By now, I assume everyone is familiar with the sad saga of Kevin Clash, one-time Elmo? For those of you who have somehow avoided the story (in which case I hope your sojourn on Mars was restful), Mr. Clash is the “Sesame Street” performer who created the role of the fluffy, exuberant red monster that became a sanity-threatening juggernaut when a giggling, tickle-able toy version was marketed a few years back. (I have never been a big fan of Elmo, who was a background character when I first watched the show. He lacked the subversive humor and charm of my favorite, Grover.) Mr. Clash has faced accusations of inappropriate sexual relations with now two men when they were in their teens, though I understand that the allegations of one were found to be unsubstantiated.
Here is where I do the obligatory stipulating that it is grossly inappropriate for a grown man to have a sexual relationship with a teenage boy. If the allegations against Mr. Clash are true, then he should face the penalties associated with sexually exploiting a minor. Nothing I say subsequently indicates I condone his alleged behavior. Is that sufficiently clear?
That said (and pace Amanda Hess), I hope somehow this ends up with Mr. Clash’s name cleared. I’ve actually met him once, when he brought Elmo for an appearance at a summer camp for children and families with HIV/AIDS where I used to volunteer. While this is hardly a deep and abiding personal connection, it was enough to give me a good impression of him as a generous and kindhearted person, and nobody likes to learn dark things about people they admire.
But let’s sadly suppose the allegations are true. Obviously his career as a children’s entertainer is already a shambles, and it would be utterly demolished under those circumstances. But beyond the unavoidable obliteration of his life’s work, what about his accolades and awards? What about his numerous Emmys? Should he be stripped of them?
After all, a similar punishment was meted out for those who covered up the serial predations of Jerry Sandusky. Not only did the perpetrator himself go to prison (where he belongs), but the winning record of his boss and abettor Joe Paterno was wiped from the books. I must admit, I found that penalty confusing. As I asked at the time:
Did his team score more points than the other team or didn’t it? If his team scored more points, how does one call that anything other than a win? The man who coached the team may have been a moral vacuum tube, but how does that change the score? Am I wrong to find this aspect of the punishment downright Orwellian?
Events transpired in a certain way. By doing so, they are described using a set of commonly-understood terms. This punishment now renders the outcome of the games some wholly new concept, which must be plucked from the air. Unless the predatory or complicit misdeeds of the coaching staff somehow directly affected the final score, how does it make sense to say Penn State didn’t win?
I still think this makes no sense. Unless Paterno’s or Sandusky’s actions materially affected the outcomes of those games, I simply fail to grasp why blacking out the wins of many seasons’ worth of teams is in any way reasonable. Tear down his statue, paint over his picture, spit when his name is mentioned — fine by me. But things happened a certain way, things were accomplished a certain way, and pretending otherwise because we despise the person who helped accomplish them seems silly. (In the case of Lance Armstrong, since his misdeeds had a direct bearing on his wins it seems to make much more sense to me that he be stripped of them.)
But if you think the above decision was proper, then what about Mr. Clash? If we treat this kind of malfeasance as a cause to not only punish but blot out the names of the transgressors, then shouldn’t Mr. Clash be forced to hand over his statuettes? If it happened to a celebrity for whom I had no particular affection (and of whom, in fact, I had not even heard until the Sandusky scandal broke), then it only seems fair that it happen to one I like. Right?
Again, let me make super-duper crystal clear that I have nothing but contempt for Mr. Sandusky and little better to say about the late Mr. Paterno. If the accusations against Mr. Clash end up holding water, it would sadden me to have to say that he deserves his own measure of our condemnation. Nothing I say here is anything like an excuse for what they did or may have done.
Furthermore, I am not asking this in a stupid attempt at glibness. But I sincerely question if this kind of reaction is the meet way for society to treat those whose private sins are made public. Do we not merely punish, but expunge them from our memories? Do we act as though we never loved them? Because we did, in the manner of fans, love them indeed. Can we find a way of understanding those we once cherished as more broken than we knew, or must our response be absolute, a black hole where our star once stood?