Lance Armstrong, through the lens of Anthropology

Please come have a look at my post at Wired.  Click here.

Wired did a great job editing as they always do.  But some small differences emerge in the process.  I append my original wording below.  As you will see, the Wired version is better, much better. (Still learning after all this blogging.)

Why ritual rehabilitation will not work for Lance Armstrong
Grant McCracken

Celebrities serve at our pleasure. We make them. We break them. We lift them up again.

We are prepared to endow the celebrity with riches, fame and glory beyond the hope of any ordinary mortal. But the moment we are done with them, we are done with them. (If it pleases the court: Andrew Shue, Peter Fonda, Josh Harnett, Loretta Swit, Judd Nelson, Karyn Parsons, Lea Thompson.)

Some celebrities remove themselves from grace by their own hand: shop lifting, drug abuse, domestic violence, endless court appearances, bad behavior of one kind or another.

But, noblesse oblige, we are prepared to be generous. Under the correct ritual circumstances, we will restore the celebrity to glory.

First, the celebrity must flame out and fall low. 

Second, we insist on self abasement. The celebrity can’t just look humiliated. They have to say they are humiliated. In the ritual of rehabilitation, there can be no doubt that the celebrity understands 1. how far they have fallen and 2. how much they need us.

We won’t return the celebrity to favor unless our status as favor-maker is itself renewed. In a vulgar turn of phrase, before we return these people to the status of a God, we like to make it absolutely clear that we are in fact the boss. These gods, they depend on us.

In the case of Lance Armstrong, the ritual of rehabilitation is tested to its limit. He misbehaved so profoundly. He lied so often. He corrupted team mates and a sport. He fell so swiftly and so far that his might be the limiting case, proof that there are some falls from which people just don’t come back.

He performed credibly last night on Oprah. He rolled out the sincerity. He looked Oprah and the nation in the eye. He abased himself with something like artistry. No special pleading. No presumption that we would forgive him. The important thing: he made it perfectly clear that he serves at our pleasure, that he is nothing without us.

Every talk show can serve as a theater for ritual rehabilitation. Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew, Anderson Cooper, Ellen, Wendy Williams, Kathy Griffin. But there is no ritual officer quite as powerful as Oprah. No ritual platform quite as potent as her show. If anyone can raise Lance Armstrong from ignominy, it is she. Indeed without this interview, Armstrong could have spend years in the wilderness, unable to state the case, to perform the ritual.

And last night Oprah worked her magic. She listened with her special brand of intelligence and feeling. She gave him a hearing. She gave him a chance to confess and repent. She created an opportunity for contrition. My wife was unpersuaded, but I for one believed that he fully understood his predicament. Not so much the fall from fame and glory, but the terrifying movement from a world where he had absolutely control to one in which he doesn’t have very much at all. What can that be like? I think he gave us a glimpse of the terror. Just a flicker. But yikes!

For all this, there is no real hope of rehabilitation. It showed most clearly on an ESPN show called Mike and Mike In the Morning. Without making a big deal of it, Mike Greenberg recited the instances of deceit, bullying, and villainy. He played the Nike ad in which Armstrong asks, “What am I on? I’m on my bike.” He told the story of people driven from the sport and the country by this man’s power and arrogance.

I think this is a little like lying to Federal prosecutors. You don’t want to do it. Ever. Because they are professionally, and perhaps personally, obliged to make you pay. Armstrong used journalist for his own aggrandizement. In the process, he stripped them of their professionalism. He turned them into shills. And they will make him pay. They will do this as Greenberg did it, by quietly insisting that we not forget how corrupt and corrupting this guy was.

But there is a second injured party. The rest of us. Anyone who has suffered at the hands of a bully had to look at Armstrong on Oprah last night and see, if only for a moment, the face of their tormentor. All of us can remember being made the victim of arbitrary power.

The ritual of rehabilitation depends on a collective amnesia. We all agree to forget and forgive. But it won’t happen in this case. There will be no rehabilitation. Journalist will not forgive the man who diminished them. We will not forgive the man who stands for the people who diminished us. Done and done. You had your moment on Oprah, and if she can’t repair you, no one can.

Grant McCracken is an anthropologist. He has appeared on the Oprah show. He was not there for ritual rehabilitation.
 

5 thoughts on “Lance Armstrong, through the lens of Anthropology”

  1. It seems to me that our idolization of heroes is a projection of our ego, and our anger when heroes fall is a projection of our guilt. We tend to overreact either way, because we can’t admit we’ll never be as fantastic ourselves, or that we have just as many sins inside. Put another way, I wonder how many of us would take a drug if it made us another $1 million every year.

  2. Excellent article. I personally think that Armstrong will eventually be forgiven. But no longer he will be remembered as a modern mythologic creature-a god- like Michael Jordan.

  3. Good piece Grant.
    I agree that his previous relations with the press mean they are unlikely to forgive him.
    I think a further point is that if he played one of the big sports (e.g. baseball, football, basketball) then he might be in line for forgiveness – I think Mark McGwire is an example.
    However, since Lance was a main US representative in a foreign sport – there was much more of a feeling that he was showing how good America/Americans are – so the betrayal is greater.
    Finally, he seems to have been and still be rather ruthless and calculating. This may simply be the portrait the media are painting, which then comes back to your original point. But all the same, it’s not the kind of profile that gets forgiveness. We like flawed, chaotic geniuses – we’ll forgive them much more than cold, calculating cheating winners.

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