Learning about authoritarianism from Bill Cosby

Update, November 17, 2014: Since this post was originally published, Bill Cosby’s lawyer released a statement dismissing rape allegations against him. This post has been updated twice, first when Raw Story published the comment but without naming the lawyer, and second when the Washington Post named the lawyer in a story covering the allegations of yet another victim, Joan Tarshis.


In reviewing the foregoing sections of this essay [written for my practicum], I am faced with that dissonance again. Above all, conservatives claim knowingness, a practicality that they know how “it,” meaning the real world, really is, how “we” really are. The Christian concept of original sin is central to this conception. It rationalizes a claim that “we” must be led, that somehow, inexplicably, these select humans—these elites—but no one else, can be trusted to have risen above the immorality that afflicts the rest of us (Kirk, 1985/2001; Weaver, 1964/1995).

Kirk (1985/2001) repeatedly imagines a world of the squire and the parson, that is, a world of benevolent authority in which those who dominate also have responsibility for their underlings—Lakoff (2002) attributes this view to the “strict father” morality generally—that seems a romanticized view of the Middle Ages, when humans pledged fealty to more powerful humans in the hope of protection, in the reality of giving up their land for serfdom and absolute servitude (Bloch, 1962/2003).

As romanticized as that view may be, I have no idea how to reconcile it with the brutal inequality that led, for instance, to the French Revolution—a tragedy beyond conception for Kirk (1985/2001) and for Weaver (1964/1995)—or with the Federalist No. 10, an argument for adoption of the U.S. Constitution on grounds that it will manage factionalism, seen as a division between rich and poor, that threatens the property of the rich (Madison, November 22, 1787). Here, I only know—really know—what I have seen.

I have seen a woman come sobbing out of an alley, a man pulling on his belt behind her. I have seen an old man set upon, pulled into an alcove, and pummeled by two young men. I myself have been pursued first on a junior high school campus and then on a high school campus by bullies, with no place to run, no place to hide, day after day, month after month, year after year. I also know what it is, at something like four years of age, to be whipped on the side of the road by my father, then to understand him to say I should not get back in the car, and finally—confronting the question of how I will eat, where I will sleep—getting back in the car anyway.

I also know from personal experience what it is to have a personality and temperament utterly unsuited to and in fact repulsed by selling—in even the forms taken most for granted in our society, in even the form that makes it possible to find work—in a market economy. I know the stigma that is attached to my failure in this economy in a society that takes the market for granted, a market that seemingly wants only my money, never my talents and skills, a market that treats me as expendable and infinitely replaceable.

This is my own experience of domination of the weak by the strong and it is only just enough that I know that many others experience much worse. But this is what the so-called “free” market has left us. It is social and economic inequality. It is violence. I see no evidence that strength correlates with righteousness or benevolence. I see nothing of an “incentive” to succeed, but rather an illusion of opportunity that rationalizes the present order and a seeming determination on the part of employers to keep people down that goes well beyond any shortage of opportunity.

In my own decades of experience among the working poor, I have not seen any lack of “discipline,” but rather 1) an appreciation for music—even, often, a performance of music—that belies T. S. Eliot’s (1948/1962) culture-based hierarchy, 2) very hard work at long and odd hours, and 3) a use of recreational drugs—“first take care of head,” says the lyric (Kay & Kay, 2012)—to escape an overwhelmingly oppressive existence, where in employment and in the conditions of their lives, they are on the receiving end only of sheer greed and the way of the bully.

This greed, this brutality, this abuse is, to me, what conservatism stands for. Conservatism celebrates all that is, at best, dubious in our society, the social inequality, the economic injustice, the violence. It is, in combination with what I have learned in universities, what makes me a radical.[1]

I will need to revisit those words as I begin to write my dissertation, to place a version of them in the introduction, explaining my own perspective on my topic which, on one level, is about conservative attitudes towards undocumented migrants, but on another level, is about differences between conservatives themselves.[2]

I am thinking of them too as I read about the allegations—almost certainly true—that Bill Cosby took advantage of his position in the entertainment industry to rape multiple women. Barbara Bowman rightly asks why, when she told her story, she was not believed, not believed, that is, until a man accused Cosby of rapes.[3]

[Update, November 16, 2014, 5:34 pm: Bill Cosby’s lawyer has dismissed what he calls “decade-old, discredited allegations,” saying, “The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true.”[4] I would point out that labeling these allegations as ‘decade-old’ and ‘discredited’ does not suffice as a refutation.]

Cosby’s story is one that reminds us not just that hierarchy is complicated, but also how hierarchy co-opts subaltern people. Paulo Freire writes of the overseer, promoted from the ranks of workers on a plantation, being more brutal to workers than plantation owners would ever be.[5] W. E. B. Du Bois wrote of an at least tacit agreement between powerful southern whites and northern industrialists to keep wages low by promising poor whites that they would at least be superior to Blacks.[6]

Cosby has both blamed Black parents for many of the problems faced by Black communities,[7] and come to Jimmy Carter’s defense in saying that much of the backlash against Barack Obama’s presidency is racist.[8] The Cosby Show, an 1980s-era television show, is credited for helping promote the illusion “that race and class barriers were non-existent.”[9] Asked about the rape allegations both in an NPR interview[10] and by the Washington Post,[11] Cosby was silent.

The disease of authoritarianism, we thus see, is not limited to the politically and economically powerful. It also exists among the socially powerful, in Cosby’s case, at the nexus of gender, race, class, economics, and entertainment. With rape as with the multiple forms of bullying I have personally experienced, we see a disease that not only wrecks lives but, as I have pointed out previously, threatens human and non-human survival.[12]

We should be thinking about that. But we probably won’t.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Defining conservatism,” April 12, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/04/12/defining-conservatism/
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Dissertation Proposal: Conservative Views on Undocumented Migrants,” November 10, 2014, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2014/11/10/dissertation-proposal-conservative-views-on-undocumented-migrants/
  3. [3]Barbara Bowman, “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?” Washington Post, November 13, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/13/bill-cosby-raped-me-why-did-it-take-30-years-for-people-to-believe-my-story/
  4. [4]John P. Schmitt, quoted in Justin Moyer, “New Bill Cosby accuser surfaces, says comedian assaulted her,” Washington Post, November 17, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/11/17/new-bill-cosby-accuser-surfaces-says-comedian-assaulted-her/ and Scott Kaufman, “Lawyer: Bill Cosby will not comment on ‘decade-old, discredited’ rape allegations,” Raw Story, November 16, 2014, http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/11/lawyer-bill-cosby-will-not-comment-on-decade-old-discredited-rape-allegations/
  5. [5]Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (New York: Continuum, 2006).
  6. [6]W. E. B. Du Bois, “Black Reconstruction and the Racial Wage,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 242-245; see also Tracy Thompson, The New Mind of the South (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013).
  7. [7]Associated Press, “Cosby berates blacks for abuse, failure as parents,” NBC News, July 2, 2004, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/5345290/ns/us_news-life/t/cosby-berates-blacks-abuse-failure-parents/
  8. [8]Alex Koppelman, “Now Bill Cosby weighs in on Carter’s side of race issue,” Salon, September 16, 2009, http://www.salon.com/2009/09/16/cosby_race/
  9. [9]Carrie Healey, “Melissa Harris-Perry discusses ‘The Cosby Show’ effect,” Grio, November 25, 2013, http://thegrio.com/2013/11/25/melissa-harris-perry-discusses-the-cosby-show-effect/
  10. [10]Scott Neuman, “In NPR Interview, Bill Cosby Declines To Discuss Assault Allegations,” National Public Radio, November 15, 2014, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/11/15/364297097/in-npr-interview-bill-cosby-declines-to-discuss-assault-allegations
  11. [11]Barbara Bowman, “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?” Washington Post, November 13, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/13/bill-cosby-raped-me-why-did-it-take-30-years-for-people-to-believe-my-story/
  12. [12]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/03/06/we-have-found-the-enemy-and-he-is-us-and-our-system-of-social-organization/

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