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Can He Win the Yellow Jersey of Victimhood?

by James Bowman

Posted: Jan 17, 2013 09:38 PM

"Corleone apologises for decades of Mafia murders," read the headline in yesterday’s (London) Daily Telegraph.

Corleone, the Sicilian hill town that is synonymous with the Mafia through books and films, has asked forgiveness for the murders, shootings and intimidation committed by its godfathers. The appeal was made by the mayor of the town on the 20th anniversary of the arrest of a Corleone-born mafia leader, Toto Riina, nicknamed "The Beast" for his ruthlessness and brutality. Leoluchina Savona apologised to victims of the Mafia’s vendettas, bombings and killings on behalf of the inhabitants of the town, which was immortalised by The Godfather book and subsequent films starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. "I apologise in the name of all the people of Corleone. I ask forgiveness for the blood that was spilled," the mayor said on Monday during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Riina’s arrest.

Part of the mayor’s purpose was ostensibly to dissociate his town from criminals. "To the Mafia, I ask you to leave this land, to abandon the struggle. I ask them to admit defeat, to surrender." And yet the Telegraph slyly notes that "references to The Godfather in Corleone are everywhere — a bar on the main street offers a bitter aperitif called ‘Don Corleone Amaro’, while just across the road, the walls of a pastry shop are covered in black and white pictures of Brando and Pacino in scenes from the films."

Actually, we hardly need to be told that, do we? It’s safe to say that whenever anybody assumes a corporate identity to apologize for something someone else has done — as in the case of apologies for slavery by Nancy Pelosi’s House of Representatives and several state legislatures a few years ago — there is an ulterior motive involved. Now we can probably also take it for granted that even when a public figure apologizes for something he himself has done there is some reason other than a contrite heart why he is doing so. In the case of Lance Armstrong, the ulterior motive is apparent on both sides, since both he and Oprah Winfrey’s low-rated cable channel on which he has chosen to apologize — for injecting himself with illegal performance-enhancing drugs in order to win bicycle races and then lying about it — stand to gain from such a patently cynical exercise.

Oprah was obviously chosen not because she was one of the injured parties but because of her well-known capacity for empathy with her interlocutors — something that has obviously been enhanced even further by the prospect of a bump in the ratings. Moreover, Mr Armstrong’s punishment in the form of the withdrawal of his sponsorships for the misbehavior he was only now confessing to had already been administered. What had he got to lose by seeking a clean slate with the help of Oprah’s absolution? The more interesting question is what has he got to gain? And the answer is victim status. That, if he can manage it, is what will keep him alive as a celebrity. And if he can retain his place in the celebrity pantheon, some kind of comeback is always possible.

It looks as if he will manage it too. On the day after his interview with Miss Winfrey was taped, a sports reporter on WTOP in Washington said that Lance Armstrong’s string of Tour de France victories ended in 2008, but his string of "denial" ended yesterday. Before the interview was even heard, that is, Mr Armstrong had won half the battle with the willingness of the sports media — like pretty much everybody else in the media, he was betting — to treat a moral failing (lying) as if it were a quasi-clinical condition, like "denial." Denial is lying to yourself. Maybe Mr Armstrong was guilty of that, too, but, whether he was or not, the thing he was presumably apologizing for was lying to everybody else. If we find it so easy to mix the two things up, we may find it no more difficult to see him as a victim of his own bad behavior.

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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.


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