Saturday, December 01, 2007

Blogging Cosby (5 of 5)

Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint's Come on People is a necessary sermon to African Americans promoting black self-help. Their core message, contained in the subtitle, is that it is both possible and necessary for black Americans to change their attitude from victims to victors.

The meatiest chapters reflect the particular interests of the authors. Medical doctor Poussaint goes into detail about the particular health problems of African Americans, most of which are the direct result of lifestyle choices. TV star Cosby makes the case that media portrayals of black people were bad for a long time, got better when Bill Cosby was on TV (from I Spy to The Cosby Show) -- and then got worse. The book is shot through with laments about the self-inflicted wound of gangsta rap. I suspect that a major motivation for writing this book in the first place was when these two grandpas saw children their grandchildren's age singing along with horrible rap songs.

I noted before that Cosby and Poussaint pull their punches on marriage. This is even more notable, and consequential, in the concluding sections of the book. In the chapter on black health, they urge black women to make their "regular sex partners" wear condoms, because there is no telling who else they have been with. Marriage does not even appear in that chapter, and even the presumption of sexual fidelity is not on their radar. And these are the conservative old guys, who lavishly thank their wives in the acknowledgments!

The final chapter, "From Poverty to Prosperity," lists some of the main causes of black poverty in this country. "institutional racism, limited job opportunities, low minimum wage, mental illness, physical disabilities, drug and alcohol abuse, lack of a high school diploma, incarceration, and a criminal record." Their main solution: "education is the key for poor people."

On both points -- the main causes of poverty, and the main solution to the problem -- I have to disagree with Drs. Cosby and Poussaint. I think marriage is the fundamental human institution that helps people work out of poverty -- and makes them have the will to stick to it. As Cosby and Poussaint note in the opening chapter, in 1950, black and white marriage rates were the same. Now, when all of the external structural obstacles to black success are much less powerful than they were in 1950, the low black marriage rate is, I think, the main internal structural obstacle to black success.

Cosby and Poussaint have written a timely and necessary call to African American uplift. But they miss the single most important element of that call.

Navigon Progeny

Navigon is a spiffy new GPS device for your car.

I think they should come out with a smaller, pedestrian version.

Son Navigon.

(Say it out loud).

Friday, November 30, 2007

Blogging Cosby (4 of 5)

"Thank God for the community college!"

Most of Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint's Come on People is a familiar sermon. This is not an academic book; there are almost no numbers in it, and little that is new. The main self-help themes of the Booker T. Washington school of black self-help are repeated, updated for the times.

One important updating is their extensive praise for community colleges as a second chance for people who blew off high school (or even elementary school). They talk about the many kinds of vocational training that community colleges offer. Beyond those offerings, Cosby and Poussaint point out the community colleges are a discrete way for those who got socially promoted through high school but can't really read a chance to actually learn the skills they missed. Likewise, students can often "go to college" to get their GED.

Cosby and Poussaint's main message is that black people with no guidance and no goals will lead destructive and self-destructive lives. Community college offers some human guidance and many reachable goals for people who missed all that growing up in stunted families.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Blogging Cosby (3 of 5)

Cosby and Poussaint pull their punches on marriage.

After starting off strong pushing African-American men to step and be good fathers and role models, they wimp out on pushing them to be husbands.

In the crucial chapter on raising children, they let Dr. Xylina Bean, a neonatologist in Compton, CA, do the heavy lifting. She calls "each and every one of you" to be responsible for raising kids. Her list, though, betrays the reality that she doesn't really expect married parents to be the core of the childrearing team, nor does she really expect men to carry half the load. She specifically calls on grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, "play aunts" and "God aunts." Dr. Bean speaks bluntly to young black women to choose their baby daddies carefully. Not their husbands. No mention of husbands.

Cosby and Poussaint open the book with a strong condemnation of the huge decline in black marriages, and the bad consequences this has for kids. Their positive program, though, only calls on everyone to rebuild childrearing. They shy away from the most effective childrearing program: rebuilding marriage.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Blogging Cosby (2 of 5)

On "The Cosby Show," Bill Cosby played Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, a loving and involved, if somewhat bumbling, husband and father. In Come on People, Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint make the fascinating claim that people who don't like Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable "don't like -- or don't know -- their own fathers."

They make this claim in the course of an important opening chapter about the estrangement of most black Americans from their fathers. I agree with them on the main point. I am still chewing on this secondary "Cosby Show" illustration.

I did like and watch the "Cosby Show" when it was on because it showed a happy, functional family. I did not like Cliff Huxtable, though, because he was so often incompetent. The family worked well because Claire Huxtable was wise and all-knowing, and corrected her husband's mistakes with the children. I have noticed the trend that there are almost no competent married fathers on television. It seems as if the current generation of television writers take it as a fixed point of TV writing that father never knows best.

Cosby and Poussaint, who both also worked on the "Cosby Show," are quite right that Cliff Huxtable was very much better than the absent father, or the inconsistent father, or the domineering father, or, worse, the baby daddy that so many families, know -- including most black families. But Dr. Huxtable is still not the wise, firm, demanding-but-responsive father that all fathers should aspire to be.

I can see why Bill Cosby would not cast himself as Father Knows Best. But it is important to bear in mind that the media images that he deplores in Come on People also limit even his best efforts to set a higher standard for family life.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Blogging Cosby (1 of 5)

Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint have published Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors to promote a cultural revolution among black Americans. They haven't just written a book -- they have been going around the country issuing the call, listening to responses, pushing African Americans to stop being victims, stop blaming racism as the cause of all the distinctive problems of black people in this country, and get on with the business of taking responsibility for their own conditions and success. I blogged about this movement when the book first came out as "Cosby is Right Again." One of the innovative ways in which Cosby and Toussaint are promoting their cause is to give a copy of the book to 100 bloggers to write about it. That is what I will be doing all this week.

Cosby and Toussaint are old. They are of the Civil Rights generation that fought for legal equality in the '50s and '60s. They remember when racism in this country was much, much worse than it is now. And when the behavior of black individuals and black families was much better than it is now. The fact that they open the book with is this: in 1950, 5 out of 6 black children were born in a two-parent household. Today that number is less than 2 out of 6.

So where do these two old black men start in making their cultural revolution? By addressing young black men. And their main message to young black men is "claim your children." "You can run the biggest drug cartel in America or win the Super Bowl,"they argue, "but if you haven't claimed your children, you are not a man." No matter how much you may have screwed up your life, no matter how much your other problems or goals may claim your attention, black fathers have to reset their values to this standard: "I am more interested in raising my child than any issue I had before. I am going to behave or get help, but it is about the child."

In his excellent business book, Good to Great, Jim Collins says that one of the bedrock principles of any great organization is a willingness to face the brutal facts. Cosby and Toussaint are willing to face the brutal facts about black families and black actions today. And try to rebuild from there.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Seventh Seal

The Gruntleds had a wonderfully nerdy Thanksgiving evening. After the guests had left, we settled in to watch Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal." Mrs. G. and I had seen it in college, but we wanted to show it to Endub, who had been studying Kierkegaard.

The film is a fantastically made movie. Scene after scene is framed iconically. The serious moral quest of the knight to know God, the counterpoint of his cynical, worldly squire, and the terrible blankness of Death, are worth wresting with. For a Christian, the film is disturbingly ambiguous. The last word seems to go to Death and the squire - that beyond this life there is nothing and unknowing.

When we had seen it through, we did something I have not done before: immediately saw it again with the commentary on - in this case by British film historian Peter Cowie. Cowie brought out a helpful point. Bergman was surprised at the huge impact of "The Seventh Seal." He described it as a little movie that he and some friends made one summer. Bergman himself rejected the faith of his minister father, and became a hedonistic atheist. In the film, the director identified with the squire.

Endub and I agreed, though, that the film has its power because viewers identify with the knight. The knight does sacrifice himself to do a meaningful good act in this life. And the ending does not settle the knight's question about God -- whatever the director might think.