"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Lance Armstrong, Lying, And Why We Do It

I have to admit, Lance Armstrong wins a medal for pure chutzpah – barefaced lying for over a decade.  He didn’t just like , but constructed a system of omertà that was as threateningly successful at keeping canaries from singing, judges from pronouncing, and police from investigating as the Mafia.  The will and intensity of this man is staggering. Perhaps the only interesting aspect of his ‘confession’ was his admission to a powerful, irresistible desire to compete and to win.  It is more than an addiction, he said, and more of an uncontrollable compulsion.  For Armstrong not being able to compete at the highest level is a ‘Death Sentence’, a consignment to the ordinary, the patzer, the Sunday rider.  He said that lying and cheating was only leveling the playing field, thus allowing his natural, God-given abilities to take him to the top.  I think he believes this, and his ‘confession’ is only a calculated, pre-meditated attempt to remove legal obstacles to his reconstruction.  I am sure he believes that now that he has exposed doping, if he were to reenter this newly-leveled arena, he would again come out on top. 

Armstrong is not the only premier athlete to take performance-enhancing drugs.  Baseball has many who have admitted it and many more in whom the government simply lost interest.  Government had proved their point, and home run totals have been down significantly.  The epidemic is, for the moment, under control.  These athletes doped for the same reason as Armstrong – to enhance their competitive advantage and by so doing attract even more lucrative contracts and endorsements.  They all most certainly felt that they would not get caught, and if they did, there would always be enough fans who would ignore or forgive and forget their transgressions.  As always, there is plenty of collusion and responsibility to go around – it is not just the athlete at fault.  The home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire generated tens of millions of dollars in revenues for owners, sports networks, advertisers, and players.  Perhaps more importantly, in a society that has grown inured to lying, cheating, and duplicity on the part of public figures, there would be a universal shrugging of shoulders, and a bored sigh of “So what?”.

There are few people who take what public figures say at face value.  One automatically assumes that  politicians, movie stars, or athletes, distort the truth for their own personal gain. Some politicians, like Mark Sanford who said he was walking the Appalachian Trail while he was in Argentina banging his hottie, was just dumb, dazed and confused by love.  The neo-con architects of the war in Iraq were less than truthful when it came to Weapons of Mass Destruction and sought a casus belli no different from the Gulf of Tonkin incident in LBJ’s days.  They explained away their ‘mistake’ when no WMD were found by saying, “It really doesn’t matter because Saddam Hussein was a very bad guy”. In other words, they felt justified in lying or distorting the truth, or inventing a convenient truth because the ends were all that mattered.  I am sure that they felt well within their moral rights to do so.  They lied, but didn’t think it was that big of a deal.

There is so much lying, distortion, and invention of truth in the public arena that not only have we come to expect it, but that it really doesn’t matter if, as the neo-cons and LBJ believed, the ends are righteous.  In the recent divisive Presidential election, the political lines were drawn very early on.  There were legions of Americans who felt that Obama was the Anti-Christ, a demonic figure bent on the destruction of the United States; and millions more who felt that as a Muslim, illegal immigrant, Socialist, and Black Nationalist, he was not to be trusted. While less virulent, ‘progressives’ had made up their minds as early as conservatives – Mitt Romney and his corporate claque were out to destroy America from the right, trample the little man, suck his economic blood, and leave him to die on the side of the road.  Romney was so evil, they said, that anything to bring him down was good.

The idea of a level playing field is very American; and most people believe that politics is about providing equal opportunity for all.  At the same time, there are growing numbers of citizens who believe that government is not only not the main agent for engineering that equality, but the main obstacle to it.  Ronald Reagan’s famous and seminal remark “Government is not the solution….Government is the problem” has been taken to illogical extremes – government is a dangerous, treacherous force which must be countered and resisted at all costs.  Regardless of the many government benefits conferred on these latter day militiamen, they are prepared for a transformative battle.  In this environment, truth is not only a rare commodity, but a discredited and unnecessary one.

How can we explain this almost complete transformation of American society?  In an earlier, more innocent era, if a child was caught lying or cheating, he would be severely punished.  Now, reports coming out of the most elite and competitive schools show that cheating is par for the course.  Students at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, taking only the best and the brightest, recently were caught cheating.  These students could have gotten in to college anywhere because of the elite nature of the school, but chose to cheat – not unlike Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong – to give them that competitive edge.  Sure, they could get into Brown, but why settle when Harvard was the goal?

The Internet has not helped things.  There is so much information out there that it is next to impossible to sort out fact from fiction; and most people just don’t have the time, the ability, or the patience to fact-check, compare sources, or corroborate evidence.  Particularly if a website provides information that supports a surfer’s views, it is accepted without question.  As above, who cares if the information is entirely true?  It could be true.

One of the hardest jobs of a parent is that of a truth-and-cheating warden in changing moral times.  Figuring out ways to cheat the phone company is not wrong, say many teenagers, because it is a big corporation which rips off people all the time.  The same for brand retailers who charge exorbitant profits and exploit their laborers.  Why not take a pair of snappy shoes, wear them to a party, then return them the next day because they ‘did not fit’?  The fact that these companies had to raise their prices to compensate for these thefts, prices which would ultimately hurt the consumer, was too abstract for these right-now youngsters.

It is no longer a given that lying is wrong.  There are too many caveats, conditions, maybes – unleveled playing fields, corrupt and venal corporate giants, a culture of competition and winning, an ethos of money-takes-all – for a parent to simply teach what was once an unquestioned principle.

Unfortunately, Lance Armstrong is one of us.  Perhaps he is one of the most exaggerated examples of wild, competitive, win-at-any-cost Americanism around; but he is our spokesman, and our hero.  He got away with cheating and lying for more than ten years, and it looks like he is on his way to rehabilitation and restoration.

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