Ben Carson

Ben Carson's Comparison of ISIS to the Founding Fathers: Bad Politics, But Worse Thinking

A free and prosperous society should have fewer, not more people prepared to die for it at any given time

|

I wonder if they asked him about the Pope? |||

Ben Carson, who has ranked as high as third place in preliminary 2016 GOP presidential polling, is taking heat for comments he made Thursday at the Republican National Committee winter meeting:

"A bunch of rag tag militiamen defeated the most powerful and professional military force on the planet. Why? Because they believed in what they were doing. They were willing to die for what they believed in," Carson told a luncheon audience of national committee members. "Fast forward to today. What do we have? You've got ISIS. They've got the wrong philosophy, but they're willing to die for it while we are busily giving away every belief and every value for the sake of political correctness. We have to change that."

Carson then preemptively criticized the press, whom he said would seize on the comments.

"Now I recognize that there's press here and some of the press will say, 'Carson said that ISIS is the same as the United States,'" he said. "They are just so ridiculous, so ridiculous."

Carson is right: He isn't saying that ISIS is the same as the United States, he is saying that the fundamentalists' ethos of being willing to die for their ideas is something Americans should aspire to. Which is equally daffy, yet distressingly common in political discourse.

There are enough Americans willing to die for their country to power the world's most powerful and deployed military, so supply is not the issue. The notion, echoing the perennial call for National Service, is that we need some of that willing-to-die sense of collective self-sacrifice here at home. And like all collectivism, this is antithetical to freedom.

Thomas Paine on a windy day. |||

The Founding rebels (pictured) were fighting an imperial government that oppressed them from afar, denying them basic human rights. Modern-day Americans may suffer from many ills, but not precisely those. (And would Carson really like to see the small minority of folks who do consider their own government untenably oppressive start routinely dying for these beliefs? I doubt it.)

Thomas Jefferson did not write "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of self-sacrifice." He did not sketch out a vision of the idealized free man as someone who continued the life-and-death struggle for the sheer bloody struggleness of it. No, the point of being free—even at a time in history where wars and skirmishes were near constant—was being free, to choose your own path as you see fit.

Having a higher percentage of the population willing to die for their country is a sign of sickness, not health; of being under siege, not living in peace. (Please note a distinction: I don't describe that individual choice as a sickness; I am grateful to those who freely volunteer for that sacrifice.) It's similar to 90 percent voter-turnout numbers: in the absence of coercion (as in Cuba or Australia), hyper-voting usually indicates a country that is either then, or has been very recently, brutally anti-democratic. Or to make a perhaps weirder analogy, I recall in Central Europe in the early 1990s a wave of western media stories lamenting that the newly freed Czechs and Poles were now buying Stephen King and Danielle Steele instead of heavily symbolic samizdat-style high literature, as if the preferred default setting for art in a healthy country should be all life-and-death politics, all the time.

As I pleaded to my University of California bosses back in the 1980s while unsuccessfully trying to opt out of the U.C.'s pre-employment requirement to sign an oath to defend the California Constitution, you can bet that if anyone tried to invade my homeland I'd be organizing some wolverines deep in the Tehachapis. The good news is that that's extremely unlikely; existential/survival crises are rare at this point in our blessed history, and the totality of the country is not made stronger or more resilient either by coerced loyalty/service, or by dialing up the passion to ISIS-like levels.

Ben Carson has many questionable policy beliefs that should be of concern to the party he aims to represent, and a history of bizarre hyperbole. But what I worry most of all in this case is that his we-need-to-die-for-our-beliefs sentiment is actually pretty mainstream in the Republican Party, helping lead it down more authoritarian paths. As RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told NBC,

"I think what he was saying basically was that you have to believe in what you stand for, and that we have to believe in the ideals of America, I didn't think anything odd of it," he said. "I think he was making a point, and I think his point was to stand up for the things that you believe in."

NEXT: Next Generation Will Live to Be 100

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The Founding rebels (pictured) were fighting an imperial government that oppressed them from afar, denying them basic human rights. Modern-day Americans may suffer from many ills, but not precisely those.

    I guess “afar” depends on how close you are to D.C.

    1. And how much you view taxation as an affront to basic human rights.

      1. Let me tell you brother. You can’t have one without the other.

        1. Yes, if the government didn’t take 40-50% of your income in taxes, our society would immediately descend into barbarism.

          1. Like NYC did as soon as the cops stopped giving out tickets.

            Like Detroit did when the city government imploded.

            Like all of the Gulf Coast did in the aftermath of Katrina.

            1. Funny how that worked, huh? I tend to be conservative, but lean a little towards liberty.

          2. Some would point out that 50% taxation is barbaric and only a nation of slaves would put up with it.

            I would point out we were doomed as a society when the first tax was accepted as necessary or moral.

        2. You & president Bush agree: Protection of rights is only achieved by violating (stealing property & money) rights.
          Or as Bush said: “We have to remove a lot of capitalism to save capitalism.”

          “Let me tell you…” you’re as deep as Bush.

  2. Two doctors, both involved in politics, both already pilloried by the Progressive majority of the Corporate Media.

    Has no one ever told the respected doctors Paul and Carson that sometimes silence is the best answer?

  3. I don’t have a problem with him saying if you truly believe in “liberty for all” you should be willing to put your life on the line for it. Thankfully thousands of men and women in this country have done so numerous times in the last couple hundred years in order to preserve this principle.

    Yes, I currently do not need to go and put my life on the line to maintain liberty for all in this country because we have volunteers who already do that for us. But it has not always been that way and may not always be that way in the future. To argue that it’s “silly” to think that we might have to risk our lives one day to protect liberty is to be ignorant of history.

    1. Do you really think that our volunteer mercenaries are defending liberty in the US? I don’t.

      Mercenary armies are always volunteer armies and they never defend or expand individual liberty; their job is to destroy liberty wherever they find it.

      1. Standing armies begin killing people & destroying property abroad but end up doing so to their own. Why? People are people. Once a soldier has killed a non-combatant in an act of aggression he has no moral ground to stand on. And the people at home finance it and support the aggression psychologically (foreigners are not “us” so their lives don’t count, right?)
        Someday this we come back on the citizens of the Empire and they deserve it, just as the German citizens did during WWI & WWII.

  4. “Thomas Jefferson did not write “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of self-sacrifice.””

    No, but the Declaration of Independence *did* say this:

    “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

    The key question is – what *causes* are worth dying for? Throwing off the British yoke was such a cause.

    1. Oh, and some random teabagger once said:

      “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

      http://www.goodreads.com/quote…..weet-as-to

      1. Men may cry “peace, peace” but there is no peace, the war has already begun.

        From the top of my head, I guess I could click on the link to see if I got it right.

        1. Yup – the full speech:

          http://www.ushistory.org/docum…..ydeath.htm

      2. Of course, when the actual war started, Patrick Henry was more “give me liberty or give me ?330!”:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunpowder_Incident

        After that, he assiduously avoided get involved in any of the actual fighting, preferring to devote his time to running his slave plantation.

        But hey, I guess it’s the thought that counts.

        1. I guess it’s the thought that counts

          I think that is what we mean by “principles, not principals”

          1. Yes, but actions speak louder than words. Why Patrick Henry and not, say, Nathan Hale who said much the same thing but actually followed through on it?

            1. Moron! You didn’t even read the entire Wiki article and you clear have no understanding of late provincial history in the American colonies.

              Similar negotiations had been happening in Massachusetts in the winter of 1775. In those days there was Crown property and province property and the radicals in Massachusetts were every bit as scrupulous about the distinction as was Patrick Henry.

    2. The “Cause” was individual rights. The first step was secession from the Crown.

      Others, like Hamilton, had the goal of taking the place of the king, but not T.J. or Washington.

  5. So Matt is saying there is nothing worth dying for? I didn’t realize he was that big of a pussy.

  6. I respect those who fight for this country but I question the value of fighting far flung wars that may not need to be faught in the first place.

    1. “faught”

      Far + fought? If so, bravo!

      1. Or is that just aye the Scottish variant?

  7. “preliminary 2016 GOP presidential polling”

    Oh fer Gawd’s sake – talk about a stretch. Can we wait for a primary or caucus or whatever the Elephants do to pick their next POTUS aspirer?

  8. I don’t know if I would have to guts to risk my life for a vital principle, but I *do* know that if I didn’t, I’d feel guilty.

  9. Looks like Matt rolled up his sleeves and went straight to work after the TI bomb he dropped on all of us.

  10. A bunch of rag tag militiamen defeated the most powerful and professional military force on the planet. Why? Because they believed in what they were doing. They were willing to die for what they believed in

    Um no, it was because they shot the most powerful and professional military force from ambush and then ran away before they could respond. As Patton said, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”

    1. Yeah, shockingly the ‘belief in what you are doing’ and a ‘willingness to die for that belief’ is only really relevant to the morale of the troops, it’s not some magical way to win wars. How both you and your enemy fights matters as well. Washington didn’t engage in battles he would obviously lose to ‘die for his belief’, he ran the fuck away to fight another day when it’d actually have a chance of succeed. Cheap shots, guerrilla warfare, and raiding is a lot more successful against a better armed opponent than ‘believing’ and being willing to die. Screw any notion of ‘honour’ in warfare, you cheat as much as you can get away with.

      1. Yes, but you fight with full knowledge you could conceivably be killed.

        America could be conquered by a foreign dictatorship tomorrow, and so long as the peasantry was given enough gruel most Americans would gladly subsist in eternal servitude rather than doing anything about it.

        He’s not saying you should die, he’s saying you should be willing to put yourself in danger for what you believe.

        What would have happened if they’d lost the Revolution? Every founder would have been executed. The fact that Washington’s war strategy involved being smart enough to avoid pitched battle doesn’t negate the risks they were all taking.

        1. I’m more just complaining about an overt focus on the concept of ‘belief’ in the context of warfare. It comes off like a cheesy war movie speech.

          As I said it’s very relevant to morale. I don’t think you’d be able to keep apathetic modern Americans in actual conflict for an extended period of time. This is one the factors that I think drives young, bored and angry men to radical Islam: it gives them something to die for, something that makes them feel important and relevant. The West, with all its secular, cynical, half-baked attempts at rather empty nationalism has nothing on the same level.

  11. Political correctness, truly the biggest fucking problem in the world. I believe it was Thomas Paine who wrote, “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. And that cause is to be able to say ‘Obungler eats more cock than watermelon, sho nuff Rashonda’ without being called a dipshit.”

    1. It seems that Tony found Agile Cyborg’s stash.

    2. You’re right. We should spend more time worrying about the serious issues the left is constantly warning about, like the need for more black people to be nominated for Oscars, the horror caused by sexist video games, and the immense damage done to this country when a random hick with 4 followers says something racist on twitter.

      1. I don’t like liberal thought police any more than you do, I just don’t think they’re the greatest enemy to freedom we face. But I understand why Carson wouldn’t appreciate this considering he and his ilk are the greatest enemy to freedom we face.

        1. Yeah. It sure is terrible how conservatives are constantly succeeding in stifling free speech with college speech codes and threats of violence, how libertarians recently got a fraternity vandalized based on fraudulent claims meant to advance a false victim narrative, and how right-wingers endorse government take-overs of virtually any industry it desires.

          Wait.

  12. I’m confused about what Carson said that’s so objectionable. His argument is largely about a willingness to fight for belief. In the West, we have a massacre of our citizens and respond…how? By having a ridiculously inconsequential march to which we invite the ambassador of Saudi Arabia, a nation that funds the kinds of people who just got through murdering French citizens.

    Meanwhile, we have college kids desperately asking their own colleges to take away their free speech rights because MY GOD! HATE SPEECH!

    It seems to me that criticizing the West for apathy and weakness is pretty apt given that about 20% of the population between the ages of 18 and 25 spend their days dissolving into weepy impotence because of microaggressions.

    1. Pretty much. As long as those who want to end Western values are willing to die and kill for those beliefs, and the children of the Enlightenment have no conviction at all except of their society’s unique horribleness, the future looks to be a return to the Dark Ages.

      1. “…the future looks to be a return to the Dark Ages.”? If you label “an age” by the culture, the prevailing social values, we are living in the Middle ages, sinking into the Dark Age. The 20th century was the bloodest in history and it was more civil then than now. For example, a recent informal poll showed 80% were in favor of an all out first nuke strike on North Korea. The ethical and practical considerations of a civil or prudent society would preclude such a thing. It seems we live in neither a moral nor a reasonable country.

  13. Carson is right: He isn’t saying that ISIS is the same as the United States, he is saying that the fundamentalists’ ethos of being willing to die for their ideas is something Americans should aspire to. Which is equally daffy

    Umm, if you’re a megalomaniacal sociopath who aspires to rule over people, it is entirely rational to want your servants to be willing to die to implement your wishes.

    Not nearly as rational for those being ruled to be OK with dying, OTOH.

  14. he is saying that the fundamentalists’ ethos of being willing to die for their ideas is something Americans should aspire to. Which is equally daffy, yet distressingly common in political discourse.

    The missing word here is “fight”, as in “fight and die” for your beliefs. I think its pretty clearly implied by Carson, as the only people who are willing to lay down and die without fighting are pacifists.

    Unless Matt is endorsing pacificism, I don’t see how he can say being willing to fight and die for your beliefs is “daffy.” Of course, to me, being willing to die without fighting is daffy.

  15. Matt, your views are colored by the fact that the societies closest to classical liberalism are not particularly invested in the concept (or in most any concept); it is not empirically the case that “Having a higher percentage of the population willing to die for their country is a sign of sickness, not health; of being under siege, not living in peace”. If you have not found someone or something in this life worth dying for, can it really be said that you have found a thing worth living for? IMO, no: you are merely continuing to exist because that is what you are biologically programmed to do. Being in thrall to only your pleasures and needs is to be a prisoner to your biology; you’re simply biding the time on your sentence until death comes.

    I am repulsed by the Islamists nor with their creed, but it is clear that they have at least risen above the basic human desire for preservation of life based on higher processes. This ability to self-sacrifice is admirable, and any creed that is worth its salt (including that of libertarians) stands or falls — not by how willing the believer is to kill for it, but by how willing a believer is to die for it. I can only hope that what I hold out as beliefs and people I am willing to die for, are truly worthy of the sacrifice and that I am worthy enough to follow through if ever the time comes.

    1. I wonder if they would be so willing to commit suicide if they didn’t think there was ample virgin sex waiting for them on the other side. Religious motivations are not of a high-order nobility.

      1. I don’t know. Why don’t you ask them? American self-congratulatory references to 72 virgins aside, I suspect that for many Islamists the motivation is somewhat more complex. I note that Wilt Chamberlain and Roosh didn’t die for their 72+ virgins, and yet this has not caused Islamists to suddenly abandon Muhammed and religiously study the works of Heartiste.
        Whatever else is true, it is unlikely that such a shallow understanding of what Muslims (radical or otherwise) believe is in fact accurate as to the standard psychological profile of an Islamist.

        1. Take away the goodie bag you receive upon sacrificing yourself for the cause, and you don’t sacrifice yourself for the cause. I guarantee it. Why does any Christian repent? Why does any member of the Abrahamic religions do anything religious? Because of the goodie bag. It’s all fear of punishment and hope of reward. It’s the most selfish thing imaginable.

          1. Yes Tony, you have them all figured out. Funny how much more you know about the motives of others you’ve never met, than they do. And there’s no possibility of you being wrong.

          2. Yes, selfish, but resulting in the sacrifice of the self. The epitome of irony!

            That’s what may happen when you base a decision on an emotion instead of reason. Reason is used as a means of rationalizing the irrational decision.

            The sacrifice of self is the sacrifice of the only life one has, with the hope that life will not end. But it does. And buried deep down somewhere is the knowledge that death is real, inevitable. Why would Christians be so upset at the death of a loved one? The result would be the same if the loved one was leaving for a distant land to make a new life so far away that communication is not possible (before the modern era), but in that case the emotion was not profound loss, a trajedy. Why? Because the person had a life to live somewhere else. Well, doesn’t the Christian claim the dead loved one is living with God? Isn’t that even better because there is no more pain or suffering? If they really believed it, then dying is a good thing to be celebrated. But they don’t. Why? Because they know the unspoken truth, at least on some level, and it shows in their emotional reaction to the death.

      2. Religious motivations are not of a high-order nobility.

        I’m sure the abolitionists would be sad to learn this, seeing as many of them based their opposition to slavery on their religious beliefs.

        Why do you hate abolitionists, Tony?

        And these folks? Obviously, their motivations are not noble, either:

        CMA’s Olooloitikoshi Girls’ Rescue Center (GRC) serves as a safe-haven for nearly 40 young girls who have faced unthinkable abuse and neglect. Having narrowly escaped horrendous practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) ceremonies, being promised as a pre-teen to a 60-year-old man in marriage, and sexual advances by family members, these girls are now part of an uplifting and supportive community where they are safe.

        http://www.cmaid.org/our-work/…..ue-center/

        Monsters.

        1. And don’t get started on Mother Teresa.

        2. And, they are risking their lives for the children!

    2. I had a career that I would, eventually, sacrifice for my patients. I guess that felt like dying! But, most people seem to be less dedicated to life, nowadays!

    3. Dying for an ideal is the easy, common choice of the masses.

      What is extremely difficult and demanding emotionally and intellectually is living for an ideal. It takes a moment to moment commitment, forever (a lifetime). That ideal may evolve as the individual context evolves, both externally and internally. The constant changes in life challenge us to reevaluate, rethink, reinvent, and expand our humanity. Living is work. It takes effort.

      Dying, intellectually or physically, is for lazy, cowardly people.

  16. Perhaps Carson was saying that we need to (be willing to) die for what we believe in, and that it would give us a fighting edge, just as it now seems to do for the jihadis. But unless he actually confirms that interpretation, then others may be entertained. Mine, for example, would be a variation of what I say to people who refuse to educate themselves on candidates and issues, much less vote in elections: “People fought and died to secure your right to vote, and you can’t even be bothered to take it seriously and exercise it responsibly? Use ballots now to avoid having to use bullets later!” Maybe Carson isn’t challenging us to put our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the line, but reminding us that we AT LEAST need to stand for something, instead of giving in to tyranny so often. Similarly, Libertarians want to slash government to the bone, and even toss away some of the bones! Yet many Libertarians I have met would still derive great satisfaction from AT LEAST achieving real, sustainable cuts in the size, scope, and expense of government during their lifetimes — but it seems as if we can’t even do THAT much. We can’t appreciate how little we have approached our goal unless we have an (extreme) goal as milestone. Similarly, we can’t appreciate how far we have departed from the example of the founders unless we continue to hold them up as examples, even if their “die for your beliefs” ethos would be problematic in modern day society.

    1. Ballots are indirect force. You are encouraging others to rule all. You can’t authorize that because you have no authority to rule and therefore can’t delegate an authority you don’t have. You don’t obtain that authority by acting in concert with others who have no such authority, i.e., groups don’t obtain rights. They obtain greater physical strength, but might does not make right (or rights).

      Creation of a govt. (systemized initiation of violence, threat thereof, and fraud), as protector of rights was a huge mistake. It was counter productive, as we now can see, 200+ years later living under an extremely oppressive empire.

      The protection of rights must be realized thru self-goverance in a voluntary society. Without choice, the wisdom of the masses is sacrificed to the dictates of the elite. The mass decision to forfeit choice to an elite is inhuman, incompatible with our nature as thinking individuals with unique wants/needs/abilities. From individuals choosing comes social progress. The most social act is voluntary cooperation.

      The system called socialism (the worldwide political paradigm) is authoritarian, anti-social.

  17. “But what I worry most of all in this case is that his we-need-to-die-for-our-beliefs sentiment is actually pretty mainstream in the Republican Party, helping lead it down more authoritarian paths.”

    An authoritarian path entirely depends on the nature of the beliefs one is willing to die for.

    Also, it is a bit mendacious to twist “willing to die” into “need to die”.

    I guess Welch regards the state motto of New Hampshire with equal disdain.

    I guess it is good to know that Welch will not put himself in harm’s way to promote libertarian ideals, and is a coward.

    1. “Live Free or Die” is an authoritarian sentiment, really?

    2. I like N.H.’s motto. I interpret it as: Live Free or Die (Trying To Live Free) or Live Sovereign or Die Fighting Servitude or Live and Let Live, until they try to enslave, then kill them and Live Freely.

      Too bad in N.H. most people believe in living as free as their rulers allow them, which is not freedom at all. They obey the law, no matter what, and take pride in their abject servitude. That is disgusting, but their right to do so. It is NOT their right to force others to do the same. But most do, and are self-rightous about it. What irony!

  18. Ben Carson for President?? A black guy with no executive experience, who gives great speeches. What could possibly go wrong?

    What Carson REALLY said was missed by Matt and everyone else. He strongly implied that we could not win against ISIS and Al Qaeda. Have WE become the redcoats? Good point.

  19. What Carson was saying: “We need to be as commited as our enemies.” The problem is, he wants us to let rulers define what that commitment is, and then back their definition with our lives. Isn’t that what the ISIS soldier does? Isn’t that what a gung-ho patriot in the US Empire does? Yes, there is no difference.

    And if a US patriot survives and comes home to find his idea of American is nothing like the reality? If he sees his friends and comrades in arms died for an illusion? If he sees he was on the wrong side, and worse, there was no right side? If he finally realizes that the only way to “win” in war is to not participate? What then? Isn’t this the hidden assumption in the “Jack Reacher” books?

    I don’t believe the political rhetoric: “We need to die for our beliefs” is meant for all. It is meant for the masses, the self-enslaved, delusional victims of the state superstition. The actual meaning is: “You should die for my benefit.”

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.