Monday, August 17, 2009

Trial before Pilate

The generation of this post came from two very different parents, as should all fertile offspring. The first was a comment on the earlier post at Graphic Firing Table about celebrity culture in general and as it applies to Lance Armstrong, the cyclist, in particular. The other was a part of a long conversation I've been having with a friend, a terrifically bright and vital woman, about perception and truth and the relationship between them.

First, the comment. The poster, a friend of ours who is a cyclist himself and is married to a fitness fanatic and passionate cycling addict, said:
"...your discussion of the Lance's bad behavior was the final straw, and I just took off the yellow bracelet I have been wearing for I read the coverage, and read about Kristin Armstrong I felt less and less happy about wearing the symbol of somebody I increasingly thought of as callous and egotistical. The details of his breakup with Sheryl Crow just crystallized my distaste for Lance's character."
So the revelation of Lance's ruthlessness put an end to both the bracelet and the respect.

The discussion revolved around my friend's concept of Truth as something universal and immutable, a sort of Truth as Godhead, that exists as an object beyond, immune to and unaffected by, human perception.Its a good discussion, and well worth the recounting but beyond what I want to talk about here. But I want to use it as a frame to hang my subject on.

Because in this case the is a central Truth to the matter: the entirety of the personality of Lance Armstrong himself.

This is utterly unknown and, more to the point, unknowable, to any of us; my friends, me, you the reader. We cannot know Lance Armstrong as he knows himself, as his family and friends know him, even as those who are acquainted with the man know him. What he likes, what he doesn't, his strengths, his failings...beyond the crayon drawing of the man presented in the public media we have, like my friend's concept of abstract Truth, no way of understanding LA through inquiry or perception.

We can observe, assess and judge what we see as aspects of the man's personality. And I have, and did; saying that, while I respect the man's athletic skills and his tough struggle back from cancer, his treatment of the women in his life leaves me cold, and less that enamored of him as a husband, fiancee' and lover.

But, that said, those things don't lessen his skill. They don't detract a bit from his courage.

And they don't affect his stated belief, through his Lance Armstrong Foundation, "in living every minute of it with every ounce of your energy: channeled and focus: getting smart and living strong. Unity is strength. Knowledge is power. Attitude is everything."

As someone who has been shot at, well, Lance, no, attitude isn't everything - windage and elevation make a difference. But let that pass.

The thing is, the yellow bracelet can mean different things, and I would say that it may mean more, or less, or just different things than the man himself.

If you're wearing a Livestrong bracelet to symbolize your fight against cancer, or someone's hope for recovery and survival...or as a way of expressing support for the man as a cyclist and a champion, then it seems to me that revelations of the man as a man, husband, father, partner really don't dim the brightness of that little rubber band. You can support the man as an athlete, or as a cancer survivor, without admiring or respecting his romantic or sexual ethics.

But if you're wearing it as some sort of general show of affiliation or association with Lance Armstrong the man, well...

...then you're probably wearing it for the wrong reasons.

Lance Armstrong is no different from any of the other strong, glib and pretty people we "meet" through the electronic media. His strength cannot strengthen us, his prettiness gild us, or his fame enhance us. His intelligence doesn't make us wiser, his wealth make us richer. We are who we are regardless of our wish to cover ourselves with a tiny corner of the mantle of his celebrity.

Sadly, we live surrounded by the notion that none of the realities in the above paragraph are true, but we are smaller and lesser for believing them. When Pilate asked "What is truth?", he meant to pose a conundrum, not state a contemporary confusion. But more and more, I believe that we in 21st Century America are truly confounded separating our perceptions from reality, belief from fact, and the cold truth from warm and inviting lie.

(crossposted from GFT)


  1. Chief, I hope you do realize that when you reference "Pilate," most people in this benighted nation of ours will immediately thinking of firming up the abs.

    Somebody here (Al?) has previously expressed the opinion that many American people have deliberately chosen to be ignorant about the truth, opting instead of latch onto a political or cultural belief that no matter how irrational, feels good. Such people cannot be swayed by facts; once they find themselves in a comfort zone, they won't leave it.

    The celebrity culture goes along with this, with a dose of stupidity thrown in. A rational person says, "What possible good follows from hanging on the every word, or worse, modeling oneself after, someone whose only talent lies in entertainment"? This is nonpartisan, BTW. The people who hang on Barbra Streisand's fatuous bleatings are every bit as stupid as those who think Chuck Norris has the key to success in the Mideast.

    I'm an old sports guy, fan and participant. Like most of my generation, I grew up worshipping MLB players. But, by the time I was maybe fourteen, I realized that my heroes had to be closer to home. I'm still a sports fan and I sympathize with those players who want no part of being role models and ask that they be judged only by their on-field performance. I think that's fair. I've had a lot of problems with the steroid boys, but it's not because they're poor role models. It's because they're lousy cheaters and their accomplishments are suspect. If some ball player is a kid's role model, there's a parent not doing his or her job.

    Same with the Hollywood crowd. The way it worked when I was a kid, the guys went for the sports dudes and the girls went for the movie stars. Those of us who were normal—and it seemed that the overwhelming majority were—left that around the time we discovered more important things—like the opposite sex. My daughter went through it—boy, she loved those MTV folks when she was 11 to 14—but then she dropped 'em like a rock. Still liked the music, but didn't care about the personal lives. Healthy adult transition, I'd say.

    I admire Lance Armstrong for his physical capabilities and his accomplishments, although I've noted there are some suspicions about drugs. But, so far as his personal life is concerned, I don't care if he's a saint or a sinner. Doesn't matter. He doesn't have the cred to influence me in any aspect of my life.

    I think there are millions (billions?) of people in this world who are just fundamentally unhappy because their own lives are essentially bereft of meaning. Such people just surrender themselves to slackjawed worship of people whom they'll never know, people who'd never give them the time of day, people who may be as vacuous as they are, all just to get through another day in what must be a terribly lonely and empty existence.

    This is where you get Limbaugh and Fox News. Or, for that matter, the Kennedys and Obama. Best commercial was the Wendy's spot featuring old Clara what's her name saying, "Show me the beef." Too many people don't demand the beef.

  2. When I was a kid in Nebraska, the town we lived in had a 7th-Day Adventist family. And God forbid you could open your store on Sunday!

    So the Adventists' store did some remarkable business . . . . . on Sundays, since they believed Saturday was the Lord's Day.

    So the Heretic Heathen provided a convenient service for the community which forbade good Christian folk to open their stores on Sunday.

    So that's my metaphor for Lance Armstrong. There is good there, and bad too. Just like the rest of us.

    There's another theological metaphor to use, that of the "evil" priest or minister. Does what he or she does for the religious community become worthless because of some horrible sin, say on-going child-fondling or sex scandal or financial double-dealing in his history?

    I believe we can take what is right and good from anyone, and let it inspire as we wish, as long as we all know we all stomp around in feet of clay.

    With the exception, of course, that some get extensive media coverage of their feet.


  3. Off topic, but helicopters and spooks for all.

    I don't know if the story is true, but it's entertaining.


  4. On the topic of role models in sports, a Nike spot done by Charles Barkley has always stuck in my mind:

    I'm a fan of Barkley because he could always be counted on for a no-bullshit comment on the game. And because he is one of those athletes who has no business being as good as he is, given his physical dimensions. (Allen Iverson is probably the best example of this kind of thing.)

    Anyway, we'd all be better off if parents took his advice.



  5. Off topic: I took this little quiz and here's what it said about me:

    Andrew is a center-left social libertarian. He is also a slight non-interventionist and culturally liberal. Andrew's scores (from 0 to 10):
    Economic issues: +1.4 left
    Social issues: +3.72 libertarian
    Foreign policy: +2.89 non-interventionist
    Cultural identification: +4.05 liberal

    Here's a link to the graphic.

    It would be interesting to see how you all do.

  6. PS. I think the libertarian part is right, but I've always considered myself slightly to the right of center, but maybe I'm not or have changed.

    Some of the quiz questions had, I thought, some faulty assumptions that made answering difficult.

  7. Andy, I took your test. I am a left-social libertarian, scoring 3.06 on the liberal axis, and 6.62 on the libertarian axis.

    I didn't get the same breakdown you got. What I got was: Foreign policy: -6.42, meaning I'm a non-interventionist; and, Culture: -5.38, meaning I'm a liberal in the culture wars.

    My takeaway from the comparison with the average is that I'm a little farther left than the mean, but not a radical. OTOH, I'm much farther into the libertarian range than the average, with my score being far closer to anarchy than the average, which is only slightly libertarian. One thing I like is that I was significantly farther away from the authoritarian than the average, which, IMO, comes uncomfortably close to going over the line.

    No surprises for me. Moderate leftie with an extreme preference for being left alone to do my own thing. Anybody surprised about my scores?

    BTW, Andy, I agree with you on some of the quiz questions being very difficult. Based on the test composition, I also think I went as far left as I did because of the non-interventionist bias. My strong belief in no way, no how, no where when it comes to intervention pushed me to the left. I suspect that may have come into play with you, too, thus your surprise at being left.

    Nice catch. Thanks.

  8. Affiliation is the lazy way through a life, but it is what we are taught. For many, Jesus is the prototype, though he is surely not well-emulated.

    What teacher has the presence to lead us by showing all of the manifold ways to live a life, yet then be able to release us and encourage us to find our own path? No, we are told that is arrogance which is tantamount to anarchy. So, we must find templates upon which to superimpose our likeness, and most people are hasty collations of our "idols".

    We become fairly good simulacrums via modeling of Lance or whomever. So it goes, and authenticity is just beyond reach.

  9. p.s. -- thank you for your kind mention in the sidebar. I have been most remiss in following through on the story project idea. Were I not such a computer Luddite I would have transformed the site into a feeder for the story project, which was my original thought.

    Your mention has encouraged me to put some energy into that project soon. Ta.