A constant conundrum faced by every culture is how it should categorize significant individuals whose positive contributions to society and civilization are marred by other acts that range from the unethical to the despicable. How much bad can a great man do and still be called “great”? How much wrong can a good woman engage in and still fairly be remembered as “good”? Can one wonderful act erase a lifetime of bad conduct? Are some bad acts so terrible that nothing can compensate for them? Every real human being is going to yield to some temptations, make some bad choices, be selfish, be cruel, lie, or worse. If we insist that all our heroes have an unblemished record in every aspect of their lives, we simply forfeit our heroes.
One reaction to this persistent dilemma is that we tend to be reluctant to look under the rock of a heroes accomplishments for fear that we will be disillusioned, or once the rock is lifted, we will attempt to rationalize into invisibility the ugly things we find there, or insist that they don’t matter. Of course they matter. It matters that Thomas Jefferson, who gave this nation its beating heart, didn’t pay his debts, cheated his friends and refused to live up to his own ideals. It matters that Clarence Darrow, who saved over a hundred men from execution, was a terrible father and husband and an unethical lawyer. It matters that Arthur Miller, whose plays dramatized the plight of the aging worker and the dangers of political persecution, rejected his mentally-challenged son, leaving him institutionalized and without contact from his father, though he knew who his father was. Charles Lindbergh, Jackie Kennedy, Diane Fossey, Thomas Edison, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Ted Kennedy, Pete Rose, Lillian Hellman, Walter Cronkite, Hillary Clinton—the list of the great, near-great, lionized and admired who behaved less than admirably or worse in significant ways can circle the globe. In assessing their character, as well as whether their lives deserve to be regarded as positive or negative influences on their society, fellow citizens and civilization, all we can do is apply a complex balancing formula, with factors in their lives weighted according to ethical principles, experience and our own priorities.
The question of how this balance should be applied has been raised in recent weeks in the wake of the final verdict on Lance Armstrong’s cycling career, which was decisively removed from the categories of “alleged misconduct,” “controversies,”and definitely “witch hunts” for all time as mountains of documentation, lab tests, and testimony moved it squarely into the categories of “outrageous cheating’, “criminal activity”, “corruption” and “fraud.” Armstrong, we now know, was a carefully manufactured fake champion. He cheated to win races and titles, again and again. He corrupted team mates by pressuring them to cheat too. He erected an elaborate system to protect himself from detection. He sold himself as role model to children. He manipulated the media. He attacked the integrity and motives of those who raised suspicion about his methods. He lied, and he used all of this to become rich. In the process, he ruined the lives of others, disillusioned biking enthusiasts, made children cynical before their time, and crushed the credibility and popularity of the sport that had given him everything he had.
Yet Armstrong also used his celebrity and legend, fraudulent though it was, to launch a foundation, Livestrong, that works to help cancer sufferers. He raised millions of dollars based on his inspiring story and athletic triumphs. There is no denying that Livestrong has helped, and will continue to help, many needy and deserving people. It does good work. Shouldn’t that make Lance Armstrong’s life a net positive to the world? Shouldn’t his cheating and lies be outweighed by the good works funded by the contributions that his cheating generated?
To allow Livestrong to alter the final judgment on Lance Armstrong, or elevate it in any way, embraces the worse extremes of an “ends justify the means” philosophy. Armstrong didn’t merely launch Livestrong to atone for his misdeeds, as, one could argue, the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations were created to compensate society for the scars left by the greed and ruthless business practices of their namesakes. He actively used his false story of athletic achievement and personal heroism to build the foundation, inducing donors to give to Armstrong’s cause and an organization overseen by him personally, because his achievements gave them reason to trust him. If we allow Livestrong to justify Armstrong’s long, long deception, we are declaring that lies, misrepresentation, bullying, conspiracy, theft and worse can all be justified if their accumulated rewards are put to sufficiently beneficial use.
We can be grateful for the pyramids without lessening our horror at the slavery that constructed them. We can marvel at the Autobahn while justifiably reviling its creator, Adolf Hitler. Lance Armstrong, we now know, is a complete and utter villain. That should be his legacy. His involvement in Livestrong is an embarrassment to the foundation, and casts a shadow over everything it does. It cannot and must not be used to excuse or mitigate his disgraceful misconduct, perhaps the most flagrant in the history of sport.
He is a villain.
Spark: NBC NEWS
Graphic: Richard North