Within the past year, I have thrice found myself in the untenable position of defending Ben Carson on Facebook. The first time, I was in a lengthy Facebook argument about how colleges should not be allowed to see an incoming student’s behavior records. I defended my position by citing Ben Carson as an example:
I still think I’m right. People do all kinds of crazy, irrational things when they’re young. A child’s behavior doesn’t necessarily predict whether that child, once an adult, will hit the moving target called “success.”
I thought that would be the last time I’d defend Ben Carson. On the one hand, respect for his skill as a neurosurgeon, his long career, and the efforts he’s made to save people’s lives. He has a lot of good karma. But when it comes to Ben Carson, I’m usually on offense. I’ve laughed at that homoerotic painting he has in which he and Jesus are sitting around in bathrobes. I have shaken my head at his assertion that the pyramids, in which archaeologists found and extensively documented the tombs of kings, were built by Joseph to store grain. Even while defending him, I called him a human coma.
This week, I once again found myself defending Doctor-turned-Secretary Ben Carson in a Facebook thread. Our bumbling hero, in his initial speech as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, equated slavery—in which people were kidnapped; stuffed into the compartment of a ship without adequate food, water, and sanitation; sold once they arrived in America; and forced to labor for their owners, and often to watch their children become slaves for those same people, for the rest of their lives—to someone deciding to leave their country to seek a better life in America.
This reaction from Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., Chair of the Department of African American studies at Princeton, says it all:
The same Facebook acquaintance in whose thread I’d defended Ben Carson ended up being the same person from whom I learned this news. My first reaction was, “What the fresh hell.” My second reaction was to—wait for it—defend Ben Carson:
Ben Carson should never be allowed to make an impromptu speech. A competent administration would never have allowed him to ad lib without a teleprompter. Unfortunately, Ben Carson doesn’t serve in a competent administration. I’m arguing here that he’s a terrible extemporaneous speaker and quite possibly crazy, not a conniving racist.
Two days later, someone responded to my comment:
Which led me to defend Ben Carson again: “With respect, Ben Carson is a nut, but he’s not Pol Pot.” And then, the cock crowed, for I had defended Ben Carson three times.
Here’s the Thing
These days, when there’s so much to be outraged about, I have to ration my dismay. My two outrage priorities are as follows:
- The piece of garbage put forth as a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. This affects me personally because I’m self-employed and thus need to purchase an individual policy.
- The fact that my president appears to have no grip on reality and we are all flying, out of control, in a plane with no pilot.
The fact that Ben Carson bumbled onto a stage, assumed a job for which he is not qualified, and spewed forth verbal diarrhea? That’s just an ordinary Monday in this shit show.
Plus, regarding this whole Ben Carson outrage machine, I want to say something about leftists in general: we are too eager to cannibalize our own. It’s making us ineffective in combating the budding autocracy.
Look at the recent election for DNC chair. Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who is about as progressive as they come and who has a track record of getting results, defeated Rep. Keith Ellison, who had been endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Rep. Ellison had some baggage from his youth (in my opinion forgivable, like Dr. Carson’s—what the hell! I did it again!). But it was baggage that he wasn’t articulate about defending, which made it questionable, in this political environment, whether or not he was the right person to bring wayward voters back to the Democratic Party.
Bernie Twitter erupted when Ellison lost, saying that they were leaving the Democratic Party for good, even though I’d wager Chairman Perez agrees with them 99 percent of the time. Since that day, I’ve been thinking about how this constant demand for ideological purity, outrage at every offense, and correcting the grammar of everyone who makes an argument contrary to what we believe could become the means by which we eviscerate our own cause.
At some point, the quest for ideological (and grammatical) purity becomes asymptotic. As the value of x approaches zero in this example, the value of y increases dramatically. The line moves microscopically rightward infinitesimally, but it never reaches zero.
At x = -3, it’s worth doing some work to move the line closer to zero. However, by the time you get to x = -1/4, the line is pretty close to zero, and it’s not going to get much closer without a lot of micromanagement. How much effort do we want to expend getting closer to zero when we’re already pretty darn close? How much good will, friendship, and national unity do we want to burn up to move millimeters closer to a target we’ll never hit?
Do You Want to Be Right, or Do You Want to Win People Over?
Plenty of non-racist, caring people, with varying levels of grammar and spelling mastery, agree with progressives about the ACA. They just don’t want to be drummed over the head, in their Facebook feeds, about the ongoing state of white privilege. Plenty of people have a “live and let live” view about transgender issues and bathroom usage. They just don’t want to be told they’re filled with hate for not wanting to learn eight new pronouns to accommodate people who need to specify in great detail where they see themselves on the gender identity spectrum.
In a perfect world, we’d all recognize where we fall on the privilege continuum and acknowledge that others face challenges we don’t. Heck, we’d all learn the pronouns in an ideal universe. But in 2017, do we want to be right, or do we want to win? Do we want to keep losing, forcing our neighbors who are members of minority groups to continue to fear for their safety? Or can we soften our communication strategy (not our values) and stop feasting on each other’s flesh, even if means we’re not perfectly pure?
Evil vs. Bumbling Fool
One of the best devices I’ve found for thinking about our current situation is Hanlon’s razor, paraphrased as such: never attribute actions to malice that can be just as easily explained by incompetence. Yes, Ben Carson said something unambiguously dumb, but I attribute it not to an evil intent to rewrite history, but to incoherence. Does it warrant top-flight outrage when we have much bigger concerns? Is our constant stream of outrage alienating voters who might otherwise vote to save the ACA, and perhaps, in a couple of years, democracy itself?
If we’re going into high gear at every perceived offense, we won’t be able to vote for a new president in four years. We’ll either be dead from a stress-related illness or too mentally ravaged to get to a polling station. Steve Bannon doesn’t have to forcefully deconstruct the administrative state. He’s watching it deconstruct itself, through the mental incompetence of the man he plotted to elect, the Heritage Foundation puppets he’s put on autopilot, and the infighting of two political parties powerless to seize control of this airship of state.
Expecting Ben Carson to say something sensible is like expecting a chicken to roller skate. Let him bumble into the oblivion of history. Leave Ben Carson alone.
I’ve now officially defended him five times in this blog post. FML. And if you find a video of a chicken roller skating on YouTube, or if you teach your chickens to roller skate just to prove that it can be done, leave your video in the comments.
Image courtesy of Marc Nozell from Flickr Creative Commons