Does Ben Carson’s strangeness matter?

Hi, Dr. Nick Ben!
Hi, Dr. Nick Ben!
I make a lot of jokes about Ben Carson and how he’s a few cards short of a full deck. But look, the guy was a freaking neurosurgeon, so he must know something about something, right? Here’s what I think: the fact that people are justifiably questioning Ben Carson’s intelligence despite the fact that he’s literally a brain surgeon says something pretty important about Ben Carson, which is that, smart or not, he’s a profoundly strange dude who is running an almost surreal campaign for president.

Well, I should clarify that. It’s still not entirely clear that he is running for president, so much as he’s using the presidential campaign to get his book sales up. But holy shit is his campaign weird. Consider that there’s a scandal brewing over whether or not a presidential candidate who’s doing quite well in the polls tried to kill a guy when he was younger, and the candidate is the one insisting that he did. I’m sorry, but that’s pretty goddamn weird. There’s also a growing list of things about which he clearly doesn’t know anything, a list that may eventually be shortened to “everything apart from (we hope) brain surgery”:

Even his efforts to pretend to know something about these things, or to defend his ignorance, are pretty dumb and/or out there. Consider what he had to say about “stand your ground”:

“I see positives and negatives,” he said. “We should be talking about how we preserve our Second Amendment rights but at the same time prevent unnecessary violence. That’s the right framework.”

When ThinkProgress pressed him to clarify, Carson said, after pausing to think, “Obviously I want people to stand their ground, but I don’t want to create vigilantism either. I probably come down somewhere in the middle on how to do it.”

If that sounds familiar, maybe you’re remembering the first time you heard it:

Or consider what he apparently thinks the scientific consensus is regarding the pyramids:

“And various of scientists have said, ‘Well, you know there were alien beings that came down and they have special knowledge and that’s how–‘ you know, it doesn’t require an alien being when God is with you.”

Unless “various of scientists” means “practically none,” I’m not sure what the hell he’s talking about.

Or consider his defense of his “the Founding Fathers had no political experience” (Sadly, No!) Facebook rant:

A spokesman for the Carson campaign, after being contacted about the error, said Mr. Carson had changed his post to say that the signers had no “federal” elected office experience.

Mr. Carp, the Brooklyn College professor, said Mr. Carson is correct that there has been a long tradition in American politics of claiming that amateurism is a virtue in its own right. But, he said, signing the Declaration of Independence took genuine political skill and experience, because it required convincing their fellow colonists to go down a dangerous road.

“To claim those people were amateurs is simply a falsehood,” he said.

Mr. Carp added that changing the Facebook post to say the signers had no “federal” elected experience was “ridiculous,” because there was no federal government prior to that time.

How the hell can anybody have experience in a thing that doesn’t exist yet? Ask Ben Carson. And that whole argument was actually in defense of something good, the principle that you don’t need to have any political experience in this country in order to run for high office. But Carson’s argument was still dumb.

Depending on the poll, the day, and the barometric pressure, Carson is the Republican front-runner, so he and his weirdness do matter, but it’s still November 2015, and he’s still unlikely to win the GOP nomination, much less to be elected president a year from now, so in that sense he’s still kind of irrelevant.

I’ve also been seeing people argue that Carson’s own ignorance is irrelevant, which I actually think is a fair point, somewhat. If you’re on the right, even if Carson is the dumbest guy in politics, he can’t possibly do any more damage to the country than you’re convinced that Obama has done. If you’re on the left, it’s kind of the same thing; what difference does Ben Carson’s opinion about the pyramids make when the current president, who presumably doesn’t hold weird, fringey beliefs about Ancient Egypt, is nevertheless escalating the US into war in Syria and presides over a military that bombs hospitals? Carson’s own defense seems to be that he doesn’t need to know all this stuff because he’ll hire advisers who will be responsible for knowing things on his behalf. But that’s where I disagree. Carson is still going to be hiring those advisers, and to the extent that he’s incapable of grasping basic aspects of American governance or of discerning facts from cool stories, how far do you want to trust him to hire competently?

Carson’s candidacy also matters because it highlights the extent to which many core Republican voters have utterly lost their minds. Look, a little skepticism about what the “experts” are telling you about anything can be helpful, to the extent that it spurs you to go learn about these things for yourself. But the Republican Party in 2015 is organized, fundamentally, around the rejection of any expert views, and observable reality, that don’t comport very tightly with fringe right-wing orthodoxy. If you have no problem dismissing scientific consensus around climate change, or ignoring the actual reality that Saddam Hussein had no active WMD program at the time of the Iraq War, then of course it’s not going to bother you that Ben Carson thinks the pyramids were ancient grain silos. That’s where Carson really does matter: as a reflection of a major political party that’s come totally unhinged.

UPDATE: As I was writing this, news broke that Carson “fabricated” having applied and been awarded a full scholarship to West Point in 1969, which was apparently a big story in his autobiography, Gifted Hands. So he’s a liar on top of everything else (which, of course, we already knew). I’d say that this might actually hurt him among Republican voters, but at this point, who the hell knows?

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2 thoughts on “Does Ben Carson’s strangeness matter?

  1. Thrilled to have found your site!! I am comforted to find someone who is writing what I’m thinking and actually embraces fact, research, critical thinking and plain old ‘horse sense’. My favorite Carson tale to date is his selfless actions in saving his white high school classmates after the MLK assassination by locking them in the biology lab. Evidently, something went horribly wrong as no one can find any of them. 🙂 Thanks again!

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