It happens over and over again. Someone stands up and says something wise and true about the state of our country – in policy, politics or culture. Their voice is clear and refreshing. Conservatives stand and applaud, as we should. Then we try to ruin a good thing.
This newfound social commentator is invited to speak at partisan events. He is given space to write in ideological magazines. Right-leaning people ponder aloud about the possibility of his running for president.
In other words, conservatives get really un-conservative.
It has never been a part of conservative thought that politicizing issues makes them better. Nor have conservatives traditionally looked to one man – not even the president; perhaps especially not the president – to solve the nation’s problems.
At least, not until recently.
The latest to go from common sense social commentator to partisan savior of America is neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who famously burst onto the conservative political scene with his scathing critique of Obamacare, political correctness and more at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013.
Carson was already well known for his inspiring autobiography Gifted Hands, telling his story of growing up poor in Detroit to become one the most famous neurosurgeons in the world. It is one of the best examples of the possibilities of American opportunity and faith that conservatives and Christians could hope to find.
Carson was in a terrific position to stand aloof of the partisan debates that turn off the minds of so many and offer common sense alternatives and perspectives to contemporary American society. Then his energy and influence was co-opted by conservatives who saw him as the “guy who says what no one else will say” and urged to run for president.
The problem with entering the political arena is that one quickly ceases to be the guy who says what no one else will say. Electoral necessities require that one be less politically incorrect. Carson’s experience with that shift culminated only days ago when he stated that the fact that some people go to prison straight and come out gay is proof that being gay is a choice.
Now, I personally think that being gay is a choice, if only to the point that I believe people do not have to act out a lifestyle that they consider sinful simply because of the inclinations of their attractions. Hence why some find Jesus and cease to be gay.
But it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to recognize that an argument containing that sort of evidence is…problematic.
Carson quickly apologized for the comments after the predictable uproar, while maintaining that the science on the subject is murky. (It is, though that’s beside the point.)
Were Carson an outside commentator with few political attachments, his words could be dismissed and forgotten. Instead, they reflect on the party for whose nomination he would probably run – the Republicans – the movement to which he attaches himself – conservatism – and puts a damper on his aspirations for public office.
Carson’s choices contrast with another public figure from whom he could learn; a public figure who has begun to say some bold, anti-conventional wisdom, but common sense, things: Mike Rowe. Rowe is best known as the host of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs. He is also the founder of the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which promotes hard work and skilled trades through, among other things, scholarships.
Rowe respects and looks to restore the dignity of blue collar skilled work. He also strongly disagrees with Barack Obama’s idea – prevalent among intellectuals across much of the political spectrum – that everyone would be better off going to college.
It’s common economic sense that when everyone has a degree, the value of a degree falls, and there is a point at which the returns don’t match the investment. Rowe has such common sense in droves, unlike the president, which is why it is no surprise that he came to the defense of a possible presidential contender who has no college degree: Scott Walker.
I think a trillion dollars of student loans and a massive skills gap are precisely what happens to a society that actively promotes one form of education as the best course for the most people. I think the stigmas and stereotypes that keep so many people from pursuing a truly useful skill, begin with the mistaken belief that a four-year degree is somehow superior to all other forms of learning. And I think that making elected office contingent on a college degree is maybe the worst idea I’ve ever heard.
But Rowe has repeatedly stressed that he does not consider himself a Republican or a Democrat. He appeared at one campaign stop with Mitt Romney in 2012, but insisted that he was not endorsing Mitt. In a letter to Barack Obama, he also offered to promote 3 million shovel-ready jobs. Rowe’s refusal to speak in a polemical or partisan manner means that his common sense statements can be digested without the closed ears of those who are tired of hearing only from the self-described Right and Left.
A final trait to admire in Rowe is he does not pretend to be an expert on everything. He sticks to commenting on what he knows – primarily skilled trade and education. Carson, too, largely focused on relatively few areas before entering the political arena, such as health care, American opportunity and the values and philosophy of the founders, with the occasional common sense, but not in-depth, thing to say on some other issues.
Since Carson began speaking at conservative events, writing political columns and openly considering a run for the presidency, he naturally has been expected to comment on a much broader range of subjects. But as his books since his terrific autobiography have demonstrated, he still has much to learn on public policy.
To be taken seriously as a candidate at the national level, one should gain the experience to earn the trust of the American people as a statesman. Carson, for all his intelligence and ability pick up high-level knowledge and skills quickly, has not yet developed the potential he has to be a great public servant – one of which includes when to keep one’s mouth shut on an issue or recognize when words will come back to haunt.
Again, over-zealous, Carson-supporting conservatives are in part responsible for his taking the plunge instead of wading into the pool at the shallow end like he should have. Better yet, he could have stood above the fray whose views didn’t have to be seen through the prism of his politics. Alas, it is too late for that.
Thankfully, politics so far has proven too dirty a job for even Mike Rowe. Let’s hope he continues to see it that way.