Sunday, December 26, 2004

Column on Bill Cosby vs. Kenny

Kenny vs. Bill Cosby

Tibor R. Machan

You may recall that Bill Cosby produced some aftershocks last May when he
admonished poor blacks to advance themselves instead of wasting their time
and money on trivial pursuits. This admonition was followed by a lot of
discussion and the repercussions still havenÂ?t died down.

In a recent event where CosbyÂ?s remarks were discussed with a group who
at first sight seemed to be among those he was addressing, some of them
came back at Cosby with pointed rebuttals. Reportedly one young man,
Kenny, 17, Â?a onetime stick-up man,Â? advanced the following Â?argumentÂ?:
"Cosby is ... talking about me holding up my end of the bargain. Listen
.... I robbed 'cause I was hungry. If he's going to put food on my table,
if he's going to give me time to pursue education vigorously, then fine.
But if he's not, then I'm going to hold up my end of the bargain and make
sure I get something to eat."

For a 17 year old this response may seem quite cogent only, actually, it
smacks too much of an excuse and I hope Cosby and his sympathizers
consider that before they cave in. I am not black but when I was about 17
I was out on the street myself, homeless, a high school flunkout. I
actually had a small place in a black neighborhood in Cleveland, what they
used to call a ghetto, and it would have been very simple for me to yield
to the temptation to enter a career of crime. One of my friends, also a
Hungarian refugee, did exactly thatÂ?I remember bailing him out of jail
with a tiny sum of cash I amassed from my job as a busboy. (I couldnÂ?t
keep this job because I was under age but I went on to become a short
order cook, with the glamorous task of preparing house salads in some
diner in Cleveland.)

Now I cannot be sure about this, since to be one would need to have
pretty intimate knowledgeÂ?rarely available to sociologists and social
commentators, not excluding Bill CosbyÂ?but I suspect that Kenny had a few
options besides becoming a stick-up man. I recall that even when I was
younger, living in Munich, I had jobs such as welding, brick laying,
cleaning on pigeon shit from a church steeple and baby sitting. At no time
did it seem to me necessary to turn to robbery, burglary, or sticking up
people. It was part of my general framework of thought, back then, that
with some perseverance and a little luck one can find something with which
to earn a buck or so.

The point, I think, of CosbyÂ?s remarks wasnÂ?t that every single solitary
young person will necessarily be able to make it on his or her own when
faced with poverty and deprivation. One usually needs a little help from
friends and neighbors or even total strangers when faced with such
emergencies. But the first requisite to get out of such a situation
without worsening matters is to have as oneÂ?s frame of reference the basic
principle that turning on other people is simply not an option. That, I
think, is a must. Once it sinks in, there will open up a world of more or
less promising opportunities one can attempt to exploit.

Kenny, I think, is probably reaching for some kind of rationalization
here, although, as I noted, this is not possible to established from just
a brief news report. But why is the report given in the first place, given
how it is impossible to judge from it whether there is any justification
for what Kenny is telling us all?

The reason is that KennyÂ?s story is exactly the sort that many experts in
social science tell and against which Bill Cosby and others with a richer
imagination about how people, even those who are quite unfortunate in
life, can advance themselves. Yes, there are those in dire straits who
need a decisive leg up, but then what they probably need is to learn to
ask for this in the right places. And there are thousands of such places
in America, so KennyÂ?s story just doesnÂ?t cut it even in the worst
circumstances. (Notice how he so smoothly wants Cosby to put food on his
table!) Instead, I suspect, Kenny and his ilk are brought up encouraged to
think that stick-ups are a valid option for people when they are facing
difficulties in making ends meet.

That, I think, is the central message Bill Cosby was trying to
communicate. Stop it with such ideas already!

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