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What Do You Do With Your Livestrong Bracelet?

It has been summer of the fallen hero.

A few weeks ago, Jonah Lehrer resigned from the New Yorker after admitting that he had fabricated quotes said by Bob Dylan in his recent book which explored the concept of imagination.  This act of fraud followed on the heels of other acts of self-cannibalization, a sort of greyish writing crime that matters more and more in our pouring of Google juice.

You see, if I write a post for a site and they publish it, part of that contract says that I cannot publish that work elsewhere.  So if I lift my own copy — something I wrote, mind you — from site A and then repackage it with a few new sentences here and there for site B, I am self-cannibalizing, self-plagiarizing.  A long time ago, it was frowned upon in creative circles; a magazine paid for an article and they expected to receive and retain an original article.  But in this day-and-age, Google might punish a site for having duplicate content, so the self-cannibalism becomes not just a regurgitation of the mind but a mark against a site.

Publications stopped working with him.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is recalling his book.  And people everywhere asked why.  Why would someone who was clearly talented derail his own writing career?  Jonah Lehrer’s writing still would have been impressive if there had been less of it.  If instead of regurgitating an article, he had simply said, “you know what?  I have nothing to say at the moment.”  Or if instead of fabricating quotations from Bob Dylan, he had simply shaved off the fat lies in that book.  I’m sure Imagine still would have been an enjoyable and fascinating book to read if it were a few quotes shorter.

It really makes you wonder what makes someone take a risk like that?  Especially when he had the talent — he had it in excess — just perhaps not to the exact level of excess that he was aiming to present to the world.


I used to enjoy teaching Knut Hamsun books.  He’s sometimes called the Father of Modern Fiction, though I wouldn’t be surprised if you hadn’t heard of him.  People get squeamish when it comes to Knut Hamsun.

He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920.  And then he became a Nazi sympathizer and wrote articles in support of Germany and sent his Nobel Prize to Goebbels.  He wrote a eulogy for Hitler after his death and there were treason charges which were later dropped.  And now people don’t totally know how they feel about Knut Hamsun.

He is clearly a talented writer.  There is probably no book that will affect your mood more than Hunger.  Reading that book is literally an interactive experience; there is nothing else like it.  And yet he has this craptastic personal life that extends beyond his Nazi affiliation.  How much should you care about the artist himself if the art is that good?

I mean, is it unethical to love a piece of art created by a murderer?  Or does becoming a murderer render your art anathema?  And where do we draw the line: what crime can a person get away with and we’ll still love their work, and what crime is too hideous to ignore in order to enjoy their art?

Even as a Jewish woman, I teach Hamsun because he clearly illustrates all the hallmarks of modern fiction.  I think it’s impossible to talk extensively about modern fiction without mentioning Hamsun, even though I’ve been in plenty of classes where I’ve seen it attempted.  I know plenty of people who refuse to read him.  But in the case of Hamsun, I’ve been able to separate out the writer from the book.  I’m not sure I’d always be successful in doing that; and I’m not sure how I feel about myself excusing Hamsun just because his books are so damn good.  I mean, I can think of plenty of actors who do not get a free pass to shitty things they did in their personal life, and I refuse to see their movies.  And yet I drop all that lofty ethical reasoning when it comes to Hamsun.


I heard on Thursday night that Lance Armstrong wasn’t going to fight the doping charges anymore, and he would be stripped of his Tour de France wins and Olympic medal, barred from ever coaching in the Olympics or racing again.  As far as I know, he still maintains his innocence; it’s the antidoping agency that states he is guilty.  The refusal to fight could be a silent admission of guilt, or it could be an exasperated throwing up of hands in the air as if to say, “no medal is as important to me as my time and sanity.  Do what you choose, but I’m going to go live my life.”

If Lance Armstrong did dope, he’s just another Jonah Lehrer; a man with obvious talent, who would have excelled anyway, though perhaps not to the level he did excel by cheating.  And I’m thinking that there must be some pretty good evidence that he doped.  I’ve yet to read an article that maintains that he’s innocent.  Most are approaching the discussion from the fact that he is guilty, but it then asks the reader to disregard the doping and look at the bigger picture of what he has accomplished beyond biking.

Because unlike Lehrer, Lance Armstrong is symbolic of a movement, one that extends far past the individual.  No one can deny that his celebrity and success in bike racing raised awareness and research money for cancer.  He has made such a huge difference in the fight against cancer.

But what happens to Livestrong when the leader of the movement both lived strong through some moments in life and lived… well… maybe not so strong perhaps through others?  Wasn’t he inspiring because he had cancer and then won 7 Tour de France titles?  Would we have been drawn into his story if he had cancer but then placed twentieth in the Tour de France?  I’d argue that it would be just as impressive a feat, but I could see the general public needing the win in order to glom onto the story.  But who can really hold him up as a role model anymore?  The antidoping agency says that he cheated in order to get ahead.  Unlike magicians who let the audience know that while they’ll never reveal their secret, we’re all in on the fact that we’re watching a trick, Lance Armstrong maintained for years that what we were seeing was reality.  And it probably wasn’t.  And that sort of sucks.

The story of Lance Armstrong falls somewhere between Lehrer and Hamsun, somewhere between the individual and the collective.  Lehrer’s actions affect pretty much only himself (though obviously also affect individuals who read misinformation or publications who received regurgitated content) and Hamsun’s actions affect the whole of the world aching from a massive war.  And somewhere in between, Armstrong’s possible actions are both a statement about the self as well as the destruction of a hero; and the world’s psyche can’t really afford to lose its heroes even though it happens again and again and again.

Do you think you could still wear your Livestrong bracelet after this, or does the word seem a bit hollow now when you consider the possible actions of the founder?  Do the actions of Armstrong not matter when it comes to the bigger picture of encouraging strength, since the sentiment is good even if the speaker couldn’t follow it?

Personally, I think this is a Hamsun-like case for me.  Livestrong seems to be a great organization, and the actions of the founder shouldn’t get in the way of the important work they’re doing, which exists separate from Armstrong.  And yet I also understand anyone who is disillusioned, who feels as if they were cheated in buying into a story that wasn’t true.


1 N { 08.25.12 at 9:07 am }

I don’t actually know. I’ve given it a lot of thought. And in the end, I’m just kind of glad that two weeks ago n gave a tug on it, and after ~7.5 years of faithful service, it gave out. It’s like it knew what was coming.

2 Anjali { 08.25.12 at 9:10 am }

Yes, I am disillusioned. I have not given money to Livestrong because the doping allegations have always bothered me. (Though I give to Cookies for Kids Cancer to more than make up for it.) I blogged yesterday about Armstrong, quoting a passage from a New Yorker post that pretty much summed up how I feel. I hope how I feel changes. But for now, it is what it is. http://anjalienjeti.com/2012/08/24/the-life-cycles-of-a-former-athlete/

3 Queenie { 08.25.12 at 9:46 am }

Jonah Lehrer is a friend of a friend, and I had a chance to hang out with him a few years ago, after he was published but before he’d really become successful. At the time, he struck me as a really quiet, low-key guy. I could barely drag anything out of him about his writing, he was so unassuming. I am guessing that he felt a lot of pressure to keep producing, to keep up with his success, to top himself.

On the evil artist front, for me it all comes down to whether I’d want to contribute $$ to someone. For example, I had to work with a certain actor last year who was a complete ass to me. I now won’t see his stuff, and I used to enjoy him. But my time is limited and there are lots of options out there vying for my attention, and all other things being equal, I’d like my money to go to something/someone that I feel comfortable supporting.

It’s a conundrum with org’s like Livestrong. Hate the player, not the game? I feel sorry for the people other than Armstrong who are affiliated with Livestrong. They didn’t do anything wrong, and yet they’ll suffer, too.

4 Sharron { 08.25.12 at 10:56 am }

I have read up alot on Lance Armstrong, and I fail to understand how a governing body can be so powerful as too strip him of his titles and do this. He NEVER failed a drugs test in the period they are talking about, IN competition OUT of competition. What is the point of having drugs tests if they are allowed to IGNORE the results

I for one will still support both Lance Armstrong and his foundation.

5 Brid { 08.25.12 at 1:01 pm }

I’m with Sharron… If they disregard the results, and justify his guilt on the grounds that other members of his team all tested positive, I can only imagine his frustration. I have mixed feelings about performance enhancement anyhow. We use technology for just about everything these days, so I don’t know what all the fuss is about. The task was still completed by a human body… we use nutrition and other supplements to better the body, technology to better the bicycle or the bobsled or what have you, so what’s the difference, really?

6 Brid { 08.25.12 at 1:08 pm }

Also, I get sort queasy about the use of the word ‘hero’ these days. Seems we elevate people to statuses that real people (which they all are) can’t meet. What it comes down to is that Lance Armstrong is just a dude who is a great cyclist. I think it’s beyond great he beat cancer, but does that make him a hero? I don’t know.

7 Michele { 08.25.12 at 3:42 pm }

I agree with Sharron. L.A. never tested positive for drugs, and he continues to maintain his innocence. Untl the Agency can prove he doped, my money is on him.

8 Stupid Stork { 08.25.12 at 6:42 pm }

I have no idea whether Lance Armstrong doped up or not. It’s awful if he didn’t and they’re accusing him, it’s not altogether surprising if he did (not that I’m too into sports or any kind of racing – but it’s sad, when I do, I always find myself paying more attention to the person that came in 2nd place because they’re more than likely the best of the non-dopers).

I also agree with Brid – we use the word ‘hero’ a little too easily. As someone who has lost people to cancer – when someone survives it I tend to think “wow, that’s going to make you an amazing person having lived through something like that – and it also makes you very LUCKY”. At no point in losing people have I ever thought “if only you were braver”. But of course it’s inspiring for other people to see that you can beat something like that and go on to do something awesome.

As for his foundation… I think it’s just an unfortunate situation when people do something crappy and tarnish something good that they’ve done. BUT, the bottom line is even if he’s a doping fiend (again, I have no idea) I’m assuming if you donate money to them it goes to something good and not buying him syringes.

It’s unfortunate that whether his own crappy doing or crappy luck is going to be associated with it, but the point is your money is still going to go to something positive.

9 Sarah B { 08.25.12 at 6:54 pm }

Interesting post and question. Reminds me of the Three Cups of Tea scandal – or at least the “did he lie in his memoir?” part of the scandal (the financial questions did deserve further scrutiny, I thought). Sure, it is more compelling cause if the founder didn’t dope, but if the outcome was increased awareness, research, etc, I don’t see a reason to back away from that. Lying about having cancer in the first place? Another story. altogether.placwholeotherpost.itaccomplishments are fraudelent

10 Justine { 08.25.12 at 8:47 pm }

I love what Brid said about heroes. The problem with the way we see heroes is that we think they are infallible … and that’s a lot of pressure. For some people, too much … so much that they worry about living up to it.

LiveStrong has taken on a life of its own. It’s not one of my charities of choice, but that has nothing to do with Lance. And his doping (or not doping) has nothing to do, as far as I’m concerned, with cancer. That, as far as I’m concerned, was the more impressive fight and win.

11 Bea { 08.25.12 at 9:29 pm }

There is that age old debate here about ends and means. Ends= work for the cause of cancer and means = alleged trickery and drug abuse. And of course, in a broad sense, both ends and means are important – which is why the debate is age old. I don’t think he should have used trickery (drug abuse is less my business and not as close to the point so leaving that aside for now). But I guess if Lance saved your life somehow you’d see it differently.

The thing is, too, that people should be impressed if you survive cancer and place 133rd in an international sporting event – but sadly, we’re not, so I think a tiny bit of the blame goes there. It’s one man but in the context of a society. Never quite one-way.

As for an artist and his works, which is similar in some ways and different in others to the question of charitable causes, you should absolutely be able to separate them- but whether you reward someone by giving them the satisfaction of your known approval or your cash is another matter again.

12 a { 08.25.12 at 9:41 pm }

I’m far more interested in the Jonah Lehrer thing than Lance Armstrong. That’s just so discouraging.

Regardless of waht Lance Armstrong may or may not have done, his charity has raised awareness and so has done some good work. I hope his decision to opt out of the fight does not damage the good he has done.

13 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 08.26.12 at 2:54 am }

I have no problem with Armstrong. In many sports, including cycling, literally almost every single athlete dopes, and at least internally (though clearly not in public opinion), it’s accepted.

Conversely, in journalism, it is not accepted to make up quotes. It is just not ever okay, according to journalists or anyone else.

Too bad. Lehrer is a fantastic writer.

14 Cristy { 08.26.12 at 12:25 pm }

I think Brid comment on ‘heros’ really is the point of all of this. Lance Armstrong, whether he wanted it or not, was elevated to superhero status. Here’s a guy that won 7 Tour de Frances + an Olympic medal AND he beat cancer. Most of us would be so lucky to do a quarter of that in our life time. Being elevated like that is addicting. You ride the high and are told time and again that it’s because your special and you’re making a big difference in the world. Because of this, the temptation to cheat is high and incredibly easy.

I’ve seen good people ‘fudge’ because it was easier than admitting the truth that something wasn’t as clear. And the reason they got away with it was because everyone around them wanted it to be true too. The problem with cheating, though, is that if the pressure is high you are very likely to cheat again. It’s a very slippery slope. The other thing is that to not cheat usually comes with severe punishment. I can’t tell you the number of weeks of my life I would have gotten back it I had simply fudged the numbers. All the pain, blood and tears that would have been saved. In the end, things came out the way I expected (and I can confidently stand by my work and defend it), but the cost was high.

I think my point in all of this is that even though forces someone to cheat, we do set people up. All of us want our lives to have purpose, to be a ‘hero’ on some level. And our society needs superheros to survive.

15 serenity { 08.27.12 at 8:37 am }

I find myself getting really angry at all the articles that are inferring guilt for Lance Armstrong. He quit fighting a process that, based on everything I’ve read, was not remotely close to fair. The man has fought for YEARS. I respect him for stepping away from a completely unfair process and saying “no more.”

16 sharah { 08.27.12 at 10:06 am }

Tangential to your questions, but Ex Urbe (http://exurbe.com) had a wonderful post on the evolution of ethics the other day. It’s interesting reading this post after going through that breakdown of the three branches.

17 Lori Lavender Luz { 08.27.12 at 8:10 pm }

I asked a cycling enthusiast friend what he thought and he said that LA was probably no more guilty than the other riders who were likely also doping.

If that’s true, it is a conundrum, isn’t it? If everyone is cheating and you want a level playing field, then you have to sacrifice your integrity, too.

I didn’t have a bracelet so I don’t have to make this decision. I think it’s also a reason not to elevate people to the status of hero. People on pedestals have nowhere to go but down.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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