I’ve long been a fan of Bill Cosby. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but he’s black, and I’m white. Funny, that – when someone is talented and funny, race makes no difference. I grew up in a household where our mindset was Talent Über Alles. And make no mistake, Bill Cosby is a talented guy. He’s also someone who’s ‘made it,’ in a time where there was a glass ceiling on TV and in the movies for black men. No matter. He’s so good that glass ceilings proved no match for him. (Even a mega-turkey like Leonard Number 6 couldn’t sink his career.) But Cosby the Comic, Cosby the Actor, Cosby the Pitchman – they are all to be admired. But what of Cosby the man himself? Like most of the rest of us, he has feet of clay. But for the most part, I’ve really admired him. But this week, he put a rather large ding in his coat of shining armor, at least as far as I’m concerned. He seems to think the Trayvon Martin incident happened because of our “gun culture.” Sorry Coz. You’re wrong.
It’s not the first time he’s been wrong, but he’s got a pretty good batting average over all. He was right (at least in my book) when he made the controversial statements about black culture – where he blamed the breakdown of the nuclear black family, the societal ideas that it’s acceptable for black males to knock up their girlfriends and abandon them to the welfare state. He was wrong when the press revealed that he’d cheated on his wife. I can’t excuse adultery, ever. He was the very soul of dignity and class, however, when his son was murdered. I can’t imagine losing a child. It’s beyond imagination how you could do that and retain even a shred of dignity. But he did it, and behaved with the kind of quiet dignity usually reserved for statesmen. Cosby emerged as a contrarian voice for blacks, preaching against the politics of victimhood, affirmative action, and the excuse mentality so prevalent in pop culture, no matter what your race. But like everybody, I suppose, every now and then, he hits one foul off his bat. That was this week, when he blamed “gun culture” for the Trayvon Martin shooting.
The picture that’s emerged as details trickle out is not one of some trigger-happy cowboy, looking for an excuse to shoot someone. Nope. What I get from what details we have from witnesses and Zimmerman himself (combined with the boy’s own troubled school record) is it’s more like a tragedy where a 17-year-old almost-adult bought off on the gangsta ethos, and let his ego do his thinking for him, trying to prove he was a man by putting a beat-down on someone he felt didn’t show him the proper amount of fear/respect/deference. He attacked Zimmerman, sucker-punched him and proceeded to try to beat the crap out of him. Before police could arrive, Zimmerman was able to get to his own gun and shoot Martin in self-defense. Is that what really happened? I don’t know, and I don’t know that we’ll ever know. Martin isn’t around to tell us his side of things. Zimmerman is. History is typically written by the survivors. The fact that there are witnesses, means it’s not a “he said/he can’t say anything” situation, so we’ll have some kind of resolution, satisfactory or not, sooner or later.
So what was the Coz’s spin on all this? The fact that Florida has a “Stand your ground” law that allows people to defend themselves when attacked or threatened, without having to first run away, is enough that Cosby blames the law and the idea that Zimmerman could walk around armed. In his book, this means that Zimmerman had the ballistic version of Dutch courage. So he shared his suppositions with the world.
Back in Old Hollywood, before the Red Scare, the Congressional hearings into Communism, and the days of the Old studio system, there was a concept called noblesse oblige, or literally “nobel obligation.” It meant that stars were held to a higher standard, and their personal behavior needed to be a squeaky clean as possible, to avoid being seen as a “bad influence” over kids. Stars generally either supported the country (USO shows, War Bond drives, etc.), enlisted (most of them serving in the entertainment corps), or kept their mouths shut for fear of hurting their careers. Back in the 50s, a number of Hollywood types either expressed Communist leanings/sympathies or refused to name names, and found their careers virtually over for decades. (Today, a similar, if unofficial system exists. If you’re not already a star and you express support for Conservatives, you get blackballed.) Back then, if you had something to say, it had better be right, or your career would suffer. Today? Today, stars can spout whatever uniformed, biased, bull they like, the more outrageous and controversial the better.
Cosby certainly has a right to his opinion. But if he’s going to use his industry clout, personal rep, and star power to represent his race, he bloody well better take responsibility for it when he screws up. And he’s screwing up now. Even if Zimmerman was a trigger-happy cowboy looking to take out the bad guys for dirt naps, you have to A) give him the presumption of innocence, and B) look at the purpose behind the Stand Your Ground law. That law exists to protect those who protect themselves from criminal or civil liability. Changing it will not make Martin any less dead, but if the absence of such a law makes anybody hesitate to protect themselves when attacked – or puts anybody at risk of losing their job, their savings or their freedom in a case where they were justified in defending themselves, that’s a BAD thing. No law is perfect. Every law is accompanied by a certain amount of assumed risk, and lemme tell ya, the “Law of Unintended Consequences is a fickle, vindictive witch (if you get what I mean, and I think you do).
By blaming a law intended to protect victims, Cosby has given a pass to the kind of gang mentality that I suspect was behind Trayvon’s actions that night. What if, instead of dumping on guns, Cosby had said something like “we need to reserve judgement until the law has finished the investigation, but I’d caution every young man who if they walk around flashing gang signs, demanding unearned respect, and looking at every encounter as an opportunity to assert their manhood, they are asking for problems. Any time someone dies because of violence, it’s a tragedy. We don’t know the truth, but if the situation were reversed, and Trayvon had the gun, and had lived, would we feel the same way about the tragic death of Zimmerman?” Now THAT’S the kind of well-reasoned argument that can unite a community and a people. And frankly, it’s the kind of thing I would have expected of Dr. Cosby. Not the same kind of “blame anybody else” thing in which “leaders” like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton regularly traffic.
I’m disappointed in Cosby. I’ll get over it. But I feel like he let us all down. And I’d feel a lot better if he’d rethink his position and say some things that would defuse the ticking time bomb of radical, class envy/race-bating politics. He can do that. I just hope he will. Soon.