Not judging Ned Kelly and Lance Armstrong


At lunchtime on Friday, Ned Kelly’s Requiem Mass was finally celebrated in St Patrick’s Church, Wangaratta, in north-eastern Victoria. The bushranger was sentenced to death by hanging in 1880 and denied the religious rites he requested. His bones were recently rediscovered and identified, and his family has been able to organise a belated funeral and reburial.

On Friday, commentators and bloggers took the opportunity to pass judgment on Kelly. One called him a ‘psychotic and dangerous’ criminal ‘with a pathological hatred of the police’. Another deplored the ‘dishonest folklore and revisionism’ that has made him a hero for many Australians.

But they missed the point, as did members of the public who directed abusive phone calls and emails to Monsignor John White, who presided at the Requiem Mass on Friday.

White explained: ‘The life that Ned lived is not the point today... We have a church of saints and sinners and we are not here to say which category Ned fell into.’

Coinciding with Ned Kelly’s Requiem Mass on Friday was quite a different ritual, the broadcast of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with cyclist and now self-confessed drug cheat Lance Armstrong. The interview was seen by many as a calculated bid on the part of Armstrong to harness the positive power of Winfrey’s brand to induce public judgment that he is morally fit to resume his sporting career.

But like the Ned Kelly requiem, judgment should not be the point here either, however self-serving Armstrong's own agenda may have been in doing the interview with Winfrey. It doesn't serve any useful purpose to dwell on whether we think Armstrong should be condemned or excused. If we're interested in the common good, we will instead be discussing how drug policy can be changed to ensure there is a level playing field for cycling and sport in general.

As ethicist Julian Savulescu put it in the Fairfax press on Saturday: ‘Rather than excoriating Armstrong, wouldn't it be better to ask why everyone is cheating, and why the rules are failing?’ Savulescu does not share the Catholic religious world view of Monsignor White, but they are both urging us to look at the big picture. 

Ned Kelly killed three policemen, and that was a serious crime. But a reading of his Jerilderie Letter manifesto suggests his actions were a symptom of a system of British colonial rule that was stacked against Irish Catholics. In the same way, Armstrong’s behaviour is a product of what Savulescu calls an ‘ideology’ of zero-tolerance against performance enhancing drugs in sport, which he argues should be examined. Armstrong’s deplorable treatment of informers such as his former aide Emma O’Reilly is comparable with the way Kelly dealt with those who informed on him. 

There are arguments to both condemn both Kelly and Armstrong as psychotic criminals, but also to recognise their achievement as trailblazing reformers, though Armstrong is still a work in progress. However judgment of whether they are right or wrong is best left to their own soul-searching, when they face their God or ultimate reality. As the agnostic Armstrong has said: ‘If there was indeed some body or presence standing there to judge me, I hope I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life’.

A true life or a deceitful life might be inspiring, or discouraging, for us to think about, depending upon how we view the behaviour of the individual concerned. But it is not something we can know unless we are Ned Kelly's God or Lance Armstrong's body or presence. The business of the rest of us is to consider how best to reform the rules by which we live our lives, and play our games, in a civil society.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Ned Kelly, Lance Armstrong, Julian Savulescu, Monsignor John White



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Existing comments

I found Michael's premise in this article a little bit simplistic. There will always be those, and that means all of us, who will break the rules to achieve our own ends. Lance Armstrong and Ned Kelly are extreme examples of this rule-breaking. Keeping our consciences in good working order is no easy task and I think reflection on this is certainly worthwhile. A little kindness goes a long way too - towards others and ourselves.

Pam | 21 January 2013  

Oh dear, what a cop-out on Ned Kelly. Is Mullins going to plead next for the Bangalow State Forest murderer to get a little understanding? Was he also dropped as a child? As for Armstrong, as with all so-called 'sports', once capitalist money takes them over as yet another commodity, then yes, they are full of Armstrong types, but that behaviour is what drives our world of business and politics - cheating, lies, and power, with little or no consideration or room for any ethical behaviour to be found. It's a bit like those amoral businesses that love to advertise with shock-jocks who then pull their business when the heat gets too much for their PR run 'fronts'.

janice wallace | 21 January 2013  

Well made points Michael.Making judgements and casting blame does nothing to move towards solutions. It distracts us and incites anger and invective. Armstrong's mistakes and others' misguided actions should be seen as valuable lessons which help us improve the way we do things and assist us in developing better attitudes to the way we live. Perhaps Ned and Lance should rather be valued for the gifts of wisdom they offer us.

Anne | 21 January 2013  

The opinion writer concludes: "The business of the rest of us is to consider how best to reform the rules by which we live our lives, and play our games, in a civil society".

Rules by which we live or they lived, or failed to live, eh?

So, the murders Ned Kelly committed were a form of rule-breaking in a civil society. And Mr Armstrong's decade or more of public lying and relentless denegration of officials, commentators and opponents who sought honesty in a competitive sport were just another form of rule-breaking or stretching.

If Mr Mullins thinks an implicit appeal to the scriptural injunction of judge not (Matthew 7:1) supports his poorly conceived and ill argued piece, he really needs a course in Christian ethics and also an intervening editorial hand.

Rodney Stinson | 21 January 2013  

Thanks for the informed reflections, Michael. If leadership is finding a procession to get in front of Ned Kelly has had a long procession. He is not an anti establishment icon for nothing. And it is nauseating to hear more about how sport is the best result money can buy. Frankly I would much proferr to have a beer with Ned Kelly than Armstrong or Don Bradman despite Howard's desire to cannonize him.
We have also seen this week a reminder of Martin Luther King's statement, reinforcing what your article implies about character.
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Michael D. Breen | 21 January 2013  

Comparing Ned Kelly and Lance Armstrong is pulling a long bow. For me Ned was defending himself and his family against police corruption and he killed in self defence. The police pursuing him had a body bag ready for him. Lance was just feathering his own nest. He was immersing himself in glory time and time again when basically he was just a cheat. Is that judging him? Perhaps. I think like all of us who make mistakes and sometimes very big ones, he needs to make recompense and try to do better.

Bernadette | 21 January 2013  

I disagree with Pam that Mullins premise is simplistic. Janice Wallace's comment, linking Ned Kelly and the Bangalow State Forest murderer, is an over-simplification of the Kelly case. Mullins makes an important point when he says, "Ned Kelly killed three policemen, and that was a serious crime. But a reading of his Jerilderie Letter manifesto suggests his actions were a symptom of a system of British colonial rule that was stacked against Irish Catholics". Ned Kelly's actions were personal and deeply political and he is considered an Australian Irish political folk hero, by many, for defending a down-trodden people. It is only in this recent era that people of Irish Catholic descent can publicly critique the cruel prejudice of the system they lived under, both in the Ireland they left and the Australia they came to. Kelly's story is not dissimilar to that of William Wallace, who is now seen as a Scottish political folk hero. Had Ned carried out his actions in Ireland, he too would be a national Irish hero. However, I do find it hard to make comparisons between Ned Kelly and Lance Armstrong, other than the fact that they both point toward broken and corrupt systems.

Shane Howard | 21 January 2013  

The 2012 book "The True Story of Ned Kelly's Last Stand" (Paul Terry) tells of a trial that was play acted as part of Law Week in Melbourne in 2008 or 2009. "An actor went on trial under modern terrorism laws. Ned's defence was led by barristers Gary Nash and Rob Stary ... A Victorian Supreme Court judge, Justice Lex Lasry, presided in the role of Redmond Barry. The prosecutor was the former head of the National Crime Authority Peter Faris QC. Playing up to his pretend role, Faris thundered (with tongue in cheek) that 'Ned was nothing more than an Irish Catholic secessionist dog.' But at the end of the trial, the audience cheered: Ned had been found not guilty."

Last night on Ch Ten, Steve Price did his predictable bad mouth rant about Ned. I told myself that being taken to task by Steve Price is a badge of honour.

Frank | 21 January 2013  

I'm curious why we're spending so much time (myself included) on perpetuating the Kelly myth and condemning a lycra-wearing cyclist 's penchant for performance-inducing drug habit. Neither of those two had any direct affect on my life (or others' for that matter). And yet, the perpetrators who started the GFC are still walking among us, scot free. The GFC brought more sorrow and tragedy to the world and the fall of nations. The burial of Kelly's remains and Armstrong's pathetic public relation exercise will be relegated to the back pages of history. The GFC's legacy, however, remains with us for some time to come.

Alex Njoo | 21 January 2013  

Spot the odd one out: Spartacus, Robin Hood, William Wallace, Rob Roy MacGregor, Ned Kelly, Lance Armstrong.

Vincenzo Vittorio | 21 January 2013  

Just a reminder that "psychotic criminal" is a meaningless phrase. The misunderstanding of what psychosis actually involves distresses me because it leads to blame where blame is inappropriate and inhibits the search for useful treatments which are so desperately needed.

Sheelah Egan | 21 January 2013  

Go easy folks, Bangalow is in from the coast in the northern NSW. My grandfather had a pub there. The Belanglow State Forest is just to the west of us here on the Southern Tablelands. If we are not careful we will have Lance Armstrong shooting up coppers and Ned Kelly riding in the Tour de France
in an iron suit. Absit.

Michael D. Breen | 21 January 2013  

Remember that time when someone had stolen Ned Kelly's horse? Ned looked around at the lingerers on the verandah and said, "I'm going back to the bar. If that horse isn't back at that rail when I come out, what happened at Jerilderie is going to happen right here . . . right now!" Ned came out of the bar ten minutes later. Sure enough, the horse had been returned. No-one said anything. Ned mounted his horse and was about to ride off when up ran the local idiot. "Mr Kelly! Mr Kelly!" He cried out. "What happened at Jerilderie?" "I had to bloody well walk home," replied Ned.

malcolm kyle | 21 January 2013  

I agree with this article and do not think the premise is simplistic and comparison of the Ned Kelly murders with the Belanglow Forest murders is spurious. Kelly's actions were the result of perceived discrimination against his family and a continuation of the class struggle in Ireland against the English landlords. Armstrong's actions were the result of a win at any cost attitude; I do not think that there is any similarity between the actions of Ned Kelly and Lance Armstrong. However, the media response to both is illinformed, simplistic and judgmental.

Mark Doyle | 22 January 2013  

I don't know the full story about Ned Kelly because I wasn't there - probably a mix of myth and truth, but with the issue of Lance Armstrong -who cares? It's just sport and doesn't do anything to advance human development. While one man can ride a bike up a hill really fast with the assistance of a drug injection, another 40 people have their heads shot to pieces because of a political dispute over energy resources in Algeria.

AURELIUS | 22 January 2013  

Thank you Shane Howard and Mark Doyle. As to the query about who cares - I care. I am very proud to bear the Kelly name. Having talked to his family, read the different versions written I believe he was fighting a just cause as did his father did in Tipperary, Ireland.

Joan Maree Kelly | 29 January 2013  

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