Thursday, November 12, 2015

Truthiness and Fundamentalism

The emergence of Ben Carson, a surgeon, as a leading presidential candidate in the U.S. is alarming.  Some find his calm manner of speaking very appealing and refreshing, and they overlook some serious problems with many of his statements.

One involves what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness": feeling something is true even if it isn't, as when right-wing folk like to think President Obama is a Muslim born in Africa.  Carson doesn't go that far, but his biblical fundamentalism and his personal view of facts is either a sign of intellectual laziness or willful blindness.

Because he sees the Genesis story as literally true, Carson believes that Joseph, who was sold into slavery in ancient Egypt, built the pyramids to store grain. Even when presented with the facts of history and archaeology, he continues to insist on his fundamental belief, which amounts to an ignorance dismissal of science, seen, too, in the refusal of many on the political right to accept global warming as a humanly created reality.

A literal reading of the Bible, as St. Augustine showed in the 4th century, is only one means of interpreting Scripture or other literary texts.  Those in the mainstream of Christianity know that there is also the allegorical, the typological, and the anagogical levels, not to mention the historical context out of which these biblical stories emerged, unless we are to have a limited understanding of what we read.

To insist on a literary reading of the Bible is one's personal right; for a public figure like Carson to do so in the media, contradicting facts and history, is to denigrate other Christians as backward and simplistic.

And for Carson to publish books that have not been fact-checked (as when he wrote that he had received a full scholarship to West Point) is a poor reflection both on the world of publishing (careless editing) and on himself and his collaborators.  Again, truthiness prevails. His view is what matters, not reality.

As Charles Blow wrote in the NYTimes this week, Carson's candidacy for the highest office in the country and world leadership seems to be part of his business operation, a means of gaining publicity for some of his health supplements. It's good for his ego and his business. His campaign is run by his business manager.

I know several people who find Carson's pleasant, laid-back manner a welcome change from the usual high-charged political scene. They like him, even though he has no real policy positions, no apparent knowledge of economic or national security issues. To me, he comes across on TV as either over-medicated or seriously under-educated.

Santayana was right: Those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it.  If the Republican Party continues to allow know-nothings like Ben Carson and Donald Trump to campaign for the presidency, they should remind these men that facts matter; they cannot choose the science they believe in and at the same time try to represent the United States.

What must the world think of us, to see such candidates substitute private beliefs for public positions--and be applauded for doing so? 

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