“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'”
Ozymandias, meet Bill Cosby. That shattered visage strewn across the barren landscape is the once-mighty Cliff Huxtable, the very soul of perfect fatherhood, clean living, commanding presence at the center of an adoring family. The fictional television character is now exposed as a fraud, a hoax on the American imagination, a shattered monument to something far more than ego or hubris, the detritus exposing the stink of a far deeper level of corruption, the evil abuse of power and fame.
Bill Cosby spent his entire career hiding behind that pristine image of the virtuous man, the upright pillar of a beautiful family, the prophet speaking through humor and gentle aphorisms. There’s nothing virtuous or upright about a man who, by his own admission in depositions, drugs trusting young women for the purpose of his own sexual gratification. There’s nothing humorous or gentle in the stories that have emerged in the courageous voices of dozens of women who were allegedly abused, debased and humiliated by the monstrous lie behind the Huxtable Hoax.
The stories of these women are so horrifying I could not stop reading them, and yet, I wanted nothing more than to turn away to something less painful. But I had to keep reading them because they are the necessary testimony exposing the years of lies and false hopes that were carefully constructed laughing masks hiding the ugly predator whose serial use of quaaludes and other drugs is so shocking it can’t possibly be true — except that even he admitted to the behavior.
I’ve written about The List before, that rather shockingly long list of powerful public men who seem to think that power and fame are license to behave in the most shameful of ways. Some fairly well-regarded men are on The List, and some like Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, David Letterman and Arnold Scharzenneger even have managed to move beyond scandal to reclaim their power and fame. Others (Tiger Woods, are you listening?) have been unable to climb out of the depths of the pits into which they fell.
Cosby is different. Cosby now makes the sins of those on “The List” seem quite venial, if they be sins at all. Infidelity is one thing, possibly criminal behavior something else. Even if he’s never subject to a criminal indictment, which time and evidence may render moot, Cosby’s admitted as well as alleged actions are horrific — even if only woman woman was involved, drugging someone for sex would be outrageous, but in his own depositions he admitted more than one. The accusers fill a magazine cover, and still there may be more.
We should know better than to believe fictional characters, of course. We always knew that the Huxtables were just television fantasy, just like viewers of an earlier age always knew — or should have known — that behind the fiction of “Ozzie and Harriett” there was real dysfunction, pain, cheating, disappointment — as in any family. We know better than to believe what we see on TV — but we believe anyway, living our own fantasy lives through the characters on the screen.
Entertainers are no more role models than baseball players, and yet the effect of popular culture always elevates those who are famous, modestly talented or powerful into that icon we revere and want to emulate. So it was for several generations of Cosby fans, those who found in Bill Cosby and his fictional family something that was good, wise, funny and worth emulating.
Every single alleged incident of drugging, sexual abuse and possible rape is appalling if true. Beyond the individual instances of abuse, the collective impact of Bill Cosby’s shameful behaviors is a widespread sense of betrayal, disappointment and cynicism. Sadly, the whole ugly mess also adds tinder to those raging fires of racism and hatred that burn just below the surface of some segments of American society. When public figures go bad, the consequences for everyone are profound.
(Note that Spelman College did the right thing by terminating the endowed chair named for Bill Cosby and returning the funds.)
Unfortunately, the “decay of the collossal wreck” is not on some empty desert, but in the heart of this very crowded society, haunted once again by the awful sense of betrayal by someone we trusted too much.