What We Can Learn From The Bill Cosby Verdict

One would need to be living in a very deep cave to have not heard: Bill Cosby—once America’s favorite television comedian—is now a convicted sex offender. His conviction for aggravated sexual assault is both an affirmation that no one is immune from the force of the law and a depressing reminder of how those with power and influence typically believe they are far above the petty concerns of human decency and respect for others.

To say that everyone of a certain age is confused about finding out that Bill Cosby, Mr. Jell-O Pudding Pops, was in the habit of drugging and assaulting women—many, many women, apparently—is a stupendous understatement. Although he has been mostly out of the public eye in recent years—in part because of the mounting evidence of his criminal behavior—no one who came of age in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s could escape his mirthful and beneficent presence. He was America’s dad—no doubt about it.

Reading the comments on the media posts concerning Mr. Cosby’s conviction, one senses a collision of vindication and dismay. Bill Cosby was, as much as we might want to now conveniently forget it, a trailblazer who transformed the portrayal of African-Americans on television by presenting smart, compassionate professionals—super spy, teacher, and doctor—on a series of hit shows. It would be difficult to overestimate his influence in changing the perceptions—and correcting the misperceptions—of so many Americans across many decades. To now discover the twisted and cruel soul behind those sterling performances feels like the worst possible betrayal to his many, many former fans.

Nonetheless, knowledge is much healthier than fantasy, and this conviction will likely be a signal moment in the ongoing national debate—and painful reckoning—regarding the sexual harassment and assault of the past and present. To learn what we now know about Bill Cosby’s behavior is part of a necessary maturation of our society’s attitudes regarding the daily interactions of men and women.

Every moment of every day the sexes commune in ways that are typically mundane and sometimes profound or life-changing—and which must always be respectful of necessary and perfectly reasonable boundaries of privacy and personhood. We are still, of course, not where we need to be—yet. Sadly, both women and men still often shout across a divide where the differences between compliments and insults, flirting and harassment, or honesty and deception still sometimes feels like a common language is lacking. Add in our very human and messy sexual desires, and we have fertile ground for the misunderstandings and misgivings that cause many to cut off communication altogether because they fear being misinterpreted—or worse.

Many women still feel that Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump—a man who once gleefully described how she was “schlonged” by Barack Obama during her 2008 presidential run—is emblematic of the deep river of sexism that still runs through our society, and one would need to be very blind or foolish to fail to notice that women are still many times not accorded the respect that is their due. Indeed, however one might feel about Hillary Clinton’s policy positions or public record, it is sad to remember the many humiliations she has had to endure—ranging from America’s weird obsession with her hairstyles while First Lady to a philandering and thoroughly disingenuous husband—during her long and accomplished career. Many women understood and forgave her faults because they had experienced similar pain in their own lives, and they felt like the voters’ dismissal of her in favor of Donald Trump was a confirmation of all their worst fears regarding their own shaky status in American society.

Now that Hugh Hefner has gone to his eternal rest, perhaps we can now likewise bury his adolescent Playboy philosophy that is perhaps understandable in twelve year old boys but is still unseemly, nonetheless. Keeping firmly in mind that our nation’s past has never been as innocent as we might like to believe and idiocy can never be entirely eliminated, perhaps we can at least resolve to speak courteously, behave responsibly, and listen thoughtfully when around the opposite sex.

The divides between men and women are likely not so insurmountable as we might sometimes believe, and if we can all be a little open and honest regarding our own faults and shortcomings—no one is perfect—that might ease some of the anger that men and women sometimes feel toward one another. I know we can all agree that what Bill Cosby has been convicted of doing is wrong—wrong on every level and in every possible way. That might provide a basis for a dialogue regarding how our pervasive hookup culture and media misogyny has degraded and debased both men and women—and how healing and understanding requires a broad-based commitment to rejecting our worst instincts in favor of our highest aspirations. There is a lot of pain, bitterness, and confusion to be found all around us in both men and women; restoring the health of our relationships is a shared responsibility that we can either shun or embrace.

Breaking down those walls and dialing down the defensiveness will not be easy for many because of past experiences that have made it difficult to trust one another again, but the alternative is loneliness and an empty existence. Therefore, just how hard of a choice is this to make—really?

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A World Turned Upside Down?

There is a possibly apocryphal story that, upon surrendering to the American revolutionaries at the Battle of Yorktown, General Cornwallis instructed the British Army band to play “The World Turned Upside Down”. The situation must certainly have seemed so to the British, smugly certain of victory against the colonists, whom they deemed to be mere rabble—the “Deplorables” of their day. These farmers, laborers, and small business owners certainly must have seemed to be no match for the power and glory of the Empire at the very peak of its influence.

The world has now turned upside for a great many people who were convinced the sun would never set on the D.C. empire of ever-expanding government and regulation fueled by ever-increasing tax hikes and federal bureaucracy. Watching the sea of exceedingly sour Democratic faces during President Trump’s State of the Union address last week, it was hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for those who still cannot seem to reconcile themselves to the new reality. This perhaps helps to explain the policies and positions now shrilly advocated by the Democratic minority that seem so at odds with both their party’s historical norms and current rhetoric.

I grew up with a Democratic Party aligned to the interests of blue collar workers. This stance obviously translated into policies that put cash into the pockets of the hard-working middle class that created so much of our nation’s prosperity through both their labor and personal spending. Although I realize the Democrats many years ago morphed into the party of Silicon Valley and Wall Street—it is no mere coincidence that Nancy Pelosi is from San Francisco and Charles Schumer is from New York—I believe their implacable opposition to the business and personal tax cuts recently enacted by the Republican Congress is spectacularly suicidal. Staking out an unyielding position against a bill that is already driving capital investments by businesses, prompting many corporations to hand out immediate cash bonuses to their employees, and reducing the federal tax bite for the vast majority of workers seems difficult to understand except as a short-sighted defense of overpaid D.C. bureaucrats instead of our tax-weary citizenry. For someone old enough to remember the Democratic Party as it used to be, this seems an upside down reality.

By the same token, it is probable that several shelves of books will someday be written to explain the Democratic somersault on the subject of illegal immigration. Democrats have somehow quickly moved from President Obama’s early vows to crack down on illegals to a current advocacy—if not outright endorsement—of sneaking into the United States and staying here. This stunning change in perspective among Democratic lawmakers is, in addition, today conjoined with a reflexive support for unabated migration from nations known to support terrorism. One has to wonder how Democrats plan to win back voters who don’t live in. . . San Francisco or New York. Watching so much of the nation’s electoral map turn Republican red two Novembers ago should have been sufficient to convince all but the most ideologically blinded to reconsider extremist immigration policies that helped put their party out of power—but it seems that upside down is the position still preferred by many Democratic loyalists.

By the same token the Democratic Party’s loud defenses of both the FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, both of whom recently seem to be executing their investigative duties in manners that should raise the eyebrows of all but the most extreme partisans, also appear quite odd when put in historical context. I am old enough to remember when liberal Democrats (Is there any other kind today?) deeply distrusted the FBI and its motivations. Moreover, one need only glance back at the Clinton presidency to discern a very different attitude toward special investigations with elastic and expansive mandates.

The dead end search for Russian collusion in the 2016 election now seems to have mutated into an endless fishing expedition—accompanied by far too many self-serving and inflammatory leaks to the press—that serves to provide the unending appearance of wrongdoing in the absence of actual evidence. One need only to flashback to Kenneth Starr and his dim-witted defense of democracy, which eventually took the form of prosecuting the President of the United States for Oval Office nookie, to wonder what has snapped inside Mr. Mueller’s Democratic cheerleaders, who seem to have completely forgotten the damage done by odd investigative zealotry just a couple of decades in the past. Reality again lands bottom side up.

There is, however, one ongoing investigation in Washington that has real potential to be a political—and perhaps Constitutional—bombshell. Someday soon the Inspector General for the Department of Justice will be releasing a report regarding the FBI investigation of the Hillary Clinton email scandal—and the inexplicable assertion by former FBI Director James Comey that no federal laws were violated by either Secretary Clinton or her associates. If the Inspector General’s report were to show that the highest law enforcement officials in our nation were in fact tailoring their investigations and prosecutorial recommendations to help throw a U.S. Presidential election to one candidate over another, that would be a crisis of monumental proportions that would compel swift action to restore the integrity of our federal government.

Failing this were it to be necessary, our faith and trust in the guarantees embodied in the Constitution would be turned upside down, inside out, and shaken to the core. We cannot allow this to occur.

Let Our People Tweet!

In a recent interview, Barack Obama made the following observation regarding the promise—and pitfalls—associated with the rapid growth of the use of social media in our hyper-politicized age: “The question has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a Balkanization of society and allows ways of finding common ground.” This is a good question, but it may miss the mark just slightly—as many perfectly reasonable questions sometimes do.

The ever-expanding range of social media—everything from Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat and beyond—has fundamentally changed our political, personal, and social discourse in ways we are still struggling to understand. Who, for example, had heard of “hashtag activism” a scant few years ago or would have foreseen the manner in which a political neophyte could leverage his love of “tweeting” into the highest elected office in our nation?

Politicians, reporters, businesspeople, celebrities, athletes, and others now race to provide their instantaneous reactions—we cannot possibly call it analysis—regarding every twitch in the fabric of our world. No event or statement—no matter how momentous or mundane—seems beyond comment, and YouTube personalities now rake in six and seven figure incomes for sharing (or perhaps oversharing) every aspect of their daily lives. Our planet’s population has become a global network of symbiotic exhibitionists and voyeurs, each dependent upon the other for the peculiar gratifications of either posing or peering. It is sometimes a wonder that anyone finds the time to brush their teeth between checking online, posting, and anxiously waiting for the “likes” to appear.

As a result, privacy is now nearly synonymous with invisibility, which has both individual and cultural consequences we can only begin to today fathom. We should, however, by now recognize the drawbacks inherent in engaging with social media in a manner that slices and dices individuals into ever-smaller subgroups based upon identities, interests, and political leanings. Although shared community can certainly result from, for example, finding Facebook “friends” who are just like you—and actively “unfriending” those who are not—this can easily slip into the Balkanization that concerns Mr. Obama. The myopic view of the world that results from communing exclusively with those who agree with everything you say produces the mental flabbiness and smug certitude that has helped to poison so many of our national conversations. Speaking only to those like ourselves surely separates us from one another—and impedes honest discussion.

However, this being acknowledged, I believe that Mr. Obama neglected to emphasize perhaps the greatest benefit of social media: the removal of mediators and filters that decide how information is transmitted—or whether it is transmitted at all. I am old enough to remember when a mere handful of major networks and newspapers were able to impose a virtual information hegemony upon our nation, which turned them into arbiters, gatekeepers, and kingmakers—and drastically narrowed the range of information and opinions available. Perhaps the most startling—or, for some, terrifying—aspect of last year’s Presidential election was that Donald Trump won without a single endorsement from a major news outlet and slogged on to victory while thumbing his nose at their repeated disparagements. This was, no matter how it might otherwise be spun, a stunning populist victory that would most certainly have been stopped in its tracks by the mainstream media in years past. It will be up to historians to determine the merits of Donald Trump’s presidency, but his success at the ballot box would have been impossible before the advent of social media.

Of course, right now a Trump opponent is rolling his or her eyes at his use—some would say manipulation—of his Twitter account, but it should be remembered that there would be no #MeToo moment or #BlackLivesMatter tidal wave revealing decades of pain and abuse were it not for the enormous power and reach of social media. In both of these instances, the entrenched establishment lost control of the narrative because millions of voices were suddenly able to speak and be heard. This is what most terrifies those in positions of previously unassailable power and influence: The average person can now wield a mighty sword to cut them down to size with just the tip of their finger tapping on a screen.

The nascent effort to combat “fake news” by empowering corporations and government agencies to ferret out information they deem unreliable—or perhaps embarrassing—seems to me to be nothing but a thinly veiled attempt by the establishment to reassert their control over what information is available in order to maintain their crumbling authority. Rumors, gossip, and pettiness have been baked into humanity since the dawn of civilization, but the official lies that have driven disastrous misadventures (we never did find those “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, did we?) are too numerous to enumerate and have caused vastly more damage to our nation and its people.

We are likely much better off with a wild and uncontrollable social media environment that asks uncomfortable questions and attacks complacent assumptions. If people are sometimes insulted and misinformation is occasionally spread, this is a small price to pay for the incredibly free and open discussion that is now possible, and we would be fools indeed to have this wrested away from us because some are more comfortable with the hollow silence that would soon follow.

The common ground we find after free-wheeling debate is a firmer foundation than the shaky consensus forced upon us by stilling voices of dissent. We must, of course, learn how to avoid ad hominem attacks and cruel invective as we discuss difficult and divisive issues, but the Balkanization that so concerns Mr. Obama also might be characterized as the messy and maddening freedom to speak truth to power and challenge a status quo that many find unacceptable. It is normal and healthy for citizens in a democracy to disagree, and those who yearn for the good old days when those who owned the television broadcast licenses or printing presses decided what we would be allowed to hear or say are simply hoping that taking away the voices of the many will protect the power of the few.

No matter how many times experts and insiders assure us that strict social media censorship will produce peace, harmony, or security, don’t believe it for a second. We are much better off with the sloppy cacophony of voices and viewpoints that we have right now, and those who are pushing for more curated conformity and crass control deserve nothing other than a good kick in the pants—on social media.

The Hangover

The question at the heart of the movie from which I am taking the title of this commentary—“What the hell happened last night?”—is perhaps an apt description of the state of the Democratic Party today. It seems to me that a lot of energy is still being expended trying to figure out “what happened” last year to derail the dream of a liberal utopia where the party would never end. Watching Hillary Clinton now wander the country like Marley’s ghost, rattling her chains and bewailing her fate, one has to wonder when those who are still stunned by the election of Donald Trump—and the many sharp policy turns his ascendancy represents—are going to snap out of their stupor and fully engage with the many changes now afoot.

To say that the political and social Left in America is in an exceedingly surly mood is putting it mildly. Having convinced themselves in 2008 that the election of Barack Obama signaled the beginning of an inevitable electoral wave that would permanently put their policies in place, most were stunned when the tide receded and Democrats suddenly found themselves with the lowest percentage of state and federal elected officeholders since the 1920’s. As much as those who voted for Hillary Clinton like to comfort themselves with the fact that she received more popular votes, the basic problem still remains that Secretary Clinton was running for President of the United States—not Empress of New York or Queen of California. Watching the middle of the nation turn bright red on Election Night, leaving only isolated blue redoubts on the coasts and Chicago, liberals were left to curse the grim math of the Electoral College and cling to the hope of still elusive proof of Russian collusion, neither of which has yet yielded much beyond cranky sound bites on CNN and MSNBC.

And so the hangover began.

To say that the Democratic Party has a long road to recovery on a national level is like saying someone who has been run over by a truck—and is now sporting a body cast—is a little under the weather right now. Locked out of power in D.C. and many states, Democrats have resorted to erecting the moral equivalent of a spite fence by continually castigating Republicans for their hateful ignorance while reassuring themselves that today is all nothing but a bad dream that will pass when they awaken to find Trump is finally indicted and removed from office.

This might not be the wisest course of action. If the Democratic Party is going to rebound sooner rather than never, it seems three specific actions would get them off to a good start:

Elevate the next generation of leadership—immediately.  It is time to finally admit that the folks who lead you down the road to ruination need to be replaced. The “Chuck and Nancy” show in the Senate and the House has clearly run its course, and the next tier of loyal Capitol Hill lieutenants who have also helped to propel today’s electoral meltdown are little better. The time for a shake-up is right now. The longer the Democrats wait and keep fresh talent on the shelf, the longer it will take to turn around their national fortunes.

Prioritize. The Democratic agenda that has developed over the past few decades boils down to the following: “Everybody should be given everything they want (unless it is a bottle of pop or a Nativity scene) by the government for free every time they ask for it—and no one need suffer from an opinion contrary to our own regarding the need for this.” As a result, our nation has ended up with a tottering and financially unsustainable big government monster that has turned the Democratic Party and its supporters into an easily caricatured herd of pettifogging bureaucrats who seem to have their noses in everybody’s business—all while gleefully belittling those whom they don’t like. It is little wonder that so many voters are ditching them. It’s time for a thorough discussion to distinguish what is important from what is tangential. After this is done, Democrats can pick a few signature issues and rebuild their tattered brand. However, if they plan to continue to be all things to all people (except for, of course, those people whose opinions and values they don’t like), the Democratic Party can expect a long stretch in the wilderness.

Talk less and listen more. One of my father’s favorite sayings was this: “You’ve got two ears and only one mouth—that should tell you something.” The unfortunate Democratic propensity for telling everyone (very loudly) why they are wrong has not won a lot of votes recently. It might be better to put down the mocha lattes and spend some time around voters who don’t live in New York, San Francisco, or a college town. Someone who disagrees with a core Democratic tenet is not necessarily a disagreeable individual; it is simply a fact that their beliefs are being informed by different life experiences, values, and judgments. Most people are fairly reasonable and are willing to have a sensible discussion on a variety of issues; if, however, your conversational style tends to leap into sneering condescension directed toward those whose beliefs differ from your own, you’re going to have a hard time convincing anyone. Moreover, sometimes you just have to adjust to the possibility that—incredible as it might seem—you are just plain wrong. That’s a bitter pill for some to swallow, but that might be just what is necessary to prompt a Democratic renewal.

Will any of this happen? I hope so. Thoughtfully planned and executed government policies play a major role in improving our daily lives and ensuring a bright future for our nation, and we need cooperative and respectful dialogue to create a better tomorrow for our citizens and our country. Most importantly, given the broad range of challenges ahead, we need voices from across the political spectrum involved. It is not healthy for our country to have the electoral math so skewed in one direction, and a reinvigorated and resurgent Democratic Party could play a significant role in promoting programs that would ensure a more broad-based prosperity.

However, to be honest, I don’t yet see this happening. The Democratic finger-pointing and purity tests seem still to have to run their calamitous course. However, I humbly offer this blueprint for a path forward. If my suggestions turn out to be wrong, so be it. I offer them for whomever might care to listen—from one concerned citizen to another.

Doom and Gloom For The Democrats

Over the span of human history individuals and groups have found it advantageous to predict disaster. A sense of impending catastrophe motivates your followers, creates some temporary group cohesion, and calls into question the intelligence and motivations of those who are against you. If you can convince others that the world as we know it is about to end, the resulting crisis atmosphere also bestows enormous power to both manipulate and intimidate your opponents to reach your desired ends.

There are, however, two problems inherent in this approach. If the world doesn’t end in a reasonably short time, those who were willing to temporarily line up behind you are apt to quickly lose all faith because they think you a fool. Worse yet, if the disaster you predicted is not averted, those who put their trust in your skills and judgment will banish you from the tribe.

Now that we are finishing the seventh month of the Trump presidency, I believe we are seeing this dynamic play out—in a big way.

Watching the continuing vilification of Hillary Clinton since last November has been as transfixing as a train wreck. Her transformation from putative President-Elect to pariah has been both quick and merciless. Those who once touted her competence and celebrated her nomination are now often openly contemptuous of both her record and campaign. As comforting as the fervent belief in Russian chicanery is for many Democrats who are still shell-shocked by the election results and pining away for impeachment, the legacy of Hillary Clinton will always be that she somehow lost the election to a man who was widely considered unelectable—and embodies the repudiation of their party’s core beliefs. A fall from grace so swift and precipitous is almost without precedent in American politics.

In addition, President Trump’s dogged pursuit of his agendas on trade, immigration, healthcare, regulation, and the environment in the face of nearly universal opposition from the entrenched government bureaucracy and mainstream media has provided an instructive lesson regarding the limitations of crisis creation. Although this early phase of Trump’s administration has been an incredible uphill slog with a mix of both victories and defeats, the self-regarding Washington bubble is rapidly deflating. After all the supremely confident pre-election assurances that the changes Trump advocated would lead to instant and total catastrophe, the Democratic Party doomsayers seem stupefied. The facts that the sun still rises, jobs are being both created and reclaimed, and the lives of those outside of Washington-area zip codes are, by and large, either unaffected or improved since the Inauguration continues to erode their tattered credibility—and leaves them scrambling for a new message.

Consequently, Democrats face an existential question: If your leader has failed you and the predicted disaster has not occurred and validated your predictions, where do you go from here? This is clearly the problem that is roiling the Democratic Party at the moment—and causing a lot of doom and gloom among the Party’s faithful. Even worse, Bernie Sanders’ true believers and the stubborn remnants of the business-friendly Clinton wing are engaged in a self-destructive battle that does little to advance a coherent and compelling message—which is why no one seems to be able to understand where the Democratic Party now stands. Wistful efforts to anoint blank slate candidates such as Senator Kamala Harris are only further evidence of the ideological confusion that must be somehow crafted into a winning platform for 2018 and beyond. Winning Democratic leadership must come from the trenches—not a high-priced fundraiser in the Hamptons.

Waiting for a miracle—a pile of Russian gold in Donald Trump’s garage or a birth certificate proving that he was born in Moscow (wouldn’t that be ironic?)—is not going to save the Democratic Party. Nor is it a good idea for leadership to continually denounce all the remaining Democratic apostates who are still pro-choice, work somewhere other than a tech company, government agency, or non-profit organization, and (gasp!) sometimes meekly suggest that personal responsibility is more helpful than government handouts.

To fashion a winning coalition the Democratic Party needs new leaders who will rebuild trust that transcends party lines, offer solutions that are affordable, empower individuals rather than government or interest groups, and include rather than divide. Whether this is possible in the short term is questionable given the internecine divisions that now exist within the Party, but one can only hope that it will somehow be possible—someday soon.