observations and opinion
Some years ago, Yale University granted an honorary doctorate to a famous American. He was an unusually successful and important man: black, but a central figure in the country’s popular culture for decades; a droll, humane and insightful observer of daily life who portrayed one of the most beloved – if not the very most beloved – father in television history. And as a black father, a rebuke to the grim facts and the great exaggerations, about absentee African-American dads. A millionaire who gifted his hard and honestly-earned wealth upon people who needed a leg up. This was a legend, a great American, a humanitarian.
Yes, Yale University was absolutely right to bestow a degree upon Dr. Bill Cosby, when it did. But when Yale stripped that honorific from Cosby, in response to his criminal conviction for sexual assault, was it right, or was it wrong?
History has been piling up on top of us for centuries and throughout, our forebears have been inclined to raise up the names of noteworthy people – mostly men – for approbation. Their names go on buildings and streets, their likenesses are carved from stone and set on pedestals, and of course, they are feted and honoured and favoured with banquets and honorary degrees. You can’t even wander around a new subdivision without a street being named for somebody, even if it’s the builder’s daughter.
But just as history piles up, so too the tides of change roll in. In recent years we have experienced cultural earthquakes which have rattled the solemn edifices of our old assumptions and beliefs. Women not only expect legal equality, the expect true equality; people of colour appreciate sympathy but would rather be less in need of it; the gay have decided that they too, are fully human, and native Americans think the non-native population ought to know just how it is, we ended up with all this nice land.
History was often ugly. The great and their many followers, did some ugly things, or permitted such things. So it is that the residents of the present, appalled at the conduct of the people of the past, have begun to erase the markers of those who went before. We should not celebrate those who did evil, we are told. And it is hard to argue with that.
The difficulty, of course, is the idea that by looking at evil (or those who turned a blind eye to it) we are somehow “celebrating” it. There is a singular, simple stupidity to the notion. I know that I can see a photo of Hitler and not become a Nazi. So far at least, it hasn’t happened. And if anyone things I am singularly strong-minded in my resistance to the siren call of that little moustache, sorry, I’m not that special. We can all resist it.
But there is more to it. Until recently we called one of our Parliamentary buildings “Langevin Block” until reminded that Hector-Louis Langevin was not just an architect of Confederation, but later also of the residential school system which stole native children from their parents in an effort to eradicate aboriginal cultures. No one will believe in residential schools if we put Langevin’s name back on the building, but does he deserve it? We have graced his name with the glory that shines off the marble floors of the heart of our democracy. Those who put his name there intended to honour him, for good reasons, too, but in so doing they shone one of our brightest lights on a fellow with dark corners. Should we let it continue to shine, or should we strip that privilege from the memory of a man long dead, in recognition of how we now think about his deeds and beliefs?
Do we really need, or want, to erase the markers of the past because the present population doesn’t agree with everything the long dead did or believed? The answer ought to be this: yes, sometimes. And sometimes, no.
A few cases are easy: statues of Confederate Army generals were erected across the American South as a rebuke to the Union Army which won the Civil War. Those stone figures were placed on mighty pedestals, gazing down upon the white and black passersby of the future, to remind everyone of the supremacy of white people. Those statues were drawn and carved and mounted in place as silent, white, stony terrorist threats. To honour those men, those generals who dragged hundreds of thousands into bloody, muddy death in the defence of slavery, is ridiculous. They should be knocked down, forcibly, or at best placed in shadowy prison cells of museum exhibitions festooned with explanatory material about how evil the bastards were.
Alas, the easy cases are easy because they’re easy. The rest, aren’t.
Sir John A Macdonald forged the political process which created Canada. In the 151 years since, Canada has become one of the great success stories of pluralist, liberal capitalist free societies. Sir John A deserves a lot of gratitude for his primary act of public service. But he was also a slightly shady, marginally corrupt racist who most of the time cared for the company of whiskey more than he cared about the rules of etiquette. Many hard and some terrible things happened under the watch of Sir John A, his minions and successors, especially to the native people who were being pushed off their land across the continent. Does the boozy old Scotsman deserve to have his name splashed on streets and buildings, or to have his face on the ten dollar bill?
Of course he does. Macdonald accomplished one of the greatest acts of statesmanship of the 19th Century, leaving a legacy of constitutionalism, in a distinctly non-American form, in what was then British North America and what is now a racially, culturally diverse and rich society.
You see, Sir John A – like you and apparently like Bill Cosby – was a complicated human being. He felt love, hate, indifference, fear, confusion, fury, glee, bliss and boredom. He was an addict whose brain was both a diamond and a cloud. He accomplished remarkably greater things than most people (in the sense, he’s more like Bill Cosby than you or me, perhaps) and in the process, ignored greater sins that he might have righted, or committed some too.
We can say the same of Franklin Roosevelt, who while saving the world from fascism, ordered the internment of Japanese Americans (a staggeringly racist program that did not achieve purported war aims) and basically ignored the factory murder of European Jewry by the Germans (because to deal with it would have interfered with the overall military strategy). Do we tear down the monuments to FDR, or rename the roads and buildings which bear his name? No, because FDR while being human and imperfect and sometimes awful, saved the bloody world from fascism.
This is how it is – people are complicated. History is complicated. Every day we live is replete with acts of mediocrity, greatness, failure, goodness and sometimes, evil. Those who accomplish much deserve recognition. We need to recognize them, as persons, because their good achievements have formed who we are and are worth emulating. If along the way they committed mistakes – or crimes – we should neither ignore those things, nor erase all mention of those we recognize. We should not be afraid to see that people, and history, are complicated. Otherwise, they’re just cartoons – Marvel heroes and villains.
Yale University granted an honorary degree to an incredibly important, accomplished African American man who has now been found to be, a criminal and a predator. Bill Cosby the woman-drugging rapist does not deserve the honour, really, but Bill Cosby the cultural icon, legend and philanthropist, certainly did. Does it demean his victims, or “all women” to leave intact the recognition of Cosby’s good deeds? No.
Yale’s statement rescinding the degree naturally gravitated towards a boilerplate recital of how women deserve not to raped. That is not news, Yale, and it is hard to believe that Yale thinks we need to hear it from them. Their removal of a degree from Bill Cosby was not about women, nor intended to serve women or to take a stand against the violation of women. Yale did it for Yale, because it is the fashionable thing to do right now.
You know how we know that? Because they haven’t rescinded anyone else’s honorary degree, ever, and there is probably a living or dead “doctor” out there even less deserving than Bill Cosby. This was not about women. It was about public relations, and that is the hazard of rubbing out the past. Who does it really serve?
Indeed, if we actually give a damn about what Cosby’s proven victim (and alleged other victims) endured, then it is important to ensure that Cosby is not erased from history. The man was able to commit his vile deeds in part, because of his celebrity, power and renown. A cultural recognition of the real sins at the heart of the Cosby case – the sins not only of sexual abuse but of misuse of power – depends upon knowing that Cosby was not, actually, all bad. He was deservedly appreciated and revered for his work and his good works. THAT almost certainly enabled him to perpetrate misdeeds. By continuing to recognize Cosby’s worthy attributes and actions, we continue to shine a light on his sins.
Yale should acknowledge that it did not know Cosby’s evil misdeeds when they anointed him, but leave the doctorate in place. In part, to recognize the good the man did; in part to illustrate how power corrupts not just the powerful, but their enablers; and in part, to remind us that no one is perfect. Not even America’s favourite dad. So let him be Dr. Cosby.
That is different than hoisting the Confederate stars n’ bars up the city hall flagpole, or leaving in place a statue to generals whose only claim to fame is that they tried to perpetrate an insanely evil slave state. It is completely different. And if we are willing to try and be intelligent about it, we can manage to see the difference. It just takes a little more brain activity than the burp-like repetition of keywords and phrases.
In each case, we have to think:
The ongoing challenge to modern pluralist society, is to see how the past allowed our present cultural wealth and values to be born. Democracy is not an accident; equality is not “natural” or easy; free speech exists almost nowhere. All of it was work, remains work, and is the product of a sometimes brutal, colonial, illiberal, inhumane history. Human history.
What we have that is wonderful, and what remains broken, is an inheritance. We have arrived at the present moment through painful, difficult and imperfect steps. If we wipe away the footprints, we may lose sight not only of how we got here, but of how to keep going in the right direction.
P.S. There was, of course, a statue of Bill Cosby – at Disney World. It was, of course, taken down.