and channels them into diatribes about the uncivilized ways about ghetto black folk: Clean up your act! Yes, I can see that as an attempt by a beloved public figure to come to grips with private shame.

As for the U. S. military, Robert Draper has an article in The New York Times Magazine: The Military’s Rough Justice on Sexual Assault. Here’s a paragraph:

“For the past 25 years, going back to when Dick Cheney was defense secretary, we’ve had the military telling us that there’s zero tolerance for sexual assault,” [Senator] Gillibrand said in October in her Washington office. “And all we’ve seen is zero accountability.” Gillibrand pointed out that the last gender-relations survey from 2012 indicated that there had been 26,000 cases of sexual assault, rapes and unwanted sexual contact in a year’s time. Only 3,300 of them were actually reported, roughly one in eight. “And so when you speak to the survivors, they’ll tell you they won’t report because they don’t believe the chain of command will do anything or they fear witness retaliation. Of the brave souls that did report these crimes, 62 percent were retaliated against. So you have a culture where rapists go free, there’s no accountability for sexual assault, there’s a climate where everything is shoved under the rug and people are actually punished for reporting sexual assault.”

The article reports a couple cases at length, one of a female Air Force officer at the rank of major who was identified only by her nickname, Kris. She was assaulted and, while initially reluctant to come forth, she did so six weeks after the assault. She won her case in military court.

But that wasn’t the end of it:

In the year since the assault, Kris had fallen into a kind of limbo. While most of her fellow aviators had been moved up to new positions, she was overlooked. She eventually requested a lateral move to another department to get away from her difficult situation. “I was put on a shelf,” she said, adding that she has been socially isolated. “Since this happened, no one in the squadron invites me to do anything. And I don’t think I ever will be invited.”

Her hurt was barely restrained as she continued in a jumble of thoughts: “They were my friends. We were family. It’s like parents with two kids — how do you choose? A parent can’t acknowledge that one of his kids did this. Doesn’t want to have a daughter who’s damaged goods. Doesn’t want to acknowledge a failure in the family. My having brought this up is less than optimal. But this is the way these things happen. It’s not going to be some stranger jumping out of the bushes. It’s going to be someone you know. And there won’t be witnesses and there won’t be DNA. But there’ll be a serious character flaw. And I’m the one who saw it. And I hate that this happened to me. I hate that it’s going to happen to other people.”

Notice Kris’s language in that second paragraph; it’s the language of family. The article ends at a briefing she’s attending in Qatar:

While at the base in al-Udeid, the wing commander held a briefing on sexual assault. As Colonel Newberry did the previous year, Gen. Roger Watkins placed a series of slides on a screen and read the required data word for word. But then he departed from the text. In a stern voice, the general told his troops that this matter was not a trivial one. “These little blue figures you see on the screen are more than little blue figures. They represent airmen working with us, every day. And sexual assault is not just blue on blue. It is fratricide.”

A crime against family. The words meant something to her. Whether they meant anything to her brothers — the young men in uniform sitting around her — she could not tell.

What I’m thinking about is the psychological and evolutionary underpinnings of family. Is the bond between people in the military constructed from the same psycho-evolutionary equipment as the bond between family members? Is talk of family in this context more than mere metaphor?

That’s more than I’ve got time to discuss here. Here’s some relevant posts:


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