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Cosby’s Wager: Faith, Rape, Race and Respectability

I responded on this blog to the celebrity rape apologetics around the Jian Ghomeshi case in the early days of the story breaking because, at that point, other voices challenging the most pernicious topoi of rape apologetics had yet to emerge. I have been pleased to see actual opinion leaders in this country articulating the things that I would have felt the need to say, were they not being said better, louder elsewhere.

I am now wading into the Bill Cosby case with some reluctance and sadness because, in the articles I have read, I feel that certain points are not being made. And following the New Republic’s well-intentioned misinterpretation of the functioning of “black respectability” politics in this debate, I feel that I should say something that might be otherwise missed now that there is no question that Cosby will live out his few remaining days as a pariah, exiled from both the entertainment elite and America’s black elite and it is clear that people, once again, feel bad about not “believing women.”

One of the things that is being missed, here, in my view, is what is actually meant by “belief” here, and how this shakes out when it comes to all those rapists out there whose violence we will continue pretending we do not suspect or have not witnessed. Ever since the reconstruction of the term “faith” during the Protestant Reformation, our society has sought to conflate two things at our peril: (1) proceeding as though a thing were true and (2) believing a thing to be true.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, two allied social processes forced us to begin conflating these things. The first was the Galilean or Scientific Revolution, in which Galileo Galilei changed the disciplinary architecture of the sciences by demanding that the discipline of “Physical Astronomy” (the “true” structure of the universe as described by philosophers and theologians) be subsumed in the discipline of “Mathematical Astronomy” (the mathematical and geometric model of the universe as used by mathematicians do write calendars, predict eclipses, etc.). Whereas key ecclesiastical and imperial authorities of his day agreed that the discipline of Mathematical Astronomy should incorporate a heliocentric redesign based around elliptical planetary orbits, they were unwilling to subordinate their geocentric Physical Astronomy of crystalline spheres and circular orbits to Galileo’s vision.

In a related conflict, anti-corruption crusader, revitalizer and reformer Martin Luther began arguing for something called “justification by faith and faith alone,” arguing that the sole determinant of the salvation of a human soul was that person’s “faith” in God, his commandments and the eternal life he offered. Here Luther was not so much the author of a new understanding of cognition, representation and truth, as was Galileo, but the end of a long thought process reaching back three centuries to the mandating of Confession by the Lateran Council of 1215.

“Faith” or “fidelity” had long been understood and translated as faithfulness to Christian teachings about how to conduct oneself: having a drunken pancake breakfast once a week with friends, giving to beggars, not criticizing people for a sin you’re also committing, etc. Perhaps the greatest work of late medieval alchemy was the transformation of “faith” into the sustaining of magical beliefs within one’s consciousness in contradiction of evidence. In this way, faith was transformed from fidelity to good practices to a sustained lifelong act of self-deception, or at least, as the magical worldview of the Bible’s authors came to be increasingly discredited, that is what it became.

It is not really until the emergence of the Enlightenment consensus in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that these elite-level changes were felt by the majority in the European and Euro-American worlds. Until then, our culture remained one in which public and private selves, moralities and knowledges were understood, if not as a social good then, at least, as a social necessity. But in today’s post-Enlightenment world, such discrepancies are no longer understood as the grease that enables the machine of society to work but as an endless series of moral and epistemological failings and hypocrisies of weak people.

The #ibelievewomen hashtag, laudable as it is, reinforces the “enlightened” worldview made—for very good reasons, at the time—by the likes of Luther and Galileo. And it shows us how stupid its excessive and uncritical embrace has made us. The issue is not whether we believe the women who courageously come forward to denounced celebrity rapists (or the vanishingly small, tiny fraction of one percent who are less than truthful); the issue is whether we act as though we believe them. The issue isn’t really what our private thoughts are; the issue is our social conduct, how we communicate and act when we hear these allegations.

The reality is that we do believe most of these accusations most of the time. It’s just that we would rather pretend we do not. As a long-time electoral reform activist, I’m extra-familiar with this routine. People who oppose democracy i.e. the equal, effective voting power of every citizen, almost always pretend a level of innumeracy they do not, in fact possess. They understand perfectly well that our current voting system is unfair and unrepresentative and that there are a bunch that are fairer and more representative. But it is much more socially acceptable to feign incomprehension and magical belief than to argue against something as universally beloved as democracy.

And that’s just the voting system, a dry, abstract issue.

People are far more committed to feigning stupidity and ignorance if it allows them to keep admiring popular rapists, and to keep socializing with the rapists in their own circle of friends, family and acquaintances. But since the age of Luther, this kind of thinking has become more pathological. No longer is it enough to publicly pretend that the local town councillor, fraternal organization president, racialized community leader or star athlete isn’t a rapist, one must fragment one’s own consciousness to suppress that knowledge, to both know and not know. Social demands to turn our bullies and monsters into admired patriarchs have not changed; what has changed is our ability to admit that our charade is a charade, conducted for social purposes.

In this way, it is not that we believe our rapists; it is that we have faith in our rapists, that we have taken on the lifelong project of subordinating the conclusions of our native intelligence to expedient social truths.

In this way, we can understand that it is not so much that the “Age of Faith” and the “Age of Enlightenment” succeeded one another but that they developed contemporaneously, that “faith,” as an epistemological and social practice not limited to religion, becomes a necessity when public, social truth and private, individual truth must be collapsed into one another. In this way, Reformation and Enlightenment ideas of opposing hypocrisy and questing after truth necessarily turn on themselves. Now, when it comes to the predators in our midst, we do not just have to negotiate a disjuncture between our public claims and private assessment of important men in our community; we have to conduct an ongoing war on our own consciousness to conceal this operation from ourselves, even as we continue performing it. Maintaining two self-consistent yet incompatible stories is hard enough. When one does that work while concealing said work from oneself, it is profoundly mentally taxing and generative of madness. Furthermore, having faith in rapists also generates new kinds of danger because we lose the ability to reliably protect those vulnerable to predators from harm, in that we are only intermittently conscious of the degree to which we, and those around us, are at risk of predation.

Of course, disrupted consciousness and successful self-deception are, at best, incompletely experienced. Most of the time, our native intelligence wins out and we make perfectly accurate assessments of the people and events around us; the problem is that voicing those thoughts is driven so far underground as to be exiled from the realm of conversation.

So, let us consider the case of Bill Cosby in this light, that the great man was not a man we believed but a man in whom we had faith. As at most times and places, the decision to have faith is not a matter of life and death necessity. It is a matter of risk-reward calculation. Whether consciously or semi-consciously, we ask ourselves this: “What is the reward for acting as though what I have just heard is true? And what is the danger or damage to which I might be subjected if we call it out as false?”

You see, the great liars of our day are usually not people who generate belief as much as they generate faith. The great lies of our age, like climate change denial and the Iraq War, are not ingenious, hypnotic deceptions but wagers, structured like Pascal’s Wager (one of the most honest expressions of the true meaning of faith in the modern era). Rather than lies driven by brilliant deception or narrative artistry, the great social lies of our time are those in which the audience is persuaded that something needs to be true, not that it is, in some way, true. The great baroque liar was Baron Munchausen; the great modern liar is Blaise Pascal.

Much as I want to go along with the New Republic’s belief that we refused to believe Cosby was a rapist because white liberals sanctified him as an acceptable representation of black male power, I cannot. White liberal America has Barack Obama now to represent continence, hard work, respectability and sweater-wearing. For white society, Cosby was obsolete a decade ago.

The people for whom the calculus changed were not the white elite but the black elite, with so much to gain and so much to lose.

As bell hooks has eloquently explained, the intertwined projects of “racial uplift” and “black respectability” are inextricable from Jim Crow and the age of racial passing, when all black success in America was necessarily grounded in deception. This deception had two related but distinct aspects. And it is the first aspect with which non-black Americans are more intimately familiar, means by which black Americans hid themselves or hid their blackness to escape persecution. Successful black professionals lived in inner city slums or in run-down or deceptively modest homes to conceal earnings and savings that their white neighbours might confiscate or destroy. Other “success stories” like my aunt Connie “passed,” using their light skin to feign whiteness and mislead their neighbours and friends into thinking that they were not the descendants of slaves.

But the second kind is the more pernicious, the kind to which hooks has spoken so eloquently: the deception of false credentials, the pretense of a harmonious family life, the concealment of substance abuse, and the manufacture of false heroes. Because black Americans were and are so profoundly traumatized by the multi-generational campaign of physical and psychological abuse perpetrated by white society, the thing at which we must most desperately pretend is our mental health.

As discussed in articles about the problem of the “good victim,” in rape apologetics, violence produces trauma; trauma produces madness; madness makes us do things that are not respectable; if we do things that are not respectable, we prove the racists and misogynists right. For this reason, it has long been a collective imperative in the American black elite to conceal how traumatized its members are. Joining the black elite, whether at the town, city or national level has, since the moment America suffered a black elite to exist, entailed the concealment of trauma, illness and madness, especially in places where the black elite subscribes to the politics of respectability that Cosby has long embodied.

Growing up among Vancouver’s black community leaders, there are ways in which my experience of the disjuncture between what is true and what needs to be true intensified through forms of double consciousness to which Frantz Fanon and others have spoken.

But, in other ways, our community was more like the baroque world, just before the age of faith. We were allowed to know which great men and women, which community leaders, which black heroes were liars, thieves and abusers more consciously and to discuss their deceptions more openly. That’s because coordinated deception was not just about individual gains and individual good; these deceptions were for the greater Good of the Race. Some of the older people in our community remembered the lynchings, stonings and burnings; for them, these deceptions were a matter of survival. And for younger members, the dream was that, if only the façade could be maintained a little longer, the next generation wouldn’t have to feign health, heroism and credentials; they would truly possess those things and the multi-generation charade finally could end.

What has brought Bill Cosby down are his declining faculties. That loss of mental acuity has caused him to lose track of the fact that his fraud and deception do not belong to him alone but to the leaders of the Race. What has changed is not who Cosby is, nor who other members of America’s black entertainment elite know him to be. What has changed is Cosby’s Wager.

In recent years, Cosby has become more vociferous in attacking the personal virtue, decency and respectability of the newer, younger members of the American entertainment industry’s black elite. Comic Hannibal Buress could finally say “rapists don’t tend to curse on stage” precisely because Cosby was attacking him. Instead of being the aging patriarch who charged with leading the collective charade of health and miraculous recovery from trauma, Cosby forgot himself and began attacking the very consensus that shielded his own predation. New and aspiring members of the black elite had nothing to gain from Cosby’s inclusion in their number and everything to lose. It no longer needed to be true that the grand old man of NBC Thursday night was a good and decent family man. It now needed to be untrue for the exact same reason it had needed to be true in the 80s: for the good of the Race.

The question we need to ask ourselves is not “why did we not believe those women?” It is, instead, “why did we pretend we did not believe those women?” And I can tell you why I did: for the Good of the Race, so that the sacrifices of my mother, uncles, great aunts, grandfather, great-grandfather, all my ancestors, all the way back to the guy we imagine tried to tunnel out of Elmina Castle, would not have sacrificed in vain.

In recent months, I have become more convinced by hooks’ arguments that Jim Crow is over, that black elites and aspiring elites must change culturally, commit ourselves to honesty in new and revolutionary ways. I will do my best and endeavour to live my faith by being faithful and to try, every day, to believe what I know to be true, no matter the reward for acting as though I have been fooled.

One thought on “Cosby’s Wager: Faith, Rape, Race and Respectability

  1. Bill Piket says:

    Quite an interesting analysis, Stuart.  Reminds me of the way the FLDS Bountiful Commune sexual exploitation of women and girls is received by a) the immediate community of Creston, and b) the larger community of British Columbia and indeed Canada.  Community leaders in Creston continue to treat Winston Blackmore as a “good guy” and a pillar of the community who contributes to the economy. For 50 years BC political leaders have ignored/tolerated the growth of a clearly illegal and abusive cult into a 1,000 member community of abuse.  We must thank Wally Oppal for taking this on, and hope that the courts will finally put and end to this in the coming year.  And we need to thank Daphne Bramham for breaking the media’s silence with her columns in the Vancouver Sun.

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