There has been a lot of talk over the past month about the versions of “truth” that have been coming out in debates between US Republican presidential candidates. Veteran conservative columnist George Will summed up the current atmosphere with the opening sentence of a scathing review of a book by one of his fellow News Corp. employees last week: “Donald Trump is just one symptom of today’s cultural pathology of self-validating vehemence with blustery certitudes substituting for evidence.”
Politicians in general have had a “challenged” relationship with “truth” since forever, but this season the syndrome has gotten to the point where somewhat educated people on the political right are shaking their heads in disbelief at some of the things their candidates seriously seem to believe. People in other parts of the western world are generally reassuring themselves with the belief that this is just a show for the satisfaction of the craziest 5% fringe of the American population, and that the populace as a whole would not be crazy enough to elect one of these people as leader of the most militarily powerful nation on earth. I’d like to think so myself, but when I was 18 years old my country elected Ronald Reagan as president, and since then I’ve made a point of never underestimating the ignorance of the common man there.
There are effectively two things that are more important than competence and awareness of an outside world to Republican primary voters, and thus to their would-be presidential candidates: guns and “Christian values”. To have any hope of being nominated these people need the approval of both the NRA and the NRB: the National Rifle Association and the National Religious Broadcasters. To get those approvals you can’t be too interested in truth as such. For both you have to put fears and presuppositions way ahead of investigation and critical thinking skills of any sort.
So one of the front runners is now a blustering business man who has always instinctively known that what those with money are willing to pay for is more important than what is sustainable or capable of increasing the public well-being, and who has thus made a career of putting image ahead of substance.
The other is a retired surgeon whose personal priority is to stay as far as possible from the poverty he grew up in, who knows that both seeing patients through high risk procedures and getting fans to pay to hear his story requires a skill in instilling confidence in them, regardless what the facts of the matter are. So he has become something of an expert in delivering that sort of hopeful message to patients and paying clients.
Last week’s major trivial dispute between liberals and conservatives had to do with interpreting the various statements that Dr. Carson has put forward as fact over the years. There have been essentially 5 issues on which he has been particularly challenged, each with its own ideological implications. To take them in the order they occurred in his life:
- He claims to have attempted to kill someone with a knife as a teenager, marking a turning point in learning to deal with anger issues by way of his religious faith.
- He claims that during his high school years he met with the US military commander of the forces in Viet Nam, and that in association with this meeting he was effectively promised a place at West Point Military Academy.
- He claims that there was a write-up in a student newspaper about his superior moral character as a student at Yale when he was they only one to do a re-test for a psychology exam that was actually given as a gag.
- He has asserted a continuing personal belief that the great pyramids of Egypt were originally build by the biblical character Joseph, son of Jacob, as grain storage facilities.
- He denied his ongoing association with a dubious company making herbal remedies for cancer, which he gave speeches to endorse after he had been treated for prostate cancer.
The spin put on each of these issues has been rather amazing. Suffice to say that neither the Koch-financed Carson campaign with its Fox News support group, nor the American left blogosphere will give you any sort of reliable picture of what has happened in Carson’s life and thinking since the mid-sixties. To understand where he is coming from and how far he can be trusted, there are a few cultural genres which it helps to understand:
– the ghost written autobiographical American Dream rags-to-riches tale,
– the evangelical “personal testimony” tradition in both African-American and Adventist churches,
– the paid motivational speech by the “successful black man” who made it up out of the ghetto (usually as a professional athlete, but on occasion through other exceptional skills),
– the motivational sermon from Old Testament narratives of God saving his people,
– the classic “alternative medicine” or “miracle cure” sales pitch.
What all these have in common is that their “honesty” is not based on what the ancient Greeks called “logos”, but rather on some form of “mythos”. They can be honest in the same way as Shakespearean histories and dramas: they provide the audience with important life lessons about the human experience, existential purpose and causes they can believe in, even if they tend not to get all of the historical details right. This is the sort of world that Ben Carson has been living in for the past generation, since he escaped the ghetto.
But there are distinct risks involved in this sort of mythical “honesty,” especially when its genres are not acknowledged and its “factuality” is taken too seriously by speaker and audience alike. The important thing is to keep things in perspective. So let’s look at the contexts these statements come from, consider the message they are attempting to give, and decide what sort of risks there might be in believing them.
I read Carson’s autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” years ago, when someone close to me was going under his knife. At the time he was not considering a retirement career in politics yet. He was mostly trying to do as much as possible to secure his place in the upper class, and trying to establish something of a legacy for himself as a humanitarian on the side. If reading ghost-written motivational autobiographies is sort of your thing I can recommend putting this book on your list. If you want to take the lazier version of the task of finding out about his non-political understanding of himself, I’d recommend sitting through the hour and a half of his Mannatech promotional speech from a decade ago on Youtube.
Bear in mind that this is a company that quite literally sells sugar pills as a cure for cancer, to the tune of over $200 per customer per month; that in the 5 years following the speech on this video, the company was sued by the state of Texas for sleazy business practices, and their products were discredited by researchers at Carson’s own Johns Hopkins University; but he continued to give pep talks to their sales force at least until 2013; yet in the famously “media biased” MSNBC Republican debate he denied any association with them.
In this speech Carson skillfully endorses the company’s integrity without making any direct factual claims regarding their products. In between he tells now familiar stories from his childhood, the tale of his frightening experience with prostate cancer, and above all he gives multiple testimonies to the healing power of prayer.
One of his cleverly placed applause lines is about the impossibility of maintaining political correctness, which largely overshadows the point of the narrative he packed around it: that he started off majoring in psychology, and while he still plays with psychoanalysis on an amateur level, he switched over to neuro-surgery for purely materialistic reasons –– he wanted to go where the big bucks were. To put it in his own words, “I hated poverty! …In a way I think maybe that was a good thing, because it drove me. At times when I might have been willing to give up, it drove me to go on, because I didn’t want to go back there.” It’s important to recognize the power of such hatred as the unifying principle of his biography. We’ll come back to that.
Carson’s personal testimony of redemption begins with his parents’ divorce and his subsequent academic difficulties in primary school. In this video version he adds a few other condemnations of his father beyond the fact that his mother discovered him practicing bigamy. Carson here claims that his father keeping another wife and kids on the side was only “the straw which broke the camel’s back” after his father’s more traditional ghetto sins of drinking, drugs and financial mismanagement. Some straw! Makes one wonder how much the facts of this story vary depending on the interests and political proclivities of his audience.
In any case, as he consistently tells it, his first major turn-around in life came from his mother’s God-given wisdom to keep he and his brother away from television and require them to start reading and reporting to her on library books. In the middle of that success story he hits on many of the standard Bush II era GOP talking points: believing that those who work hard and live smart always succeed, insisting that welfare is an evil and disempowering force in people’s lives, complaining about the damage that malpractice litigation and the insurance industry were doing to the medical profession, and suggesting that people other than lawyers need to be more actively involved in the legislative branch of government. Then, building from his overall narrative of struggling with anger issues and egotism as a high school student, (at approximately 54 minutes into the video) he comes to the famous tale of attempting to stab another teenager to death with a camping knife. From there he tells of locking himself in the bathroom to work the situation out with God, reading heavily in the book of Proverbs, and gaining mastery over his temper from that point on.
There are plenty of historical doubts about this one: Carson has recently claimed that his would-be victim is still alive, a member of his family, and in somewhat regular contact with him to this day. That would narrow it down to his brother, one of his Bostonian cousins on his mother’s side… or, as some have suggested, a figment of his imagination. At the end of the day though, this doesn’t seem to be all that critical an issue. Another African-American hero coming out of the ghetto and succeeding in life through his unique skills is Professor Cornel West. Dr. West speaks of being intellectually saved by being sent to school in “the vanilla side of town”, but spiritually being saved by receiving the love of God by way of his family and those at Shiloh Baptist Church. With less specifics given in the matter, West speaks of having been a gangster before meeting Jesus, and now being “a redeemed sinner with gangster proclivities.” In each case, if the hero in question wants to think of himself as a formerly murderous would-be gangster, as long as there are no victims of this gangster past still in need of compensation and closure, do the details really make any difference?
In Dr. Carson’s case the problem is not so much what he did or didn’t do in the years just after he hit puberty, but how he continues to moralize against those who are still stuck in the poverty he was able to escape from –– something Dr. West refers to as being “niggerized”.
The same sort of consideration would apply to Carson’s claims of having been offered a “scholarship” to West Point. Since no students at West Point pay fees or tuition of any sort, it would be fair to say that every student in the history of that institution has been there on a “full scholarship” in some sense of the word. As the student leader of the army ROTC at his high school, with high grades to boot (facts that investigators have not disputed), during the time when the army was trying to lure in as many new promising young leaders as possible to replace those lost in Viet Nam, it would be rather surprising if his professional army supervisors did not try to convince him to stay in the service, promising him the moon and the stars in terms of education in the process. The fact that he never applied, and therefore no offers on paper ever would have been sent to him, are rather beside the point. The fact that his way of describing the episode sounds rather clumsy at best to anyone who knows how America’s institutions of tertiary military education work is also beside the point; it can easily be written off as a ghost writer’s misunderstanding in his attempt to build a legend about the subject. The major question is what Carson was trying to prove in even raising the subject. Perhaps that in spite of his lack of actual adult military experience he was interested in and committed to the culture of the military industrial complex, in case any conservatives might otherwise have doubts about the matter. There seems to be little doubt regarding the truth of that underlying fact of his value orientation here at least. The rest is trivial details.
Was it true that Carson was the only one who fell for a practical joke of being told to sit an especially difficult “make-up exam” for a basic psychology class, with no chance to study? Quite probably. What does such an anecdote say about him –– both that he fell for the joke and that he mixed up so many of the details in retelling the matter afterwards? Perhaps that he was supremely self-confident already then, and that his exaggerated self-confidence is thus more than just “surgeon syndrome” –– the effect of his career on his personality. It also shows a lack of interest in principles of fairness for those who are struggling. After all, if people like his classmates would have been just as honest and hard-working as him…
But it is the last two questions that raise the most serious questions regarding Dr. Carson’s honesty and potential political leadership capacity. Regarding his theory on the pyramids, this shows either a complete lack of respect for scientific expertise –– of the academic, peer-reviewed sort –– in an area of scholarship somewhat distant from his own. It is rather disturbing for a “man of science” to have so little awareness of and respect for other scientific disciplines. For him to base his conclusions on all scientific claims outside of the field of medicine on their compatibility with a literal interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and pre-modern Christian traditional understandings of such things, does not speak very highly of his ability to assess new and process new information. If he, as president, would treat the perspectives of experts in economics, constitutional law, military intelligence, natural resource management and/or domestic infrastructure management with the same aloof disregard with which he relates to experts in Egyptology, the resulting catastrophes could be too horrible to contemplate! On the other hand, if Richard Dawkins is correct, and Dr. Carson really doesn’t believe all the scientifically absurd things he says –– he only says them because he knows that is what his less educated Christian fundamentalist followers want to hear –– that might make the case even worse.
And that brings us back around to the matter of Mannatech. In all fairness, Dr. Carson’s speech linked here was given before this company’s scandals properly came to light, and we don’t have any evidence of how he might have changed his tune in this decade after it had been legally and scientifically established that those who were paying his speaking fees there were hucksters of the least respectable sort. But we do know that in spite of this new information he continued to accept payment to speak at their sales meetings in recent years, and that he really couldn’t claim to have done so out of sheer ignorance regarding their operations. Nor, having so thoroughly endorsed their corporate philosophy in this video, and having continued to take their money, could he credibly claim that his face on their web page was some sort of unauthorized use of his image that he hadn’t had time to look into yet.
This points to what is perhaps the corest of Carson’s core values: hating the experience of poverty and doing everything in his power to insure that he never has to experience anything like it ever again. Part of that is keeping actual poor people at a distance and moralizing against their “lifestyle choices” which keep them poor. Part of it is continuously doing high paid publishing and speaking gigs to further feather his retirement nests, even when such gigs might call his intellectual and professional credibility into question. Yes he has generously donated money to try to encourage academic performance in America’s disadvantaged middle schools, by making sure that the best performing students get a prize with his name attached. Yes, he has spoken eloquently about Christian values pointing to some things more important than money. But all the while he has remained focused on being one of the rich who keeps getting richer, while having no qualms about letting the poor get poorer and explicitly blaming those in poverty for their own problems. He continuously faces the challenge of synchronizing this compulsion to “build bigger barns” with the message of Jesus, but fortunately (or unfortunately) for him there are plenty of “prosperity gospel” preachers out there to help him square that circle. The sacrifice they are most likely to ask for in return is in terms of surrendering his intellectual integrity to support their simple answers to complex problems –– things like curing cancer with sugar pills.
Running for president seems to be something Dr. Carson has allowed others to talk him into. He is useful to the oligarchs in terms of supporting their message that the rich should be allowed to get richer and the poor should be allowed to get poorer, and if he can further cement his place as part of the new oligarchy through this gesture, earning a few extra millions in the process, what’s to stop him? None of his major backers really expected anything more than that out of his campaign. They’ve really already got their money’s worth out of him, but if they can keep milking his message for another six months or so, so much the better for them. And if against all expectations he actually does become president (American voters have made crazier decisions) given how little he actually knows about the job, the seasoned oligarchs don’t figure that he’d be too hard to control.
It is those factors, rather than the details of Carson’s teenage rage, that people really need to be paying attention to. Put another way, he admits in the Mannatech video to having an ongoing tendency to take what others see as crazy risks. Given this risk-taking tendency of his, his lack of awareness of how so many non-medical things work, his pathological fear of poverty and his moral condemnation of the poor, how willing should we be to risk him becoming commander-in-chief of the world’s biggest military, and the chief executive of the world’s biggest economy? From there, what kinds of potential tragedies are we talking about if Americans vote to let “Jesus take the wheel” in this sort of way? I rather hope we don’t have to find out.