Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pierced by a Lance


"I am shocked — shocked — to find gambling going on in here."

- Captain Louis Renault, as played by Claude Raines in Casablanca

I suppose there are still people out there who were shocked to see the reports that Lance Armstrong admitted his drug use to National Conscience Oprah Winfrey last night, in an interview to be broadcast Thursday.  I suppose we'll have to wait until then to see what he actually said, and how he explained it away, but that hasn't stopped people from commenting on it in the meantime.  And one school of thought we're hearing is a variation on the "Robin Hood" theme, i.e. that Armstrong did so much good in his lifetime outside of the cycling game, he raised funds (mostly from big corporations that could afford it) and awareness for cancer, he was an inspirational leader, Livestrong, yada, yada, yada.

That's an interesting proposition, that the good Armstrong's done outweighs his personal failings, one that I thought was worth an experiment.  Let's try the following statements on for size, and see what your reaction is to each of them:

  • "I know he's cheating on me, but he provides for me and my children, so I can't really deny that."

  • "I may have lied to the American people about a break-in, but I was going to win reelection anyway, and Watergate doesn't really diminish the end of the Vietnam War, my trip to China, and the other things I've accomplished, right?"

  • "Perhaps the stem cells did come from aborted babies, but they saved my life, so I'm not complaining that someone had to die so I could live."
  • "So what if I did steal that money from the insurance company?  They can afford it, and anyway, I gave all the money to feed starving children.  What's the difference?"

    Chances are that most of you were offended by at least one, if not all, of these statements.  Perhaps they struck close to home for some of you.  At any rate, I doubt that anyone out there would have agreed with all four of them.

    Presumably there are those who feel themselves taken in by the manufactured aura that surrounded Armstrong.  And, human nature being what it is, we're loathe to blame ourselves, to suggest that we should have known better.  We don't want to think, even in private, that we might have been stupid enough to fall for this con artist's story, hook, line and sinker.  That's understandable, and so to cover ourselves we might want to provide cover for Armstrong.  We tell others (because we're really telling ourselves) that although he might have been wrong, he did so much that was good that we can somehow excuse, at least in part, the bad things.

    And in so doing we're really suggesting that these good works and charitable endeavors somehow excuse at least some of his sins, that he likely wouldn't have been able to accomplish all these things without the fame that came from winning seven Tour de France titles. That, in essence, the end justify the means.

    Now, it's a generally accepted part of Christian theology that good ends never justify bad means (while at the same time it's acknowledged that God can always bring forth good even from the worst actions).  But since Lance Armstrong is a secular humanist, a non-believer, that doesn't enter into the equation.  Having said that, would we suggest that bombing a city in Afghanistan and killing 100,000 innocent people (assuming one could verify such a thing) would have been justified had we been able to guarantee Osama Bin Laden would have died in the wreckage?  After all, the end justifies the means.

    The libel lawsuits he filed against journalists.  The threats and intimidation he leveled against colleagues.  The brazen lying to the world press and public.  Are we to assume that all of this was justified simply because he was able to do something "good"?  Is that what we're supposed to tell David Walsh, whose employer (The Sunday Times) paid £600,000 to settle a libel case brought by Armstrong after Walsh exposed some of his tactics?  Or Emma O'Reilly, former masseuse for Armstrong's team, who said Armstrong "tried to make my life a living hell" after she told what she knew about drug use within the team? People's reputations were damaged; the trust of their colleagues was threatened; their lives, indeed, were made "hell" - all because Lance Armstrong acted against them for making accusations that, he knew all along, were true. But then we shouldn't worry about that if the end justify the means.

    You and I were bilked out of some of our money, since the U.S. Postal Service sponsored Armstrong's team and paid something in the neighborhood of $31 million as part of an agreement that stipulated "no performance-enhancing drugs."  Granted, the government being the government, that money probably would have been wasted somewhere else anyway, but it still peeves me anyway, and I'm not likely to feel more sanguine about it if you tell me that the end justifies the means.

    People heard about Lance Armstrong's foundation through his fame; they were moved by the story of a cancer survivor who overcame the odds to become a would champion.  And they gave money to that foundation assuming it to be honest because they believed in the man who started it, and while there's no evidence that anything unethical has ever gone on there, it was the trustworthiness of Lance Armstrong that the organization banked on.  Even the most na├»ve among us might see the potential for an ethical conflict here, given the fiction that was Armstrong's reputation.  But in this cynical world, where we've seen so many trustworthy institutions come under scrutiny (and often fall short), should we give Armstrong a free pass because, after all, the end justifies the means?

    Once upon a time there was something called "character."  It's a hard thing to define, I suppose, but there was a day when it was considered very important.  It often went hand-in-hand with something known as "principle" and people's actions were often analyzed based on how they measured up in relation to these two qualities.

    We're also told not to judge someone's heart, for only God can read what is held in secret.  For us to take the measure of a man, we have to look at his public statements and actions - tangible things that we can see and appreciate, even if we don't always understand them. 

    And by that standard we know that Lance Armstrong was a cheat, a liar, and a fraud.  We know that he hurt, or tried to hurt, other people in order to protect this fraudulent life.  I wouldn't presume to call him an "evil" man - that's reading his heart, remember - but I will say that he did evil things.  And the end, no matter how noble or good we want to think it is, can never be justified by that.

    As for Armstrong himself: how, then, to wrap up his sordid tale?  I can't think of anything better than the words of Oliver Cromwell as he dismissed the Rump Parliament in 1653.

    "You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go."  
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