The Ben Carson Phenomenon


“You know, they put you in a little category, a little box—you have to think this way. How could you dare come off the plantation?”

Ben Carson

Perhaps insensate equivocation is the sort of unfortunate outcome one should expect from a collective that views itself more as a marketplace than a community, but rising conservative star Dr. Ben Carson offers the latest reminder of obvious differences:

Dr. Ben Carson and President George W. Bush, 2008.Dr. Ben Carson, a black Johns Hopkins University neurosurgeon and conservative favorite after challenging President Barack Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast, said Monday on “The Mark Levin Show” that white liberals are “racist.”

“And you’re attacked in many respects because of your race. You’re not supposed to think like this, and supposed to talk like this. A lot of white liberals just don’t like it, do they?” said Levin, host of the syndicated radio show.

“Well, they’re the most racist people there are. You know, they put you in a little category, a little box—you have to think this way. How could you dare come off the plantation?” responded Carson.

Let us start with the obvious: What does that even mean?

Okay, let us stop and review that point:

“Well, [white liberals are] the most racist people there are. You know, they put you in a little category, a little box—you have to think this way. How could you dare come off the plantation?”

Really, could somebody please fill me in?

Issues of racial and ethnic detail are inherently problematic according to the rhetorical to neurotic application. That is, rhetorically, it is easy enough to say that all persons are equal under the law. Behaviorally, though, humanity is prone to neuroses.

It is a Freudian theorem that each individual neurosis is not static but dynamic. It is a historical process with its own internal logic. Because of the basically unsatisfactory nature of the neurotic compromise, tension between the repressed and repressing factors persists and produces a constant series of new symptom-formations. And the series of symptom-formations is not a shapeless series of mere changes; it exhibits a regressive pattern, which Freud calls the slow return of the repressed, “It is a law of neurotic diseases that these obsessive acts serve the impulse more and more and come nearer and nearer the original and forbidden act.” The doctrine of the universal neurosis of mankind, if we take it seriously, therefore compels us to entertain the hypothesis that the pattern of history exhibits a dialectic not hitherto recognized by historians, the dialectic of neurosis.

—Norman O. Brown

One would hope that conservatives would have taken notes through Herman Cain’s presidential debacle. No, not the bit about sexual harassment; that is beside the point.

Consider his argument about race and politics, noted by the right-wing propaganda site World Net Daily:

“Obama is a master of rhetoric. He is a master of deceptive language. And any white candidate who runs against him will be up against the race card. I take the race card off the table.”

Perhaps this is what counts as subtle in conservative circles, but there is at least a little bit of logical clodhopping going on there: Take the race card off the table—vote for me because I’m black.

Carson appears to be trying a similar trick, though it’s hard to tell because the rhetoric is so nonsensical.

“Well, they’re the most racist people there are.” — Okay, the accusation is fairly straightforward, but what do you mean by this, specifically?

“You know, they put you in a little category, a little box—you have to think this way.” — I’m not even sure what question to ask, since I can only guess at which version of the Little Box Thought Police he’s invoking.

“How could you dare come off the plantation?” — I would say, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” except, well, again it is entirely unclear what he’s referring to. The plantation? Really? Okay, fine. Now: What does that even mean?

It almost seems as if conservatives, generally speaking, are actually experimenting with cultural relations. Except it seems an unbelievable starting point. Steve Benen reminds:

The Republican Party’s outreach to Latino voters was a tough sell before last week, but Rep. Don Young’s (R-Alaska) use of a racial slur made matters considerably worse. For GOP leaders, it’s imperative for the party to begin using smarter rhetoric when reaching out to minority communities, and Young’s bigoted language was a real setback.

What Republican need to realize, however, is that policy matters, too, and this is a problem that will be tougher for the GOP to fix.

It is not the proposition of experimentation on the right wing that is unsettling; rather, it is very nearly a shocking suggestion that they are still at this stage of their explorations.

BlackfaceBlackface? Really? This is unfair to Dr. Carson. But it does actually look kind of like the GOP is still stuck on the question of whether simply putting a minority face out front is sufficient.

Dr. Carson is who he is, believes what he believes, and will say what he says.

The only significance of his skin color must be answered by Republicans.

That Dr. Carson would try something so clumsy as to invoke the plantation in such a bizarrely nonsensical way only reminds just how pervasive such superficiality is to the conservative outlook. Remember how paradoxical his stardom is:

Look, if conservatives want to talk about the propriety of criticizing the religious right movement during an Easter sermon, fine, we can at least have the conversation. They might even have a point.

But let’s skip the indignation about “politicizing worship,” OK? Ben Carson used the ostensibly-non-political National Prayer Breakfast to condemn the Affordable Care Act, and the right immediately decided he should be president of the United States. The religious right movement has spent several decades trying to erase the line separating politics and faith, going so far as to create a specific annual event in which pastors are urged to endorse candidates for public office—from their pulpits—in deliberate violation of federal tax law.

But, in the end: Black? Doctor? Conservative? It does not actually matter. What matters are ideas and policies, and the ideas and policies Dr. Carson expresses are ugly, regardless of who speaks them. But what, exactly, is his merit in the public discussion? Fifteen minutes of fame? Is it fair to consider the proposition that the Republican Party’s acknowledged need to find inroads to minority communities might possibly appear at least slightly convenient?

To the other, Dr. Carson invoked the plantation.

But the more interesting question, I still think, is what the hell he meant by it.

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