America creates heroes, brick on teetering brick, like an imaginative child fashions building block figures: never simply, always with grand intent regardless of the reality.
From Neil Armstrong to Lance Armstrong, the culture of success so fundamental to the United States ethos means that the nation is always erecting pedestals, and always hoisting someone atop those pedestals. A national obsession with striving to be the best isn’t enough; Americans seem to need to constantly celebrate — and flaunt — their achievements.
It goes beyond good nation building, all the way to chauvinism.
Even the best of human endeavour, like venturing into space, becomes grandiose and, ultimately, perspective of the feat becomes twisted.
The space program should have always been about exploring, developing new technologies, and testing human limits. It should have been about advancing the human experience, and our well of knowledge, for the betterment of everyone.
Given the era, of course, it was about much more than that. (And, in hindsight, it’s often seen now as a colossal waste of public money that could have been put to use educating, housing and feeding America’s vast poor.)
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, tacitly declaring victory for the United States in its decade-long space race with the Soviet Union, and diverting attention from a host of ailments that had beset American society, from a disaffected generation to a pointlessly tragic war in Vietnam.
Neil Armstrong never meant to be a hero, and shied from the spotlight in the following decades until his death last weekend. That he had the stuff of a hero is undeniable. He was a combat-hardened war veteran, a brilliant engineer, a brave and skilled test pilot, a teacher and an innovator.
But he became more than that in the eyes of Americans, and reflected out into the greater world: he became an icon, emblematic of the battle to crush communism, and the mission to assert the supremacy of the United States and its way of life.
Certainly he never spoke in those terms, but that was how his life’s work was defined.
The space program with which Armstrong was so inextricably linked gave mankind some remarkable technological advancements. And it has inspired a host of young people to view their world, and their potential, differently.
But Armstrong believed firmly that he was just a man doing his job.
That he did it with modesty and extreme competence should have been enough. In the end, obligingly, the American public cherished him even more because he held true to his humility. It was one more thing for the nation, ironically, to puff its chest out about.
The lessons of Lance Armstrong, champion cyclist, cancer survivor and apparent cheat, are far more complicated. But they are equally illustrative.
After years of battling with the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the seven-time Tour de France champion last week said he would fight no more. He didn’t say he was admitting that he used performance-enhancing drugs (he has never failed a drug test). Just that he was tired of the constant fight.
Never mind that the agency has a dozen or more witnesses who are willing to testify that Armstrong and his team were guilty of “doping activity.”
The agency says it has persisted in pursuing Armstrong for years because it wishes to tear down the “win-at-all-cost culture.”
That, of course, sounds positively anti-American.
Here’s hoping the agency succeeds, in honour of people like Neil Armstrong.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.