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Bill Cosby And The Fan's Dilemma

Pictured: Comedian Bill Cosby in 1977. Cosby admitted in a 2005 deposition that he obtained Quaaludes with the intent of using them to have sex with young women. In court documents released Monday, July 6, 2015, he admitted giving the sedative to at least one woman. (AP)
Pictured: Comedian Bill Cosby in 1977. Cosby admitted in a 2005 deposition that he obtained Quaaludes with the intent of using them to have sex with young women. In court documents released Monday, July 6, 2015, he admitted giving the sedative to at least one woman. (AP)
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OK, so now we know, without a doubt, that Bill Cosby gave Quaaludes to at least one woman with the intent of having sex with her. His conduct was cruel, manipulative and criminal. Cosby was a reprehensible person off-stage.

There is no doubt that his fame, which amounts to the summed power of our allegiance, helped insulate him from punishment. The women he allegedly victimized were afraid to speak out against him. Others were bought off in court settlements. All of this is indisputably sad. It speaks to a culture in which the worship of celebrity and the acceptance of patriarchal values are often enough to overrule basic codes of decency.

I couldn’t agree more.

As a public figure, Cosby was (and is) funny. As a private citizen, in the realm of his sexual behavior, he is despicable.

But none of this bad data actually undoes the fact that Cosby was a talented comedian who provided people a great deal of joy for decades. We can sit around today feeling terrible about enjoying his hit TV show or having laughed at his routines. We can fume about how we were all suckered.

But I don’t really see the point. As a public figure, Cosby was (and is) funny. As a private citizen, in the realm of his sexual behavior, he is despicable. Both of those truths live side-by-side.

What marks our era as unique, historically, is that the line between our private and public selves has eroded. And with it has gone the line between artist and art.

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This is the part that unsettles me—the idea that the personal moral failings of an artist might cause us to turn away from the truth and beauty that resides in his or her art.

I think, for instance, of the poet Ezra Pound. As many people know, Pound was disgusted by the carnage of World War I and moved from England to Italy in 1924. He later embraced Benito Mussolini’s fascism and expressed support for Hitler. During World War II, Mussolini’s government paid him to deliver hundreds of radio broadcasts excoriating the United States, President Roosevelt and Jews.

In 1945, Pound was arrested by American forces and charged with treason. He was subsequently incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for a dozen years, during which he wrote long sections of his magnum opus, "The Cantos."

Are "The Cantos" any less profound or important because they came from the mind and heart of a man who embraced fascism and anti-Semitism? Should the personal integrity of an artist be the litmus test for our appraisal of his or her art? If so, what are we to do about, for instance, the Marquis De Sade, who committed so many acts of sexual deviance? Or Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence while owning slaves and, possibly, fathering children with one of them? Or Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual contact with a minor?

This is the part that unsettles me—the idea that the personal moral failings of an artist might cause us to turn away from the truth and beauty that resides in his or her art.

I’m not suggesting an easy answer to these questions. In fact, every citizen gets to decide for him or herself.

If you believe that Cosby’s sins obliterate any worth he might have as an entertainer, or that consuming his comedy amounts to approval or sponsorship, or if you simply can’t laugh at his jokes without feeling spasms of guilt or disgust, well then, you should by all means act on those feelings.

But that’s not the same thing as condemning other people for making a different decision, based on their own values.

I say this not because I’ve got some hidden cache of Cosby material in my basement, but because if I did, and if it made me laugh, that's my right as an American. In the eyes of the law — and basic morality — Cosby allegedly committed atrocious acts. Do these transgressions render him without merit as a comedian? Does it mean that those who find Cosby's work funny are in league with evil for laughing at his insights?

Living in a country committed to freedom—of speech, expression and thought—means accepting that people have the right to laugh at a comedian, and not just one who says offensive things on-stage, but even one who commits horrendous acts off it.

Related:

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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