Friday, January 10, 2014

Santa Denial, and How Lance Armstrong Taught Me To Lie


When Robin Williams, a longtime friend of Lance Armstrong, was asked how he took the news that Lance had been doping, and lying about it, all along, Williams replied, “It was like when I found out about Santa Claus.”  This makes sense.  The Lance myth is a lot like the Santa myth:  something that millions of people believed, in part because it’s such a sweet story, they wanted to believe it.

This past Christmas, when I was lying to my younger daughter about Santa, I was surprised how easy it was compared to past years.  Why should this be?  After much soul-searching, I realized that it’s because I paid such close attention this past year to the Lance saga, and how it was that he successfully lied for so long. 

In short, this post explains how Lance taught me to lie.

First, a disclaimer

I want to be very clear that I’m not in favor of lying, unless it’s to my kids about Santa or the Tooth Fairy.  That’s why, until I subconsciously absorbed some important lessons from Lance, I had so much trouble with these lies.  It just felt wrong trampling over my kids’ reasonable skepticism, which as a parent I normally like to instill.  So, even though my lying skills have improved, my moral compass has not strayed, and I’m not lulled into any “grey area” nonsense.  I offer up this essay to you not as a how-to guide, but as an intellectual investigation.  Who knows, perhaps a knowledge of lying technique can help us be more skeptical.  I sure wouldn’t want to be played like a sucker again, after defending Lance for years.

Interestingly, I’ve witnessed a similar evolution of the lying skills and techniques of Lance himself.  In the early days of his lying, he wasn’t so smooth.  In fact, it wasn’t until the accusations went from a trickle to a stream to a full inundation that he mastered his skills at deception.  For example, if you can find the video footage of his press conference regarding the Discovery sponsorship, you’ll see some awkward, inexpert evasion.  Nothing as clumsy as Floyd Landis’s first denial (i.e., when he was first asked point-blank if he doped, he said, “I’m gonna say no…”), but pretty clumsy.

Technique #1:  convince yourself first

It’s pretty clear from the Oprah interview and others that Lance doesn’t actually regret cheating at sport—he just regrets getting caught.  He doesn’t present his doping and his deception as particularly heinous or unique crimes; I think he found a way, very early on, to square all this internally.  He took moral comfort in having convinced himself (and his team) that everybody else was doping too; in having used his massive celebrity to give comfort to cancer survivors (whether or not he made any progress toward funding actual research); and in having generated a vast amount of wealth for the bicycle industry.  In light of all this good he was doing, he must have felt as though depriving some cheating European of those Tours de France was really no big deal. 

So it is with the Santa myth.  To witness the idealistic, innocent, and pure trust my child puts in me, and to take advantage of it with a bald-faced lie every year, requires similar rationalization.  So I remind myself that the truth would only hurt, and that my kid couldn’t be trusted to keep it to herself.  I think of all the kids on the playground whose holiday experience would be damaged by too early a revelation, and all those letters to Santa that wouldn’t be written, and so forth, and thus I rationalize my position.  This was easier this year after I read Lance’s (or was it Tyler Hamilton’s?) description of the vast number of team support people (mechanics, masseuses, coaches, doctors, PR folks, etc.) whose careers depended on his “discretion” (i.e., lies).

Technique #2:  make your lie big and bold

Remember all that mealy-mouthed stuff in “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”?  The writer (i.e., liar) resorts to a sideways trick of turning Santa (the living, breathing man) into something abstract, with statements like “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist” and by comparing him to fairies.  It’s easy to see why the writer would do this, but it’s amateurish.  When Lindsay asked me straight-out this year, “Daddy, are you and Mommy really Santa?” I knew this was no time for prevaricating.  So I snapped at her:  “Why do you love cancer so much?!”  No, of course I didn’t really say that.  That was Lance’s retort when the journalist Paul Kimmage accused him of doping.  It was big, bold, and (best of all) beside the point.  It’s the logical fallacy my older daughter once referred to as “red lobster.”

So what I really said to Lindsay was, “That’s crazy talk!  Of course we aren’t Santa!”  She looked so relieved.  This was the look of a kid who is all too happy to place her dad’s honesty and integrity above that of some stupid kid on the playground.  Once she had the answer that she wanted all along, her skepticism went right out the window.  Yes, I felt slightly bad about the power I had over her and how I was abusing it, but more than that I thought, “Wow, that was a way better response than I’d have made last year, which would have been the old answer-with-a-question dodge, like ‘What makes you ask that?’”

 Technique #3:  suspend disbelief by throwing a bone

Okay, so you’ve lied to yourself first, and then you’ve told the lie boldly and firmly, and your audience wants to believe you anyway.  That’s a good start.  But what about that niggling doubt that an intelligent person would naturally have?  If left alone, that doubt might start to fester, and end up being to Truth what a grain of sand is to a pearl.  Best to nip doubt in the bud, which can be accomplished easily with a few plausible explanations.

I was as amazed as anybody when Lance went from being a one-day classics racer to a Grand Tour stage racer (by way of cancer).  I’ve seen classics racers evolve into stage racers over time, like Sean Kelly, but even Kelly never won the Tour de France.  So from the very first doping accusations against Lance, I had the beginnings of doubt.  But Lance, in one of his novels, explained that the cancer stripped off the unnecessary upper body muscle he’d had from his swimming days, reconfiguring him as a stage racer.  It didn’t matter that he hadn’t actually lost any weight; I wanted to believe, and that explanation was good enough.  Lance also mentioned his higher cadence as a major asset to his stage racing; it didn’t bother me that I myself get more power out of a lower cadence.  I only cared that his transformation was explained in some way.  (So it is with Chris Froome’s believers, who accept his silly explanation—finally getting over parasitic worms—for suddenly going from mediocre cyclist to the world’s best stage racer.)

The ability of an explanation—whether it’s solid or not—to help suspend disbelief is something Malcolm Gladwell has called “the Photocopier Effect,” after an experiment by a Harvard social scientist, Ellen Langer.  Langer had just a 60% success rate cutting in line to use a photocopier when she merely asked nicely.  But if she gave a reason, like “I’m in a rush,” her success rate went to 94%.  The crazy thing is that when Langer gave a pointless reason, like “because I need to make some copies,” her success rate was still 94%.  The point is, if you throw someone a bone, you’ll get somewhere, whether it’s a good bone or not.

Not that all explanations are created equal.  I never bought Alberto Contador’s “tainted Spanish beef” explanation for his positive clenbuterol test, and I don’t believe Michael Rogers’ “tainted Chinese beef” explanation for the same, and I don’t believe Jonathan Breyne’s “tainted Chinese beef” explanation either.  Tyler Hamilton’s “chimera” (i.e., prenatal evil twin) explanation for his blood doping positive would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. 

So when Lindsay questioned the authenticity of Santa Claus, I threw her the best bone I could.  After denying that my wife and I were actually Santa, I said, “That’s not to say that there aren’t people who impersonate Santa Claus.  Have you ever seen Santa in a mall?  Definitely a fake.”  See?  Now she had an explanation for the fact that somebody had (evidently) questioned Santa’s existence to begin with.  I went on to describe a fake mall Santa who made me cry because when I asked for a “bow and arrow” it sounded like “bone arrow” and I couldn’t make the fake Santa understand what I wanted.  Another red herring, right up there with Lance’s higher pedaling cadence!

Technique #4:  Embroil others in your lie

One reason I believed in Lance for so long was that no disgruntled former teammate ratted him out (until one finally did and all the others followed).  As we now know, Lance didn’t achieve this cooperation by sitting everybody down and formally conspiring in the way that a James Bond villain might.  No, it was all subtle:  if you want to be in the inner circle, you better ride well and show your allegiance, and if you do, you may get a white paper bag, and if you use the substances therein and benefit appropriately, you’re going to the Tour!  But by the way, now you can’t say anything, ever, because you’d have to come clean yourself.  It’s kind of like when my big brother would steal two cookies from the jar, stuff one in my mouth, and say, “You tell, I’ll tell.”  Except the gag order on the Postal team was implicit.

So it was when I brought my older daughter Alexa in on the Santa deception.  I knew she wouldn’t believe in Santa forever, and I dreaded the day when I’d have to come clean and admit I’d been lying all along.  It was just my luck that when that moment finally came, I’d recently read Tyler Hamilton’s book and had learned of the power Lance had through speaking softly and wielding financial repercussions. 

Predictably enough, the first domino to fall was the Tooth Fairy.  (I think that myth is more fragile because teeth are lost one at a time, so you don’t have the momentum of mass belief that the Christmas season entails.)  Of course once your kids know you’re capable of routinely lying to their faces about the Tooth Fairy, they figure out the Santa deception almost instantly.

Alexa was blunt:  “Okay, Dad, I know there’s no Tooth Fairy.”  I was equally blunt in my reply:  “You’re right.  There’s no Tooth Fairy.  And now that you know that, you won’t be surprised when you no longer get any money for losing a tooth.”  That was the extent of it.  Alexa, of course, is no fool:  she instantly grasped that if she later decried Santa as a fake, she could kiss her Christmas stocking—and all that candy—goodbye.

So when Christmas rolled around, Alexa not only kept Mum about Santa, but—of her own volition—took an active role in perpetuating the myth.  Hours before Lindsay confronted me about Santa, Alexa (in Lindsay’s presence) threw me a perfect softball:  “Hey Dad, does Santa give lesser presents to kids in poor communities?”  I casually replied, “Well, yes, a really fancy gift in a poor community could cause a lot of envy and strife.  So Santa naturally scales it down.  Meanwhile, in very affluent communities he has to give fancier gifts because the kids are so jaded.”  For Lindsay to hear this intelligent discussion among older, more worldly people was a perfect ruse.  And when Lindsay later asked if my wife and I pretend to be Santa, Alexa said, with an exquisite facsimile of eye-rolling annoyance, “That’s what she keeps trying to get me to believe.”  I couldn’t ask for a better accomplice.

Should I be thanking Lance?

I suppose I could thank Lance for helping me learn how to lie.  But I’m not sure how much use I’ll have for this skill once Lindsay knows the truth about Santa.

That said, I suppose we could all thank Lance for all the stunning entertainment he’s given us over the years, from the seven Tour de France victories to the botched comeback and on to the thrilling scandal, which brought about a veritable orgy of self-righteous pontificating from so many journalists, bloggers, and Internet haters.  Meanwhile, Oakley and Trek could thank Lance for generating so many sales; after all, these companies get to keep all that money they made.

But before we start thanking the guy, we should remember that, unlike lying about Santa, Lance’s deception was not a victimless crime.  He robbed all the clean cyclists, and the clean would-be cyclists (who left the sport rather than doping), as well as the would-be clean cyclists (those lured into doping by the culture Lance so generously fueled).  Lance should get coal in his stocking.

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