Lance Armstrong and the Illusion of Meritocracy

The psychology of the “Anti-Lance Armstrong Brigade” illustrates exactly why socioeconomic inequality is increasing so much in this country. While Lance Armstrong is privileged by his race and class, the nature of the attacks against him illustrate what is wrong with society today. To clarify, I do not condone cheating in sports. However, I do think that the hatred shown to him is overblown.

To begin with, our hatred of Lance Armstrong is, to some degree, a projection of our own desire to believe at all costs that our nation is a meritocracy. Some of us cling to the notion that our nation as a whole is a meritocracy. Other people who may understand the degree to which nepotism is prevalent in some fields wish to maintain the illusion that some fields such as sports are purely merit-based. In other words, some of us may want to hold the compromise within our heads, “well…. being a corporate CEO is about cheating and nepotism, but at least fields X, Y, and Z are solely merit based.” Lance Armstrong’s drug use wiped away our belief in Santa Claus. However, rather than asking tough questions about the fact that in America practically every field is no longer merit-based, we shoot the messenger.

There is a saying “If you point a finger, you will get four fingers pointing back at you.” Millions of people who have jumped on the “Anti-Lance Armstrong” Brigade who would take the same opportunity to cheat if given a chance. Some of us may also be aware that their successes materialized at the expense of others. This can occur on a large scale such as obtaining a high-level corporate job open only to white upper-middle-class people who went to the right school. It can also occur on a small scale within the world of service-sector jobs. Gaining entry to these jobs is often a matter of nepotism. Many of us recognize that something is amiss with the current system. Yet rather than confronting our own flaws or even flaws within our own backyard, we use a distant group of people as a punching bag. This punching bag will vary depending on our class, ideology, and race.

Additionally, America is facing a fiscal crisis, an unemployment crisis, and decreasing social mobility. Yet we spend 25 percent of our morning CNN news time on Lance Armstrong! The tendency for Americans of all classes to fixate on a superstar rather than to focus on issues of greater importance (in other words paying attention to the dalliances and scandals of the rich and famous rather than focusing on tough issues) has hurt has us tremendously.

In every major election, both general and primary, we have focused on whether a candidate likes the same food as the average American or even whether a candidate has the mannerisms and sentiments of an average Joe, instead of paying attention to more critical issues of more importance. Picture the uproar over John Kerry’s speaking French and the praise over George Bush Senior eating pork rinds.

The Lance Armstrong scandal is a manifestation of the cultural and psychological factors in American society that help perpetuate our classism and racism:  a focus on celebrity individuals instead of the larger issues which are affecting our society, the desire to maintain a belief in the myth of American meritocracy, scapegoating individuals or groups who differ in class, ideology, or race from us, projecting societal problems away from our immediate spheres of influence onto distant individuals or groups, the short term tendency to judge a person as being “only as good as their last accomplishment,” and uncivil baseless hatred.

Regardless of his doping scandal, Lance Armstrong  still has had an extremely inspiring story. To battle cancer and come back to one’s favorite sport is admirable. Our ability to forget the past accomplishments of this man is indicative of the new American way of thinking: You are only as good as your last accomplishment.  American society, especially the business sector, has developed a tendency to throw away people who have made mistakes, regardless of their past accomplishments. Yesterday’s accomplished hero can become today’s pariah.

Lance Armstrong has been convicted in the public media and has tried his best to apologize.  With so many more urgent priorities, we need to move on as a nation.

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