Imposter?

One of the more intriguing stories to come out of the race among a truly ridiculous bunch of clowns for the Republican nomination for President arises in connection with Dr. Ben Carson who claims to have risen from dire poverty to become a world-famous surgeon. Are the stories he tells about himself true? Does it matter? A recent article by Matt Bal on-line addresses this issue. As the article tells us, regarding the close scrutiny that faces every political candidate these days:

Perhaps more to the point, though, such scrutiny fails to make a critical distinction when it comes to measuring integrity — namely, the distinction between the stories a politician might contrive to tell you, on one hand, and the stories he has always told himself on the other.  . .

It seems very likely that, at least until this week, Carson had always believed he tried to kill his friend and that he spurned West Point to become a doctor. So what. That doesn’t make him an impostor. It makes him someone who found meaning in some pivotal moments of his boyhood, even if memory sharpened the edges a bit.

And these kinds of moments, real or embellished, have value when we assess our candidates, if we’re not looking at everything through some superficial, true-false lens. Carson’s book, which I devoured in a day, probably doesn’t tell us much about his trustworthiness now. But if you’re reading with any genuine curiosity, it can tell you an awful lot about the way he sees his own journey.

It explains the sense of destiny that propels a man who has never held elective office — and doesn’t know very much about government — to suddenly get up one day and seek the presidency. . . .

The things politicians believe about themselves are often a lot more illuminating than the truth.

Perhaps more “illuminating” but not more important. The truth of the stories politicians tell about themselves matters a great deal. People who tell falsehoods about themselves are in some sense of that word “delusional.”  And Ben Carter’s stories are not only false but also delusional. Take, for example, his claim that he turned down a “full ride” to West Point to enter medicine. West Point doesn’t have “full rides.” They basically enlist the men and women for a free education which then requires that they serve in the Army for a full term to repay the favor. In that sense, all who matriculate at West Point, or the Naval or Air Force Academies, have a “full ride.” Carter seems to be telling us a story he made up about himself to impress us with his determination to become a  man of medicine but also one who might well have taken another turn and become a major-general. Kids do this sort of thing. Perhaps we all do to some extent — as the article above suggests — but we are not all running for president! The main question to ponder is are those stories we all tell “porkies,” as the Brits would say, or are they a sign that we really don’t know what is true anymore?

The fact that Carson makes up this stuff raises the question of the man’s inherent integrity. Are we sure we want a man to lead this country who not only “doesn’t know much about government” but also has a very loose hold on the truth? Do we know what we are getting? Or is it sufficient that he has no track record whatever in the political race and THEREFORE must be OK? Our determination to find someone to replace the clutter that now fills the hallowed halls of politics is understandable, but we must be very careful what comes out when we turn over every non-political rock in sight.

I do love the comment I quoted in a previous post: “Whether or not you like the man, Ben Carson has forced us to ask the really tough questions, such as ‘Have we overestimated the intelligence of our brain surgeons?'” But it’s not all about intelligence. Not in the least. Martin Luther King once dreamed that the day will come when we are not judged by the color of our skin but by “the content of our character.” As near as I can tell, when it comes to character, this particular politician is running on empty.

Calm Voice of Reason?

Ben Carson, one of the many candidates for the Republican nomination for president, speaks calmly and with supreme confidence. He appears to be every bit the medical doctor dispensing a prescription to a sick nation. In an atmosphere charged with the electricity generated by such clowns as Donald the Trumpet, Dr. Carson strikes many as the sensible alternative. His popularity is increasing daily. But when one gets past the calm exterior one worries about the substance of his positions. He claims, for example, that women are primarily responsible for rape and that Obamacare is a form of slavery. Moreover, in a personal letter addressing me by my first name, Ben asked my support for his candidacy and noted that he opposes such things as Planned Parenthood, and

“believes in peace through strength. We must defeat our enemies before they become strong enough to destroy us. We must seal our borders right away.”

Now there’s a bit of paranoia for you and the typical Republican appeal to fear.  He believes the country needs a “spiritual awakening,” which (apparently) only he can bring about. Indeed, he has a number of strange views that worry those who seek to know where the candidates stand on critical issues.

In an interview on CNN following the publication of a recent book, for example, he advanced the notion that if the Jews had been armed in Nazi Germany Hitler would never have been successful in carrying out the “final solution.” As Yahoo News reports, in part:

“I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,” Carson said. “I’m telling you there is a reason these dictatorial people take guns first.”

The comments drew a swift response from the Anti-Defamation League.

“Ben Carson has a right to his views on gun control, but the notion that Hitler’s gun-control policy contributed to the Holocaust is historically inaccurate,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, National Director of the organization. “The small number of personal firearms available to Germany’s Jews in 1938 could in no way have stopped the totalitarian power of the Nazi German state.”

What we are dealing with here is what logicians call “counterfactuals.” It’s impossible to prove or disprove counter-to-fact statements of the type “If the Jews had been armed the Holocaust very likely would not have happened” We can have fun with such statements, as many historians do in speculating about the past, but we must bear in mind that it is just that: speculation. Whether or not the Anti-Defamation League had responded as they did to Carson’s remarks, it is clear that those remarks are on the weakest possible historical grounds. They cannot be proved or disproved. The man seems to be enamored of unverifiable historical claims, however, since he said in the same interview that

 “passengers on Flight 93, which crashed on 9/11, helped avoid further tragedy by rushing the gunman.”

There is simply no way of knowing whether this claim is true or false. We might like to think it is true, but that is neither here nor there.

Thus, in the case of his claim about the Holocaust, the notion that IF the Jews had guns THEN Hitler would not have been so successful in carrying out his Final Solution is totally unfounded, mere speculation. One might be tempted to say it is irresponsible in the climate of the discussion (can we call it that?) of gun control in America in 2015. When the issue is raised, as it invariably is, in an atmosphere of heat and very little light, it is irresponsible to seek analogies with situations that never occurred —  suggesting what would have been the case if events had not turned out as they did in the last century.

Dr. Carson’s demeanor is reassuring and it is a pleasant change to hear at least one candidate speak calmly and assuredly about issues that confront us all. It is, in its way, a breath of fresh air. But when one reflects on what is said and not the manner in which it is said, one realizes that this man is not all that far from folks like Donald Trump at the far right of the political spectrum. Beneath the calm exterior one can sense an element of hysteria. We need to listen to what these people say and not be taken in by the fact that they seem self-assured and confident in the claims they make. Facts do not speak for themselves; they must be supported. Speculation is just that: it is not fact and it is ultimately groundless.