March 14, 2017: In Defense of Ben

I consider myself a liberal about some things and a moderate about others, but although I’ve been conservative in my time I doubt that anybody would mistake me for one now.Still, I like to think that I can appreciate any proposition across the spectrum so long as it’s supported by logic, reason, and historical examples. Thus I have to admit to being in a quandary about Dr. Ben Carson right now. He’s a talented neurosurgeon, but about as qualified to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development as Grizzly Bear Betsy DeVos is equipped to run the Department of Education. That, in itself, is no slur on the man personally. Just because you’re good at one or two things doesn’t mean you can be master of all trades. Sir Isaac Newton’s work revolutionized the study of physics, but he wrote theological works so off-the-wall that neither Churchmen nor freethinkers could approve of them. Similarly Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest philosophical writers this continent has ever produced, penned the horrible sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and harbored ideas about Bible prophecy that were as bat-dropping crazy as anything you hear from television evangelists right now. Edwards hypothesized that the world would end in 1866, which probably seemed like good sense during the worst days of the Civil War.

Oh, well. Back to the present. Ben Carson has indeed mouthed some egregious nonsense, but I can’t help thinking that his latest controversial comment—allegedly equating slaves brought to America in chains during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to voluntary immigrants—has been completely misconstrued by those with axes to grind and looking for any chance to find fault with him. True, Carson’s choice of words was extremely poor. But I’ve listened to his speech and read the transcript of it too, and to me the passage in question comes off as a bitterly ironic remark that he spoke tongue-in-cheek, nothing more. I’d tell him he should have chosen his words more carefully, and move on. But no: now he’s being vilified by both black and liberal white pundits not only as a poor speaker, but as some sort of traitor to his own people. I think this is such a personal issue with me because I’ve had my own words twisted so many, many times in my growing-up years, with the absolute worst possible construct applied to them. Few things seem to me to be more unfair, even for politicians.

Now, having your words played with isn’t always unpleasant, or even wrong. One of my more vivid youthful memories is of hoeing the garden with Dad, whom I’d outdistanced in a race to the ends of our respective rows, and commenting, “I guess this shows that I’m a good hoer.” No one who knew my father would expect him to ignore a thoughtless remark like that—and he didn’t. I turned beet-red at his reply, but I simply had to take his laughter in stride: open mouth, insert foot.

Not so with another relative, whose identity I won’t divulge. With a bone-deep victim mentality I didn’t even realize existed until years later, this individual could and did twist the most innocent, innocuous remarks into personal attacks worthy of furious responses that lasted anywhere from hours to weeks—a tendency that the relative seldom if ever revealed to anyone outside the family. The mood simply and abruptly changed with the arrival of visitors and then returned like a summer thunderhead when they left, often with criticisms of the visitors added to the original complaint. Talk about putting the “func” in “dysfunctional!” But that’s the reason I bristle when I hear somebody’s words being twisted purposefully and disproportionately, even if I completely disagree with the individual being quoted. I’ve been there, had that done, and still quill up like a porcupine and back into a corner if I sense it’s happening to me again.

But I’m a survivor, not a victim, and so I try to focus on the more lighthearted things I’ve seen, like the old preacher so aggrieved about women keeping wigs at home in their bureau drawers that he proclaimed during a sermon that “women these days got more hair in their drawers than they do on their heads!” (True story.) If you thought about what he said you could discern what he meant, but that didn’t stop the entire congregation that Sunday from completely breaking up laughing. All too seldom, though, is a misconstruction funny. My advice: ease up on Carson and save your outrage for the genuine dangers we have going right now.

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