Comment SEPTEMBER 14, 2015 ISSUE
Paging Dr. Carson
BY AMY DAVIDSON
Ben Carson had wanted to be a doctor since he was a child in Detroit in the early nineteen-sixties, but he had the first inkling of what kind of doctor he might be when, as an undergraduate at Yale, he was introduced to Foosball. He played the game "with speed and ease," he writes in his memoir, "Gifted Hands." He had "an unusual ability—a divine gift, I believe—of extraordinary eye and hand coordination." Even after he graduated and went on to medical school at the University of Michigan, a Yale student who made a great Foosball play was said to have scored a "Carson shot." In the movie version of "Gifted Hands," broadcast on TNT, in 2009, Cuba Gooding, Jr., as Carson, works the levers with a Jedi-like air—reprised in a later scene in which, during a twenty-two-hour procedure, Dr. Carson separates twin infants conjoined at the head. They were the first ever to survive such surgery.
Carson mentioned that operation in the first Republican Presidential debate, last month. "I'm the only one to separate Siamese twins," he said. "The only one to take out half of a brain, although you would think, if you go to Washington, that someone had beat me to it." It was a Carson shot. Last week, a Monmouth University poll had him in second place among Republicans, with eighteen per cent, behind Donald Trump's thirty per cent—meaning that the choice of nearly half the respondents was someone who has never held political office.
There have been attempts to explain Carson's rise as being simply of a piece with this disjointed election season. Sunny and unflappable, he has been seen as the refined Trump (Rich Lowry, of National Review, called him the "superior outsider"), or the Trump that not even Trump can hate (the Donald says that he's "a wonderful guy"). The standard narrative is that Carson first appeared on the political scene in 2013, when, at the National Prayer Breakfast, he told his life story in a speech that, as the Fox News world heard it, was a rebuke to the President, who was sitting on the dais. In fact, Carson has been out telling that story for twenty-five years.
His mother, Sonya, married his father when she was thirteen and he was twenty-eight. He turned out to be a bigamist and, once he was gone, Sonya supported Ben and his older brother by cleaning houses. When the boys struggled in school, she made them turn off the TV, read two library books a week, and write reports on them. She was functionally illiterate, but, as Carson said at the Prayer Breakfast, "we didn't know that—she put check marks and highlights and stuff." He went from the bottom of the class to near the top. His mother's motto, which informs Carson's conservatism, was: "If you don't succeed, you have only yourself to blame." But Carson grew up a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, and "Gifted Hands," like his campaign, is also about grace. When he was in ninth grade, after a friend teased him, he pulled out a knife and thrust it at the friend's stomach. The boy could have died; Carson could have gone to jail. Instead, the blade hit his friend's belt buckle and broke. Carson ran home, locked himself in the bathroom with the Book of Proverbs, and prayed to God to take away his temper. He says that he walked out a different person.
In 1977, when Carson began his residency, at Johns Hopkins, he was sometimes assumed to be an orderly, but he regarded that as "a natural mistake"—what other black men did people see in hospitals? "I got a real kick out of watching them try to contain their expression of surprise," he writes. He became an outstanding and innovative surgeon and, in 1984, at the age of thirty-three, the youngest head of a pediatric-neurosurgery department in the country. His joke about taking out half a brain was a reference to his pioneering work on hemispherectomies; the breakthrough case involved a four-year-old girl who had been racked by a hundred seizures a day.
"Gifted Hands" was published by the Christian imprint Zondervan in 1990, after the surgery on the twins, and it has sold more than a million and a half copies. It is often assigned in schools, and a condensed version is being sold to fund Carson's campaign. (According to the Times, as of July he had raised eighty per cent of his money from small donors, a higher proportion than any candidate except Bernie Sanders.) Carson has since written more books, started an educational nonprofit with his wife, Candy (they met at Yale, and have three sons), and gone on speaking tours. There is a parallel between his political emergence and that of Ronald Reagan, whose Prayer Breakfast moment was a televised speech in support of Barry Goldwater in 1964. The speech, titled "A Time for Choosing," had been honed by Reagan during the decade he spent as a spokesman for General Electric, making appearances at company events in towns across the country.
Then, as now, the Republican Party was shifting in ways that were only peripherally visible to its ostensible leaders. Carson's venues have been schools, churches, and gatherings of conservative activists, many of whom deeply distrust both their government and the larger institutions of their party. Their discontent, joined with what Carson sees as the lessons of his mother's rejection of dependency, seems to have been a crucible for his own views. Eventually, he moved from offering himself as a role model to being a prescriber of policy.
Carson speaks to an unnerved America in terms that are themselves unnerving. He describes how our "pinnacle nation" is about to be driven down by moral decay. In his most recent book, "One America," he writes that agents working against this country's greatness include the political-correctness police, who use "faux hypersensitivity" to take power away from the majority of Americans. He regularly traces that strategy to Saul Alinsky, the mid-century community organizer whose name is a byword for conservative suspicions about Barack Obama. Political correctness, Carson says, is used to keep conservatives from invoking slavery or Nazism, both of which he cites freely. ("Obamacare is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery"; "We live in a Gestapo age.") He wonders if Obama will cause the elections to be cancelled: "He's sitting there saying, 'These Americans are so stupid I can tell them anything.' " Trump, the businessman, tells Americans how the financial system is rigged against them. Carson, the brain surgeon, tells them how they are being denied knowledge. It doesn't seem to matter that he is a man of science who does not believe in evolution and has called climate change "irrelevant": he is an ideologue with the trappings of a technocrat.
Insofar as Carson has a political platform, it involves a low flat tax, modelled on the Biblical tithe; an end to Obamacare and to welfare for able-bodied adults; and the removal of restraints on our military in the Middle East. In lieu of specifics, Carson tends to say that as a surgeon he has experience "doing complex things" and making snap life-or-death decisions. His success in the polls may be best understood as desperation on the part of voters who have rejected political experience as a test of competence. But it should take more than a Carson shot to navigate this Presidential campaign, which has been played, so far, with all the reckless abandon of a Foosball game, and with little of the joy. ♦
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