Sunday, November 8, 2015

Ben Carson Tells How He Went From a Failure to an A-Student, Omits a Few Key Details (ca. 1996-97)

This blog's been dormant for close to 20 months now, but I had something I thought was worth sharing, so here we are again. Whether or not I continue on with this blog remains to be seen.

Note: The featured video clip aired on The 700 Club—without my annotated text, of course—on February 12, 1997. However, I get the distinct impression that this was not the first time The 700 Club aired this segment, which is why I source it as “circa 1996-97” in the headline, and in the video as “in or around 1996.” (It may have been rebroadcast to coincide with Black History Month.)

For the past couple of weeks, press coverage of the Republican presidential primaries have called into question several of Ben Carson's Selective Memory Stories™ where the details keep changing or conveniently can't be confirmed—the friend/relative he tried to stab in the belt buckle, the Popeye's Chicken gunman he redirected towards the cashier, the West Point “scholarship” he was supposedly offered, and the possible mischaracterization of a hoax that led him to re-take a final exam at Yale seemingly altered to—surprise!—make him look good. [Details of the Yale hoax story as it actually happened were still coming to light at the time this blog post was published.]

In the wake of these Selective Memory Stories™, I thought I'd post this video The 700 Club aired in the mid-1990s where Dr. Carson relates his story of how he went from the worst student in his class to the top student, as he told it in his autobiography, Gifted Hands. Well, sort of how he told it in Gifted Hands. In this re-telling for 700 Club viewers, certain salient details are omitted. Like how an eye examination provided by his public school in fifth grade led to the discovery that severe myopia was at the root of his poor academic performance, and how the road to his improvement began with eyeglasses—also supplied for free by his public school:

Gifted Hands

Or how the year prior to that, Carson had been enrolled in a private religious school that turned out to be inferior to the public school system:

Gifted Hands

If Carson had stayed enrolled in that private church school, would he have gotten an eye exam and had his glasses provided for, and ultimately found the same path to academic success and medical achievement that he did after re-enrolling in public school? We may never know. But I guess it doesn't matter since, as told to and dramatized by The 700 Club, all this business about public schools and free eyeglasses is glossed over—right down to an anachronistically bespectacled young Ben Carson completely washing out on his math test—in favor of the preferred narrative: the roots of Carson's success are attributable entirely to his mother's love and guidance, inspired by divine wisdom. (That wisdom? Turn off the television and make your sons do schoolwork.)

I want to be clear about something: unlike the recent news developments and media scrutiny cited at the beginning of this post, I am not poking holes in Ben Carson's Gifted Hands story. In fact, I'm relying on that published autobiography. What I am demonstrating is Carson's penchant for tailoring his personal story to suit his audience and/or that preferred narrative. Take the story about his nearly stabbing a friend (or relative), which he's retold for years as the moment he recognized the depths of his sins and when he turned his life over to Jesus. But as the Daily Beast documents, the details of this life-altering story seem to change over the course of several published accounts, aimed at different readerships in different contexts.

Or as Kevin Drum wrote for Mother Jones on Saturday after the Yale psychology-course exam hoax story first broke:
“He needs to exaggerate how violent he was when he was young. And after he finds God, he needs to exaggerate how great everything turned out. This culminates in the absurd story about his psychology class. No one who's not an evangelical Christian would believe it for a second. But evangelicals hear testimonies like this all the time. They expect testimonies like this, and the more improbable the better. So Carson gives them one. It's clumsy because he's not very good at inventing this kind of thing, but that doesn't matter much.”
And the target audience for our featured video are those same evangelical Christians—in this case, the viewership of a politically conservative Christian TV show that lives to promulgate stories of personal redemption inspired by divine intercedence—and without support from the state. Carson even goes so far in the video as to insinuate that his mother never went on welfare (“She worked very hard—two, three jobs at a time—in an attempt to stay off of the public assistance rolls”), even though Gifted Hands specifies that she did:

Gifted Hands

(As far as I can tell, Dr. Carson hasn't elaborated much on his family's dependence on public assistance beyond this account— has a good rundown on this angle—but when he says “by the time I went into ninth grade, Mother had made such strides that she received nothing except food stamps,” it's fair to infer from that wording that prior to that time, Carson's mother was receiving more than just food stamps. Most fact-checking sites, like Snopes and Politifact, overlook this implication.)

Some choose to ask: Does any of this matter? Dr. Carson has already begun bitching to the media that this scrutiny of his biographical accounts is a “distraction” from the issues. But Carson's entire candidacy is built around his character and his personal story. As he put it in a recent fundraising email:
“I believe that traditional ‘political experience’ is much less important than faith, honesty, courage, and an unshakable belief in the principles that made America the greatest nation in the world.”
If character is more important than political experience, then it's completely fair for the media to investigate aspects of his foundational life story that he has used to define and illustrate his character. When Carson complains that that scrutiny “distracts from the issues,” it's clear he wants to have it both ways: Voters—judge me by my character, my faith, my up-from-poverty-through-sheer-will story! Media—stop looking into my accounts of my life, and focus on the issues voters care about!

Well, Dr. Carson, you can't have it both ways. And shading the truth to fit your personal story for a tailored moral message isn't honesty.


As I explained in my introductory post way back when, this blog was originally built to showcase outrageous, insightful, and/or damaging 700 Club video clips that I collected in the mid-1990s for a project I eventually aborted. When I mothballed the blog in March 2014, I had only reviewed about a third of my videotapes from that time. Dr. Carson's been a frequent guest on The 700 Club over the years, and it's entirely possible that I have other appearances of his on my tapes. So I just might revisit those tapes in the coming months to see if I have any other Ben Carson clips (or anything else of current relevance) worth sharing.

Those of you interested in any possible updates can follow this blog's Twitter account, @robertsonsvault, or my personal Twitter account, @astutepanther.