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.