Monday, December 8, 2014

Late reflections on the Armstrong Affair: Faith – still not a virtue

I recently watched Alex Holmes’ fast-paced documentary Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story.

Surprising in light of my previous lack of interest in Armstrong (or, frankly, cycling for that matter), the film caught my attention and led me to read David Walsh’s (2012) Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong.* Not surprisingly, the story is most interesting to me in terms of what it suggests about problems of belief and faith in relation to politics.

I won’t say much about Armstrong personally, for a few reasons: first, I think Karen Horney’s chapter on the arrogant-vindictive type in Neurosis and Human Growth probably covers it; second, and relatedly, the cyclist Christophe Bassons, one of those harmed by Armstrong, has already provided a compassionate and reasonable response;** third, I think the focus on Armstrong as an individual, while necessary to understanding events, tends to divert attention from the social aspects of the phenomenon and to let others off the hook.

Many claim now that one of the most unsettling and upsetting facets of Armstrong’s masquerade was that he supposedly played upon people’s “best” inclinations. Another common belief is that pretty much everyone was innocently duped. I want to challenge these notions somewhat.

The most aggravating aspect of Armstrong’s project was his promotion of faith in faith and celebration of the faithful identity. He and the cycling big wigs consistently worked to create a community of the faithful that would exclude and shun doubters. He flattered his more credulous fans with the notion that they were better people for promoting Hope and Belief. While the believers were in reality the overwhelming majority, they were sold an image of themselves as members of a small elite whose gift of spirit set them apart from the cynical, faithless masses.

There was the constant refrain that the world was hostile to the possibility of recovery and great accomplishment and that “no one had believed.” “When I came back,” Armstrong claimed, “there was no interest. None.” After the 1999 Tour, he proclaimed:
Nobody believed in us. Nobody believed that if Lance Armstrong took the yellow jersey, with the help of his team, on Stage 8, how could they keep it to Stage 22? They thought the team would crack. But that team with seven out of nine guys being American – American team, American sponsor – they were the strongest team in the race. And everybody in Paris knew that. And I can assure you that at next year’s Tour de France, there will be no, there will be no doubters.
For the journalists who suspected or knew of the cheating but worked to feed the myth, the machine offered the self-image of champion of hope and protector of cycling.

As is always the case, the celebration of faith entailed a certain attitude toward, and treatment of, those who challenged the myth. Riders who stood against doping in cycling were pushed out. Journalists who published skeptical stories saw their careers threatened and friendships tested. More generally, skeptics were castigated in the traditional way: contrasted with the virtuous faithful, they were portrayed as mean, callous, lesser people who lacked the life-affirming spark of faith.*** In a speech at the end of the 2005 Tour which is especially sickening in retrospect (and maybe gag-inducing to some at the time, judging from the facial expressions on the cyclist standing behind Armstrong’s then-fiancée Sheryl Crow), Armstrong chastised all those who questioned him:
The last thing I’ll say for the people that don’t believe in cycling – the cynics and the skeptics. I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry you can’t dream big. And I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race. This is a great sporting event, and you should believe.
A vivid illustration of this phenomenon was an accusation in a letter from a reader of the Sunday Times about David Walsh:
I believe Armstrong’s victory was amazing, a triumph in sport and life. I believe he sets a good example for all of us. I believe in sport, in life, and in humanity…Sometimes we refuse to believe for whatever reason. Sometimes people get a cancer of the spirit. And maybe that says a lot about them (Seven Deadly Sins, 185).
Armstrong identified himself with the cause of fighting cancer, with the Tour de France, with cycling, with America, and with hope itself, and then publicly chastised anyone who doubted this representative of all that is good. People calling out lies and challenging myths weren’t just seen as spiritually deficient, but as hostile to the communities Armstrong was allegedly raising up. Journalists like Walsh and even cyclists themselves (and cyclists like Paul Kimmage who’d become journalists) who were exposing the culture of doping and Armstrong’s involvement were viewed as enemies of the sport, of the community of cancer sufferers and survivors and their families, and of all those idealists who retained faith in human possibilities.

Neither the film nor the book discusses the political context of this propaganda for faith, but that context is essential. Armstrong’s Tour “victories” spanned 1999 to 2005. These were the years that bracketed 9-11 and the invasion of Iraq. If ever there was a time in which it was dangerous to encourage faith in faith and uncritical belief in the claims of powerful people, this was it. As with Armstrong, the media lined up behind the Bush administration and its mythology of WMDs and a months-long war. Questioners and dissenters, as the Dixie Chicks learned,

were excluded from the self-celebratory community of belief, threatened, and treated with hostility and condescension.

If there’s one bright spot in this story it’s that Armstrong won’t be able – at least in the immediate future – to advance his political ambitions. (Unfortunately, the psychologically similar Chris Christie remains in a position of political power.) But the political lessons of the Armstrong affair transcend him personally.

It’s true that the public was kept in the dark about his doping, although very suggestive evidence was provided by Walsh and others a full decade before Armstrong’s final “exposure.” But it’s unhelpful, I think, to focus on people’s ignorance or, worse, on how people’s supposedly best and purest motives were exploited by Armstrong’s machine. Wanting to believe in something or someone is certainly understandable. But it’s not a virtue. Ignoring evidence in favor of defending people who claim to embody our hopes and ideals, allowing questioners to be attacked, doesn’t make us better people, and can lead down some very harmful paths.

* The book is OK. The seven deadly sins of the title refer to Armstrong’s seven Tour de France “wins.” I expected the chapters to be organized around this theme, but the title doesn’t really have anything to do with the book. As several of the Amazon reviewers noted, it seems sort of rushed and needed better editing, especially in the early chapters. But it’s not bad. I did learn from it that the race started as a means to get attention and circulation for a rightwing paper with an anti-Dreyfus message. Like almost everything in modern France, then, the Tour emerged from the Dreyfus Affair. Unfortunately, the book’s brief discussion of this history almost suggests a parallel between that case and Armstrong’s, which is so wrong.

** “The world of sport,” Bassons concludes, “should forget him but should not destroy him psychologically. Armstrong is still a human being with an individual personality that was built during his childhood. I know he had a difficult childhood, which might explain his need to win at all costs, even if that meant not respecting other people.

Today I feel more pity than contempt for him. I always preferred to be in my position than in his. I am honest, straight and happy. I don’t think he can say the same” (Seven Deadly Sins, 398).

*** Contemptibly, this came to involve pressuring Greg LeMond, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, to apologize for his public statements about Armstrong.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Dear Committee Members

Are you, were you ever, or might you become an academic? Do you enjoy laughing? You'll probably like this novel: