Lance Armstrong and the disease of wild narcissism and ruthless ambition

Lance Armstrong proved surprisingly poor at backpedaling. His stone-faced, reluctant regret made many who watched the interview wonder if this was an illness. Why did this man mow down associates, besmirch employees, lie, cheat and bully his way to the top of a sport he is now insouciantly tearing down around him?

One way to understand disease is to map its contagion. So let’s look for Armstrong’s ailment throughout our society. In sports, Barry Bonds was headed for the hall of fame. But that was not enough. So the year Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were in a (steroid fueled) home run derby, Bonds began to dope as well. Five neck sizes later, his head swelled in every literal and metaphorical sense, people began to suspect. Of course Bonds was not alone; he is just a standout in a widespread scandal of those for whom good enough was not good enough. A keen diagnostician begins to detect signs of Armstrong illness.

Corporations are another place to look. CEOs now command salaries not twice as much as workers, which used to be the case, but 20, 30 and even 40 times as much. Even with this steroidal salary rage, there have been a string of indictments for misdeeds on Wall Street, because apparently hundreds of millions of dollars are no disincentive to cheating to make money.

The disease is a compound of wild narcissism and ruthless ambition. It threads its way unchecked through our social and political life. Music is a fertile breeding ground: Songs that once spoke of yearning or searching have turned increasingly to boasting and strutting. Awards shows proliferate as self-celebration becomes the preferred mode of public presentation. Turn on the radio at random: The socially conscious ode has given way to the sexually flamboyant shout-out. Sometimes it seems that the whole world is doing an end zone dance.

The illness is not ambition. Ambition is the engine that drives achievement. But Armstrong and Wall Street and sports figures and so many other areas parade before our weary eyes the wreckage of ruthless ambition. The greater good is a sucker’s succor feeding the individual good. Why don’t I want a background check if I sell a gun individually? Because it is me, that’s why! Any infringement on my autonomy, no matter how considerable the benefit to society, violates the code of ruthlessness that dictates that my good supersedes others. Ego needs are their own justification. The new motto is Ego ergo sum.

The biblical counterexample is worth remembering. When God chose Moses to lead the Jewish people, it was not because Moses leapt in the air, in the manner of Shrek’s donkey, yelling “Pick me! Pick me!” Rather Moses repeatedly protested his unworthiness. His humility qualified him for leadership. Self-effacement no longer gains traction in our age of wild narcissism. Television ads proclaim the perfection of each candidate. Our candidate is ideal and our positions unassailable. Partisan unwillingness to concede any wisdom to the other side reminds us of the great axiom of the age: anyone else’s triumph diminishes me.

As income disparities rise and social mobility freezes, good fortune is reinterpreted as merit. I am on the top of the heap not because I was born with certain attributes to certain parents but rather because I am, quite obviously, great. There was a generation (think the Kennedys, the Bushes) when enviable advantages of birth were a call to public service. Jacob Astor, one of the richest men of his day, deliberately stayed on the Titanic as it sank to give way on the lifeboats to women and children. How many modern hedge-fund tycoons would emulate him? Now riches are a call to steroidal self-regard. In the storm of the “I” no community can exist. We are alone together.

Lance Armstrong is the ugly face of American exceptionalism. This blessed country became prosperous with the ethic of individual work benefitting the larger community. Teamwork overrode stardom; the soloist paid obeisance to the band; public service was about being vessels, not victors. Now the plural is invoked to evade responsibility; so Armstrong cannot recalled who “we sued” as though he was part of the law firm of Armstrong and cannot be expected to remember all the small fish caught up in the netting of his litigation.

This spells trouble. The prophet Micah’s advice for life: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God, no longer tracks for our children. To do deals, to love spotlights and to swagger self-importantly – that is more near the lesson they are learning. Such lessons come with consequences.

At the founding of the republic Ben Franklin put it crisply: We must all hang together, he said, or we will all hang separately. The gallows may be gilded but wise old Ben is still right. Our greatness, after all, is dependent on our goodness. 

Rabbi David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.

With this list, I thee wed

I recently read an essay in Oprah — the only woman’s magazine I can tolerate because it’s not filled with messages about how lacking women are — about a woman who went to a psychic to find out whether she’d ever meet the love of her life.

The psychic told her to write down a list of 100 qualities she wanted in a man, even down to his socks, and to put that list away somewhere. Lo and behold, some years later, the woman checked the man she was dating according to her list, and he fulfilled 98 of the items! They married and lived happily ever after (until he passed away from cancer).

This list idea — every other self-help dating book talks about making one. Even my acupuncturist tells me to make a list.

“Every night, write down what you are looking for,” he said, drawing a stick figure man with a list beneath him.

“For example, maybe he doesn’t have a job,” he said, scarily naming one quality of a guy I was dating.

“Or maybe he is homeless,” he wrote on No. 2 , making me think that this doctor had a really low opinion of me.

“Or maybe he hates Jews,” he wrote down on No. 3 , making me think he had a really low opinion of my people, as well.

“If someone doesn’t meet your criteria,” he said drawing a line through — and offing — my stick figure partner, “let him go!”

But I never listen to these listsayers. The critic in me asks: “Aren’t lists superficial? Unrealistic? Overly demanding?” (Think of the short, balding George Costanza saying he wants someone with “rosy cheeks.”) Won’t a list set me up for disappointment — or worse — for being called the dreaded “too picky” ?

“But Amy, you have never had a list, so how would you know?” the un-critic in me says. Besides, maybe lists weren’t necessary from the olden days — you know, a decade ago, before Internet dating, when the only way to meet someone was mostly by chance (and through yenta matchmakers). Today it seems like all people do is make lists of what they’re looking for, what their perfect first date would be, what they would like to have for dinner for the next 50 years. I’ve never been very organized, though; maybe that’s been my problem.

So at the risk of sounding completely superficial and picky and unrealistic and any other names people like to throw at those of us of a certain age who haven’t found their mates yet (yeah, like it was so easy for you?), I am going to share 25 items on my list, in no particular order. Having never put a list down on paper before, I’m sure I’d be willing to forgo one or two of the items if I got a 98 percent match (or felt really desperate). But the bottom line is, who knows?

  1. Doesn’t sweat the small stuff.
  2. Liberal.
  3. Believes the world is essentially a good place.
  4. Reads books (preferably good ones, or … )
  5. Reads any type of book, even Dan Brown or John Grisham.
  6. Is open to spirituality.
  7. Is not hostile to religion (and will attend religious events).
  8. Has empathy for the world (See No. 2).
  9. Likes what he does professionally.
  10. Artist?
  11. Takes risks (Never says, “Amy, you have to be realistic….”)
  12. Has male friends.
  13. Has a good relationship with his family (at least his mother).
  14. Wants kids.
  15. Wants to have a big part in raising kids and building a home.
  16. Is affectionate.
  17. Likes smart women.
  18. Can put my needs ahead of his own, AND
  19. Will let me take care of him, too.
  20. Is interested in how I feel.
  21. Can talk about what he thinks and feels.
  22. Likes to travel.
  23. Likes the outdoors.
  24. Might want to live in Israel.
  25. Wants to read my work — especially this list!


The Other

David Myers’ message on the disengagement from Gaza is moving and powerful and wonderfully significant (“Show Gaza Sympathies to the Other,” Aug. 26). It is a call to conscience and a much-need reminder that what lies at the heart of the Jewish ethos is the conviction that the Jewish conscience has no boundaries. The Gaza settlers, the impoverished Israelis, the Arab citizens of Israel, the Palestinians — there must be a compassionate place for all of them on the walls of a Jewish heart.

Rabbi Leonard Beerman
Los Angeles

In his article, David Myers shows his universalism first. He has little sympathy for the settlers who did not take any money. Apparently, they had higher motives in not wanting to leave their homes.

Recently we watched the scenes of evacuees and soldiers. One could not help but be proud of the Israel Defense Forces as they carried out their duty with so much sympathy for the anguish of the settler. Disengagement was a wrenching experience for all of Israel. One needs time to mourn and contemplate its effect on the history of the nation.

Myers does not even allow a mourning period. He immediately chastises us for not showing empathy toward the Palestinians. He neglected to mention that Jews were evicted from all the Arab countries, leaving behind far greater wealth.

You don’t hear about these Jewish refugees. Israel did not keep them in refugee camps for more than 50 years. They were integrated into the society.

We teach children to first love themselves because only then can they love a friend or the “other.” This applies to adults, as well. In the fullness of time, the other will come to understand that the gestures of friendship which Israel has demonstrated over the years deserve to be reciprocated.

Bracha Malkin
Los Angeles

Like a Virgin

In response to Amy Klein’s column, “Like a Virgin” (Aug. 19), I would like to offer a response to the last few lines of the article: “But a 40-year-old virgin? Save it for the movies, because it’s so sad you’d have to laugh.”

While I would agree that it would appear to be atypical or uncommon to have existed on this planet for 40 years (let alone 40 days and 40 nights, as far as many people are concerned) without ever having had sexual relations with another person, I would hardly call it “sad.” Better a 40-year-old virgin (who perhaps is just selective and sensitive enough to want to wait for the right person and have a caring, more meaningful relationship with a true connection) than a 20-something who just wants to “romp around” because he/she “can” or because “everyone else is doing it. I’m sure my nearly 50-year-old male virgin friend would agree.

Name Withheld Upon Request

Claim Won’t Hold

A Nation/World brief in your Aug. 19 issue reported that entertainer Harry Belafonte recently claimed Jews were “high up in the Third Reich” (“Oy, Mr. Tallyman,” Aug. 19). After protests by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, Belafonte backtracked and admitted that “Jews weren’t ‘high up'” in the Hitler regime, but he then claimed: “Jews did have a role, some did, in the demise and brutal treatment of the Jewish people [during the Holocaust].” (Jerusalem Post, Aug. 11, 2005) Your article noted that Belafonte claimed my book, “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers,” supports his charge.

“Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers” shows that a number of people of partial Jewish ancestry served in the German military, but they did not even consider themselves Jews. Moreover, the vast majority of them were drafted — they were forced to serve Hitler just as other Jews were forced to become slave laborers in Auschwitz and elsewhere. In fact, many of them were later dismissed from the German military and sent to forced labor camps where they themselves were persecuted and some were murdered. Belafonte should take the trouble to read the books he cites, before claiming they support him. My book does not support him.

Bryan Mark Rigg
author of “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers”

Death by Oprah

I picked up The Jewish Journal, opened the back page and was drawn in by the title of an article by Annie Korzen: “Death by Oprah” (Aug. 19). I read the first paragraph, and became excited at the prospect of reading, finally, an intelligent discourse from an expert who writes about “the ugly stereotypes Jewish men have created about their wives and mothers.”

But it was all downhill after that. Rather than being a spokesperson for Jewish women, Korzen went on to prove these stereotypes by her own words and deeds, descriptions of her own behavior proving the reputed ugliness is all too true. Her piggish eating habits and self-denigrating jokes proved the opposite of what she supposedly set out to do, which is to destroy stereotypes, the reason she was invited on “Oprah.” Her so-called humor served only to further the ugly clich├ęs about Jewish women.

What a pity, taking up two columns of a Jewish newspaper to serve the callous cause of stereotyping Jewish women, who deserve better that that. With friends like Korzen, we Jewish women don’t need enemies.

Carol Pearlman
West Hollywood


In “Classnotes: Genesis Generation” (Aug. 26), The first name of Jenna Barocas was incorrectly written as Jennifer.

Faith Remains

The Journal’s question, “After Gaza, Can Religious Jews Still Believe in Israel?” is entirely wrong (Cover Story, Aug. 12). In fact, it is quite the opposite. Ultimately, the vast majority of religious Jews will emerge with their faith in Israel intact — even if challenged by Israel’s secular administration and its surreal, morally evil expulsion plan, whereby 10,000 of Israel’s best citizens suffered unimaginable loss and pain.

As for the nonreligious Jews (not the non-observant, many of whom may well be Jews of faith), what will be the degree and quality of their belief in Israel now that we have experienced the expulsion from Gaza?

More than 1,000 proud and hugely productive Gush Katif families, a number of them nonreligious, are today homeless — adrift throughout Israel — due to unfulfilled government promises. Illustrative is the experience of certain expelled secularists who arrived at their promised quarters only to be turned away. The facility owners now lacked confidence in the government’s promise of payment. Once again, these Jews became outcasts.

Belief in God’s word and their spirituality enable the religious to say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” But will the nonreligious outcasts be able to recover belief in Israel? That is a more appropriate question.

Julian M. White
Beverly Hills

Terrorism Won

Notwithstanding the arguments of Hirsh Goodman (“Israel’s Future — Not Terrorism — Won in Gaza,” Aug. 26) on the strategic benefits and objectives for Israel of the Gaza withdrawal, the perception held almost unanimously by Palestinians is that tactics of terror have driven Israel out of Gaza. That is the only lesson that the Palestinians will draw from the Gaza withdrawal, and now they will try to apply it in the rest of Israel, with disastrous results for themselves and for many Israelis.

One might request that Goodman at least not repeat the Arab propaganda claim that Gaza is “the most populated piece of real estate in the world.” Had he devoted even a few minutes to fact-checking, Goodman would have found that, with more than 1.3 million people in 138 square miles, Gaza has a density of 9,971 persons per square mile. That is about 57 percent of the density of Hong Kong (17,377) and less than 15 percent of the density of Manhattan (66,844).

Ralph B. Kostant
Valley Village

Junk Science

Most paleontologists admit that fossils have not proven the validity of classical evolution (“Junk” Science, Aug. 12). Microfossils of bacteria occur immediately after the appearance of water on Earth. Almost 530 million years ago, with no hint in earlier fossils, the Cambrian explosion of life appeared with all the body plans represented in animal phyla extant today, simultaneously, in a single burst in the fossil record. Classes developed within each phyla, but they retained the basic body plan of their particular phylum. Animals make their sudden appearance highly specialized and fully developed, last their time and disappear essentially the same. One of the great mysteries of animal evolution is why no new phyla have appeared since the Cambrian age. These rapid staccato changes cannot be explained by purely random mutations at the molecular genetic level. Microevolution within a species has been well documented but there is no data to support macroevolution. The persistence of theories for a randomly driven evolution of life in the face of the data from molecular biology and the fossil record, both replete with evidence against it, is purely a matter of cognitive dissidence.

Dr. Sabi Israel
West Hills

Gaza Sympathies

David Myers, in his zeal to support our enemies and oppose our own interests, lied (“Show Gaza Sympathies to the Other,” Aug. 26). Houses were demolished in Gaza, Samaria, Judea and Jerusalem not “without reason.” As is well known, they were houses of terrorists, and a Turkish law, kept on the books by the British occupiers and still retained by us in our independence, decrees their razing; or houses threatening innocent civilians passing on the roads. Does the professor think that they were picked at random, destroyed on whim?

He turned truth on its head: In 1948 it was Jews in Muslim countries who were dispossessed and exiled (or hanged, as in Baghdad), not Palestinian Muslims: Some of those fled out of fear of reprisal for attacking Jews, or in obedience to the Arab high command to “clear the battlefield” for genocide of the Jews. Even so, their property was kept in trust for them until a peace settlement.

Nursing their enmity toward us for generations, they should not be “permitted back”. Every trace of their occupation of the land of Israel (as they originally called it) might well be erased. The millions of Arabs living well as Israeli citizens are there by Israeli sufferance, not by any right. They keep the peace. The refugees didn’t and don’t.

Louis Richter


‘Oleander’ Blooms

When Janet Fitch met Michelle Pfeiffer to discuss the film version of her debut novel, “White Oleander,” last year, she felt like she’d stepped into an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” “It was surreal,” the affable Jewish author said.

It was just two years since the 46-year-old writer had been stockpiling rejection letters at her home in Silver Lake. She hadn’t even sold her first short story until she was in her 30s. When Fitch finished 1999’s “White Oleander” — about a teen’s rocky journey through foster care — she was thrilled simply to secure a publisher. Hardly anyone showed up to her early readings of “Oleander,” which follows young Astrid’s struggle after her beautiful, self-absorbed mother, Ingrid (Pfeiffer), murders her lover and goes to prison.

Then Oprah called, another surreal moment for Fitch. “She told me she loved the novel and wanted to make it the May 1999 selection for her book club,” Fitch said. The book shot to the top of the best-seller lists, Warner Bros. made an offer and Pfeiffer, Renee Zellweger and Robin Wright Penn signed on to star.

During her dinner out with Pfeiffer in Brentwood last year, Fitch said that her white-blond, Nordic characters actually reflect her Jewish concerns. She had envisioned the story while attending a 12-step program and searching for spirituality a decade ago. Raised in what she calls an “overly assimilated” family in Koreatown, Fitch wanted her daughter to have the solid Jewish identity she lacked. She began lighting Shabbat candles and pondering how one of her favorite books was antithetical to Judaism.

The book, “The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon,” about a lady-in-waiting to the Heian Empress Teishi in 11th-century Japan, described a society that emphasized aesthetics, not compassion. “If she came across a person who had been beheaded, she stepped over the body,” Fitch said. “But if someone wore mismatched robes, that was heinous. So I began to wonder, ‘What if a person like that were forced to live in a crummy apartment and work a crummy job at the end of the 20th century?’ The result was the character of Ingrid.”

The film tones down Ingrid’s viciousness and other elements of Fitch’s disturbing-but-powerful novel, the author is quick to concede. It skips the foster mother who starves her wards to pay for remodeling, and the sex scenes between 14-year-old Astrid and her first lover (in the movie, he’s a 30-something hunk instead of a 50-something Vietnam War veteran). “Seeing something so unpleasant onscreen would have made it hard for audiences to engage with the character,” said producer John Wells.

For the most part, Fitch was very involved with the transformation of her intense novel. The filmmakers asked her to review the script and the rough cut of the film. They actually took her advice when she warned that the relationship between the fictional mother and daughter was becoming too “cozy.”

“Janet’s book is gorgeously written but very dark, so finding a way to make it work on screen wasn’t immediately apparent,” said Wells of why he approached Fitch.

The film’s British director, Peter Kosminsky, also sought the novelist’s advice upon arriving in Los Angeles for preproduction in 2001. When he said he was unfamiliar with the book’s L.A. settings, Fitch drove Kosminsky around town for the next two days, showing him the locations described in her novel.

The director said Fitch was also instrumental in describing Ingrid’s backstory to himself and Pfeiffer. “The character is alluring but also repugnant, so we wanted to humanize her as much as possible,” Kosminsky said. “We didn’t want to depict her as a two-dimensional monster.”

Fitch — who describes herself as a “failed screenwriter” — was pleased with the adaptation. “They took my big, messy novel and pared it down to a simple, elegant structure,” she said. “I was especially pleased with how the movie conveys Astrid’s journey, particularly the chameleon-like quality foster children assume to adapt to new environments.”

During the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in August, Fitch cried off all her professionally applied makeup. “It was yet another surreal moment,” she said. “To hear my book come alive in the mouths of fine actors was unbelievable.”

Diamant Finds a Harbor

While writing "Good Harbor," about the midlife friendship between two Jewish women, Anita Diamant says she suffered a bout of "second-novelitis."

Her 1997 debut novel, "The Red Tent" — a sexy spin on the biblical story of Dinah — had been a runaway best seller that’s still on the New York Times list. Julia Roberts told Oprah magazine that "Tent" was one of her favorite books. The book has sold more than 1.5 million copies in the United States alone, and publishers have bought the rights in 18 countries.

"So there was this kind of expectation," says the 50-year-old writer, from her Boston home. "People would ask if I was going to do [the biblical] Miriam or Sarah next, and I’d have to say, ‘No. That’s not what’s in me next.’ They’d tell me the book moved them to pick up the Bible for the first time in decades, and I’d think, ‘How can I do that again?’"

Support from friends enabled Diamant to hunker down and finish "Good Harbor," which is set in present-day Gloucester, Mass., and focuses on the healing bond of female friendship. Kathleen McCormack Levine, 59, is a convert to Judaism battling both breast cancer and memories of a long-dead son. Joyce Tabachnik, 42, is a journalist-turned-romance writer struggling with her own "second-novelitis" and how to remove a Madonna from her property "without pissing off the … block or starting a pogrom."

The two lonely women connect at a synagogue oneg Shabbat and begin meeting for long walks and talks on picturesque Good Harbor beach.

While best-sellers like Helen Fielding’s "Bridget Jones’s Diary" and Lucinda Rosenfeld’s "What She Saw" have spurred other amusing books about distressed single young women, "Harbor" — which made the extended New York Times list — proves married, middle-aged heroines can sell books, too.

Diamant offers an explanation when she says "My work honors women’s relationships in ways the larger culture tends to ignore."

Her books also delve deeply into the nuances of Jewish life, which isn’t surprising, given her history. Though she grew up in a largely nonobservant Denver home, her interest in Judaism sparked after she began attending conversion classes with her non-Jewish husband-to-be around 1984. When she asked a rabbi to recommend a Jewish wedding book, he suggested that the free-lance journalist should write one herself. "Most of the wedding books at the time focused on etiquette, not options about Jewish practice," says Diamant, who wrote "The New Jewish Wedding" to correct the problem.

Several Jewish how-to books later, the author, like the fictional Joyce, suffered a midlife-career crisis. "I turned 40, and I wanted to try something different," says Diamant, who turned to Dinah because "the story had sex, violence and intrigue, which is great material for a novel."

While the biblical character is raped by a Canaanite prince, Diamant re-imagined the tale as a love story — eliciting ire from Jews who accused her of heresy or justifying a rape. In response, the author cites the prince’s oddly tender behavior toward Dinah. "I’m not the first person to wonder if there was a rape," she insists. "The story is known as one of the troubling texts in Judaism. Besides, my book was fiction, not Midrash, so I was justified in doing whatever I wanted."

Another battle ensued when "Tent’s" publisher planned to pulp the book after it achieved only modest sales in 1997. Undaunted, Diamant feverishly worked the book group circuit and convinced St. Martin’s Press to send copies to some 1,000 rabbis around the country. A mailing to female ministers followed, and by 1999, "Tent" had become a rare word-of-mouth best seller.

The proceeds enabled Diamant to purchase a vacation home near her favorite Gloucester area beach on Cape Ann — not unlike what her fictional Joyce had done. It was on Cape Ann that daily oceanfront walks and talks with friends had helped the author recover from "second-novelitis" and inspired the story that would become "Good Harbor."

Diamant says the breast cancer subplot came about when "’way too many people I knew developed the disease. It seemed like there was constantly another diagnosis in my life or on the periphery."

The author, who has never had breast cancer, researched the disease by interviewing doctors and visiting a radiation treatment center.

Today, she is at work on a third novel, which may not have any Jewish characters. But it will definitely revisit one of her favorite themes: female bonding. "Friendship is such a powerful force in women’s lives," she says. "I want to celebrate that."