There had to have been an episode of The Cosby Show where one of the kids meets a hero and is disappointed; I guess I’m not a big enough fan to remember clearly, despite the hours of it I watched growing up.
In my mind it’s Vanessa, who gets backstage tickets to a concert. When she and her friend get to the after party, the band just wants to drink, smoke, and generally carouse, and the good Huxtable child leaves early. I must have seen that story a hundred times as a kid. Celebrities, 80s TV taught us, were unpleasant people when the show ended.
Permit me to clear my throat archly.
Now that some 40 women have accused Cosby of raping them, it’s hard to pretend it’s not what it seems. The guy probably did some ugly stuff. Repeatedly.
Just like Vanessa at the backstage party, I feel hurt. A part of me that believed in the basic goodness of that show and the people who made it has been crushed.
Nobody (I hope) is saying that this hurt compares to that of the 40 women, but I can’t speak for them. I can only speak to the little corner of this scandal that really hits home for me.
As it happens, my wife and I were six seasons into rewatching The Cosby Show when all this started. And we were loving it. The humor holds up pretty well, but it’s also comfortably familiar, a reminder of our childhood when the world seemed smaller and simpler.
But what does it mean to put away childish things? It can’t mean the cynicism that more or less embraces the brokenness. And anyway, shall we really call the optimism of The Cosby Show childishness? Simplistic, perhaps, at times sentimental or trite, but surely also an admirable model of a family who tries to do right by one another, of parents who apply firm discipline with compassion, of a couple who love and respect one another.
I know some people will try to expunge Cosby from their lives, unable or unwilling to forgive his crimes—and I get that; rape is ugly and unconscionable. Emotionally, I won’t be ready to go back for some time, myself.
Analytically, however, I can imagine some future when we will click on the show in Hulu and begin the work of aesthetic healing. Art, for all its continuity with life, never bears a direct relationship with it. I’ve seen indignant bloggers impatiently insist that Bill Cosby is not the same as Cliff Huxtable. Fair enough, but then the reverse is true, too. What Bill Cosby did as Cliff Huxtable exists beyond the actor’s life in the realm of art.
Wayne Booth accounted for this discontinuity by positing an implied author between the real person and the work he or she created. He was well aware that real persons could be guilty of sins seemingly incompatible with writing your favorite book. In the act of creation, he thought, an author inhabits his or her best self, the parts of the self we all wish we could always be but can only sometimes actualize.
Scripture, too, as we are quick to forget, teaches that we have all sinned mortally and, by rights, should be beyond redemption. It doesn’t really matter that you didn’t do what that guy over there did. And it ought to teach us humility and grace rather than the politico-ideological purism that substitutes for moral thinking online.
Eventually, I think, to watch The Cosby Show will not feel like a tacit “pass” for his crimes. Eventually we’ll watch it and remember the good that those people did in creating that show. We will not forget or minimize the actor’s faults but maybe we will begin to forgive him for his deceptions. Like mature Christian adults, we’ll praise what is praiseworthy and mourn what is broken.