The Lance Armstrong debacle brings to mind several thoughts about both hero worship and the confessional culture.
Now that Armstrong has genuflected at the church of Oprah, where all famous 21st century sinners go to seek absolution, we wait to see whether his public confessional will have the impact he hopes it will.
Of course, we as a society are just as guilty of “doping” to achieve an edge as Armstrong is. Our increasingly outrageous lay-it-all-on-the-line culture is accelerated by the performance-enhancing drugs of reality television and social media.
When Phil Donahue was running around in his studio audience with a wireless mike in the ’60s and ‘70s, he was emerging from a Cold War culture that was repressively suffocating.
His approach to compelling or provocative topics was born of a revulsion with a culture that said, “Don’t talk about it – just keep it to yourself,” usually to the detriment of the government, the country or the individual psyche.
It was considered a refreshing change from television’s traditional attempt to reinforce the great American myth that we Americans are infallible because the Founding Fathers said so (of course, they never really said that).
Now, we retweet our confessions and every faux pas, producing a massive regurgitation. Burdened with the flu, we vomit and expect others to either clean it up or leave it where it is.
We used to have the decency to puke our vomit into the toilet where it belongs.
The 2005 Robbie Williams hit “Advertising Space” eloquently speaks to the perils of hero worship.
The character singing the lyrics is talking to Elvis Presley about how the sycophants around him diminished his raw, authentic talent, which was nourished by the Mississippi soil and seasoned by the soul of African-American culture.
The chorus states, in part, “No one learned from your mistakes/We let our profits go to waste/All that’s left in any case/Is advertising space.”
This is not to state that Armstrong’s moral compass was thrown off course by people around him, but rather that our moral compass was thrown off course by Armstrong.
Those who admired him for his athletic excellence and his courage in fighting cancer committed their admiration too soon and too intensely.
As we put our heroes on pedestals, we constantly forget to check for feet of clay. A statue with feet of clay cannot stand on a pedestal for very long, especially as the climate around it changes.
Like naïve high-school girls, we keep falling for the same tired lines from the same incorrigible rogues over and over again, instead of dealing with the fact that people are complicated creatures who can inspire us in some areas while betraying our trust in other areas.
Until we learn this valuable lesson, the Armstrong image rehabilitation campaign can only be considered the latest "advertising space."