Are you a tax-raising, soy latte-drinking, Prius-driving, New York Times-reading, Daily Show-watching, corporation-hating liberal?
How much difference does it make whether Ben Carson stretched the truth about his life story? Not much, I think. Before you dismiss me as a “right-wing nut job,” let me state for the record that I am a lifelong Democrat (whose biggest political dilemma at the moment is whether to vote for Hilary or Bernie). But as a professional philosopher (which I also am) I’m not convinced that what we have learned so far about Carson’s life story disqualifies him for the Presidency.
Let’s start with what is probably one of the more minor issues. In his autobiography, Gifted Hands, Carson described how a psychology professor at Yale told her class that their exams had been burned and that they would have to take a makeup. Supposedly, Carson was the only student in the 150-person class who did not walk out of the makeup exam. The professor then explained that the burned exams were a “hoax” designed “to see who was the most honest student in the class.” The professor gave Carson a $10 bill for his honesty, and Carson’s photo was taken by the Yale student paper.
As a college professor with 30 years of experience, I’d call “Shenanigans” on this story if Abe Lincolon told it to me while wired to a lie detector. So I am unsurprised that the Wall Street Journal found holes in Carson’s account: there is no story with a photo of Carson in the Yale student paper, and there is no other evidence to back up the account. However, there apparently is a kernel of truth in it. In Carson’s freshman year, a Yale humor magazine printed a bogus story about a makeup exam that was required for students in a certain psychology class because their original exams had been accidentally destroyed. Apparently, several students, believing the parody account to be real, showed up for the fake exam. The preceding is what we know for sure. Allow me to speculate a little. (I think it is plausible speculation, but that’s up to you.) Imagine a young Ben Carson in his first year at Yale. He’s very intelligent but also nervous in his new environment and anxious to do what’s right. He doesn’t get the in-joke about the exam and actually shows up for it. He’s very embarrassed when he realizes that he has fallen for a prank. Perhaps he consoles himself with the rationalization that at least he was more “honest” than those other students who didn’t show up for the exam. Over the decades, the humiliation fades from his memory, while the feeling of moral superiority becomes correspondingly prominent. It is this transformed narrative that he tells the ghost writer of his autobiography (who perhaps embellishes it slightly more). So if I’m right, Carson is not a liar, and he is not a con man. He believes his version of the story and will continue to believe it in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
But doesn’t it show a dangerous character flaw if Carson re-imagined the story of the psychology exam hoax? No, because Carson was only doing what all of us do. As Nietzsche said, “without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all” (p. 10). We all re-imagine our lives to make ourselves seem wiser, more courageous, more heroic. None of us can face the complete and unadulterated truth about our lives. In place of unadorned truths about ourselves, we all seek beliefs that are “life-promoting, life-preserving” (p. 11). For Carson, one of those beliefs was that the hoax psychology exam was not humiliating, but was rather a proof of his superior character. Al Gore (whom I voted for), was doing the same sort of self-invention when he claimed that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.” So was Ronald Reagan (whom I did not vote for), when he movingly described witnessing the liberation of the Nazi Death Camps at the end of World War II. (Reagan spent the war in Hollywood.)
Some of the other discrepancies regarding Gifted Hands suggest a similar effort to re-envision the past as a tool of personal empowerment. Carson describes himself as a troubled and violent youth who turned to the Bible and prayer to curb his temper. CNN attempted to corroborate this account by talking to Carson’s friends and classmates from his youth. They said they never knew him to be violent, and described him as a skinny, studious, loner with big glasses. In other words, young Ben Carson was a nerd. But how can memories of being a lonely bookworm give a person the strength required to escape a disadvantaged upbringing to become a doctor? So Carson converted his memories of what were probably nothing but temper tantrums and repressed anger into a narrative of triumph over his worst instincts.
The irony, of course, is that the actual details of Carson’s objective life story are genuinely inspiring. He really was raised by a (heroic) single mother on welfare, and through intelligence and hard work got into Yale and then went on to become a brilliant pediatric neurosurgeon. But in achieving these goals he needed a strong personality. He helped maintain his courage and his vitality through a personal narrative that was a re-imagination of his actual life. Perhaps he re-envisioned his past more than most of us, but then he overcame more and achieved more than most of us too. As Nietzsche warned us, we must learn to “recognize untruth as a condition of life" (p. 12).