Lance Armstrong’s confession: This is your ego on steroids

Handout GETTY IMAGES Oprah Winfrey (R) speaks with Lance Armstrong during an interview regarding the controversy surrounding his cycling career … Continued



Oprah Winfrey (R) speaks with Lance Armstrong during an interview regarding the controversy surrounding his cycling career January 14, 2013 in Austin, Texas.

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 twenty, thirty and even forty 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 which 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 dependant on our goodness.

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David Wolpe
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  • Newroad

    One of the great over-written articles of all time: one might almost suspect . . . . writer’s ego.

  • scribe_11

    And THIS post is YOUR contribution?

    so pathetic.

  • tony55398

    America. The worship of success, our heritage.

  • William A. McLaughlin

    We seem to “Entitle” heroes in sport, politics and entertainment with our willingness to forgive any indiscretion as long as they perform. When they stop we crush them. How else can you explain the town of Steubenville, Ohio blaming the victim of a Gang Rape by member of the local football team. We need to seriously examine who we hold up as heroes in our society. As one man put it We know by hart the names of the last ten “Mass”Shooters but name the man who tackled the shooter of Gabby Gifford.


    After court,he can petal off into the sunset.

  • nathanedg

    Frankly this was a complete mess of an opinion piece with little focus and a naive, “grass is always greener” sense of cultural history. “This blessed country became prosperous with the ethic of individual work benefitting the larger community.” Please, this country became prosperous on the backs of slave labor and exploited working class men, women, and children. Oh, and the vast land resources stolen from native tribes or taken with relative ease because no one happened to oppose us. Ruthless ambition is part of our cultural heritage to the core and the infractions of these sports stars are little and less in grand scheme of things. They just happen to be what the public pays attention to.

    That said, I could not agree more that we should not idolize these people. They offer little to society in general. Although I would like to give Armstrong the benefit of the doubt because of his contributions to fighting cancer, a far more important calling than riding a bike across France.

  • nathanedg

    I couldn’t agree more. It almost seems as if the author jammed as many big words and grand references as he could into one article.

  • StephenLSalter

    With address to Rabbi Wolpe (or anyone who would like to field my inquiry):

    Thank you for this magnificent and much needed contribution. Truly a pleasure to read.

    Difficult question: What would you recommend with regard to intervention?

  • Secular1

    Its funny that this man who rightly does not believe that the myth of Exodus, ever happened. Yet he talks of that mythical meek genocidal Moses’s protestations of unworthiness and the sky daddy’s picking him despite his protestations as fact. Mr. Wolpe, is Exodus a fact or a myth? If you have, rightly acknowledged it as a complete fabrication you may not talk as though it is a fact just because you mistakenly think it serves your purposes.

    Even if you thought Exodus was true, you are still on very shaky grounds to present the mythical character of Moses as a role model in 21st century. Because, the myth quite forcefully presents him as a repugnant genocidal maniac.

  • Veronica Peralta

    Planet Earth calling.

  • DC Steve

    What an insightful piece, particularly the observation that many people view their success as not the fortuitous combination of good fortune, good efforts and good genes, but rather simply their own greatness. As a young man I worked in radio and people often complimented my deep voice. One could say I worked to make it sound good, but the reality is that the greatest contribution to my voice was my choice of parents.

    At its heart, this piece reflects the decreasing role of humility among the successful in life.