By Tom Baxter
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.
James Russell Lowell
I’d never read this poem before I heard Andrew Young quote the first line, applied to some passing story of the day years ago, and I wouldn’t be able to recall the complete couplet or its author if it weren’t for Google. Therein lies a new wrinkle in our upward and onward struggle that I’ll bet would have set Lowell’s pen flying.
The tinder that at last flared into the Bill Cosby story has been lying about for a long time. The charges brought by Andrea Constand in 2005 generated a number of newspaper, magazine and television stories before it was settled out of court, and unless there is now a highly organized conspiracy of false confession, there were a lot of people, including the 13 Jane Does who testified for Constand, who knew more. There have even been public confrontations over the allegations that Cosby used drugs to rape a string of young women he had taken under his wing.
But it was not until someone made a cell phone video of a standup routine which a young comedian named Hannibal Buress had been doing for several weeks, that the story ignited. There was nothing new in what he said — there have even been previous comedy routines about the rape allegations — except this: “You leave here and google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ It’s not funny. That s*** has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.’”
Somebody put the clip up on a Philadelphia magazine’s website, and a lot of people did what Buress suggested. In a cosmic piece of bad timing, Cosby’s website put up a meme generator, which allowed readers to write a headline on a picture of the star and post it on social media sites. That helped fan the now-flickering flame, which gained force as one after another woman came forward to accuse him.
One of Cosby’s public accusers, Barbara Bowman, wrote a Washington Post column wondering why it took a video of a man to spark the outcry she had been trying to raise for years. It’s a fair question, but there is more than gender discrimination wrapped up in the answer. Buress himself has expressed amazement at the impact his words had when they went viral.
“This is the first time that’s happened, and it’s very weird,” Buress said on the Howard Stern Show. “This was unexpected. I didn’t want to do that. If I were going to do that, I would have done it on my own. It wasn’t my intention to make this part of a big discussion. It was just something I was doing at that venue right then.”
As the staggering power of the search engine becomes more commonplace, it’s inevitable that there will be efforts to control access to the scattered bits of information that could create a media fire, as well as malicious attempts to strike matches.
These issues figured in a case settled out of court Monday in the United Kingdom. A businessman named Daniel Hegglin claimed that an anonymous troll had created some 4,000 websites that defamed him as a murderer, a pedophile, a money-launderer and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He demanded that all traces of the abusive material be blocked from search results.
For an undisclosed sum, Google avoided the legal precedent that Hegglin’s case might have set, but its unlikely this will be the last case if its sort.
Nor is it likely that Cosby will be the last respected figure to be brought down in a new era in which the past clings much more stubbornly than it once did. There remains a statute of limitations for the legal prosecution of certain crimes, but not for the swift demolition of reputations. And the time in which ancient good can be made uncouth has been cut to a fraction.