Contemplating Lance Armstrong: Views from the Swiss and the Dutch
What does Lance Armstrong’s earth-shattering sports crimes and confessions have to do with postmodernism – one of the most influential veins of philosophy in today’s world? In an article headlined Lance Armstrong and Diederik Stapel: Laying Waste to Postmodernism, Dutch columnist Sebastien Valkenberg exhaustively examines why the misdeeds of Armstrong, notorious Dutch academic cheat Diederik Stapel – and Bill Clinton – prove that contrary to postmodernism, which postulates how relative truth means there really is no such thing as truth – the objective facts really do matter, and that not knowing them can be dangerous to yourself and society.
How much right does the public have to feel itself cheated? In recent decades, postmodernism has instilled in us that there is no such thing as truth. The concept is thought to be a remnant of the Enlightenment. So logically, it is difficult to accuse someone of lying, deceit or fraudulent behavior. If a concept has lost its right to exist, it is no longer possible to violate it. Without truth, there are no lies.
Against this backdrop, we might expect a certain degree of resignation or even indifference about the Armstrong affair. Instead, it has brought a storm of indignation that remains undiminished. The same happened with other notorious liars, like former President Bill Clinton in the Lewinsky affair, and of course, Diederik Stapel. When it recently became clear that the professor of social psychology manipulated datasets to prove his research, the public, both within and without the scientific community, was anything but indifferent.
Today it is popular to say, that everyone has their own “truth” – in quotes. Yet it seems that postmodern concepts are poorly equipped to interpret the shock resulting from deceptions like those of Armstrong and Stapel.
“As for the entitlements to deference and to respect that we ordinarily asign to facts and to truth, the postmodernist view is that in the end, the assignment of those entitlements is just up for grabs,” writes Princeton University Philosophy Professor Emeritus Harry Frankfurt in On Truth (2006). “It is simply a matter, they insist, of how you look at things.”
In his book, Frankfurt stands up for truth. He considers the concept invaluable. “It is beyond any doubt, no matter what the postmodernists or anyone else may say, for example engineers and architects, have to strive – and sometimes they succeed – toward pure objectivity.” The latter cannot afford to play fast and loose with the truth. If their math is to be no longer correct, the risk is enormous. In the worst case this would result in collapsing houses and bridges.
In another take from across the Atlantic, in an article headlined Lance Armstrong is Lucky He’s Not European, Le Temps columnist Stephane Bussard writes that America’s evangelical Christian tradition makes it more prone to forgive than secular Europe, but that even in America, Lance Armstrong’s road to redemption will be many years long, far surpassing that of even the once-derided Bill Clinton.
Having inspired millions of Americans to take an interest in cycling – hitherto a very European sport, and to take it up, Lance Armstrong admits: “I viewed this situation as one big lie. … I lost myself.” He regrets having betrayed family and friends, and promises to do everything he can to regain their trust. Later, the televised open heart surgery appeared more like cosmetic surgery. For some, the confessions of the Texan cyclist involved more of a public relations exercise.
Will the interview with Oprah Winfrey be enough to lead Lance Armstrong down the path of redemption? America is not Europe. With a great evangelical Christian tradition, it views things with equal intensity, but forgives more easily. It is less likely to bear grudges. It’s no coincidence that America is often described as the “land of second chances.” But with one caveat. The Texan made Americans dream. He inspired them so much, both as a miracle against cancer and a champion cyclist driven by desire and boundless dedication – that he will need time to redeem himself in their eyes. The process may take many years. And that’s not counting his potential clash with the U.S. justice system.
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