Monday, November 9, 2015

Of West Point, Kenya, and pyramid wax, of sniper fire and queens

Ben Carson has been having a rough couple of weeks in the media, though one would never know it, based on the current polling data (which of course is a lagging indicator, so it might very well change). And that's mostly due to the diligent efforts of impartial journalists (hopefully, the sarcasm here is coming through load and clear) combing through the details of Carson's autobiography—Gifted Hands, published in 1992—the religion-based attacks on Carson by Donald Trump, and the rather ridiculous comments of Carson himself on the nature of the Egyptian pyramids.

To put this another way, Carson is taking heat from the media for his past because the media always likes a good scandal, he's taking heat from Trump because that's what happens in a political contests, and he's taking heat for saying stupid things. With regard to the last, Carson has no one to blame but himself. This is what he said about the pyramids:
My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. Now all the archaeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it. And I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time to store that much grain.
Granted, that was from a speech in 1998, but Carson has been given the opportunity to correct himself and has so far refused to do so, has instead only confirmed that the above is still what he believes. The idea itself is not a new one, as it has appeared in literature extending back to the 6th century. From Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks:
The Nile flows through Egypt, as you very well know, and waters it by its flood, from which the inhabitants of Egypt are named Nilicolæ. And many travelers say its shores are filled at the present time with holy monasteries. And on its bank is situated, not the Babylonia of which we spoke above, but the city of Babylonia in which Joseph built wonderful granaries of squared stone and rubble. They are wide at the base and narrow at the top in order that the wheat might be cast into them through a tiny opening, and these granaries are to be seen at the present day.
Now, Gregory is obviously repeating descriptions he had heard form people who traveled to the region (there's nothing to suggest Gregory had himself ever ventured to the Middle East). And given the prominence of the Bible as a source for the world's history in that period for Christendom, the idea that the pyramids might have been granaries makes a great deal of sense, given that observers probably did little more than look and that the the bases of the Giza pyramids were fully concealed by sand (and thus, their full size was not yet known).

Observers had no way of knowing that the pyramids were not somewhat hollow, as well. Of course, we know a great deal more about the pyramids now and it is no longer the 6th century. So if Gregory might be forgiven for his assumptions, an educated person today need not be, especially when such a person is given the facts and an opportunity to correct himself or herself.

That said, a mistaken belief about the origin of the pyramids is hardly life or death stuff, is hardly the keystone issue when it comes to race for the presidency, is it? And yet, Carson has himself linked his pyramid theory to his religion, defended it as being consistent with the Bible, and therefore "not silly at all." But it is silly, based on what we now know, based on archaeological and historical scholarship. And pointing this out does not, in any way, constitute an attack on Carson's religion or on any other religion.

Carson's back is no doubt up here because of other attacks directed towards him, not the least of which is his claim of being offered a scholarship or appointment to West Point at the end of his high school career, a tale he told in his autobiography but that has recently been questioned, thanks to a hit piece at Politico on the matter (the link is to the original piece, now heavily edited, as detailed by Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist).

In this case, Carson's original claims in his autobiography obviously were intended to show how successful he had been in high school and how many opportunities were available to him going forward. I think it unlikely that when Carson wrote this book, he anticipated that he would be running for President some twenty-five years later. And as Hemingway notes—courtesy of Dave Wiegel—the whole "it's not actually a scholarship" angle in this attack is utter nonsense. If West Point is allowed to refer to the appointment as a "full scholarship," than so is Carson.

Regardless, it's an empty controversy in my opinion, akin to that of Obama's place of birth, insofar as when Barack Obama first published Dreams from My Father, his publishing agent played up the "fact" that Obama was born in Kenya, something that Obama was most likely aware of in full and simply went along with because he was told it made good copy. And of course, there were the amalgamations of characters in the same book and other manipulations of the facts for purposes of the narrative, all of which is completely fair in my opinion (the Kenya stuff not so much, but that's how the game is often played, unfortunately).

The larger point here is that the scrutiny Carson's autobiography is receiving is ridiculous, as was some of the scrutiny Obama's received. Though to be fair, Obama wrote and released his book as a first step in launching his political career. Not so for Carson's book. And in that regard, a little extra scrutiny on Obama was probably warranted with regard to the story in his book (scrutiny that never really occurred, as the Breitbart piece notes).

Which brings us to Hillary Clinton's Living History and her movement from sniper fire in the hills (an embellishment, at best) in the book to the obviously manufactured tale of dodging sniper fire in Bosnia later on, of her supposed lack of participation in "Travelgate" (the firing of the White House Travel Office staff), and of probably many other incidents that are being presented with a bit of a slant. Truth be told, I don't think anyone has ever actually done a full analysis of Living History, of potential lies and embellishments therein. Possibly, that's because almost no one has actually read the tome, cover to cover, as reading it is about as entertaining as watching mud dry. But I digress.

What we are seeing now from the media, with regard to Carson and his now-more-than-twenty-year-old autobiography, is sharply in opposition to what we saw from the media when Barack Obama entered the national fray in 2007. Carson's stories are being questioned and investigated and questioned again across the board. True enough, the stories are largely self-promoting ones and some most likely have been embellished, but that's the way of autobiographies (and "authorized" biographies, for that matter).

In contrast, Obama's tales were mostly taken at face value by the media. Indeed, they were used by the media freely to accomplish exactly what Obama wanted: a media construct of him that would increase his likability among the public in general. As is so often the case, many members of the media proved themselves to be the quintessential useful idiots in this regard. And Clinton's self-serving tales, well they were just accepted automatically, what with her being American royalty and all. Living History was published in 2003 by a sitting U.S. Senator with obvious Presidential aspirations, who would shortly thereafter become Secretary of State. Yet, almost nothing was done with regard to fact-checking the tome. The story in the book of how she came into Bosnia with reports of sniper fire in the hills nearby was never questioned, not until many years later when it was referenced because of her obvious lies about dodging sniper fire on the tarmac in Bosnia. To point to all of this and say "double standard" would be the understatement of the the decade.

To sum up then, Ben Carson is getting put through the wringer unfairly, with regard to his claims in his autobiography. So far, no one has yet uncovered any sort of "smoking gun," any sort of horrible lie being told by Carson. At best, there are some possible embellishments, but even these are not of the sort that cover up questionable acts or fabricate a reality out of whole cloth. They are just a part of the typical pattern when it comes to autobiographies, nothing more.

That said, Carson's pyramid theories are utter nonsense. And why he is unwilling to accept this and admit his errors in this regard is beyond me. Because his stubbornness makes him look foolish as best, stupid at worst. And I'm pretty sure foolishness and stupidity are not qualities that people want to see in a presidential candidate, much less in an actual President.

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