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."