Our politics have become so polarized and corrupted that a president of the United States cannot even attend an event devoted to drawing people closer to God and bridge partisan and cultural divides without being lectured about his policies.Paul Zummo, writing for The American Catholic, launches a defense for the ambush and of the victory laps.
Last Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., Dr. Ben Carson, director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and a 2008 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, broke with a 61-year-old tradition and publicly disagreed with some of the president's policies, such as "ObamaCare," taxation and the national debt...
Several in the audience of 3,000 applauded Carson's remarks, which must have made the president feel even more uncomfortable.
I am no fan of the president's policies, but the National Prayer Breakfast is billed as one of the few nonpolitical events in a very political city. Each year, the co-chairs, one Democrat and one Republican from either the House or Senate, put aside their political differences, as they do in weekly gatherings, to pray for the nation's leaders.
Carson, who spoke at the same event several years ago, has a compelling and inspirational personal story. He and his brother grew up in Detroit. His parents divorced when he was three. His mother kept an eye on her children and made them turn off the TV and read books. Carson said he did poorly in school and was mocked by classmates until he later caught the learning bug. He retold part of that story, but it was overwhelmed by his criticism of the president's policies.
Carson is a great example of what perseverance can accomplish and his success is a rebuke to the entitlement-envy-greed mentality. By lowering himself to mention policies with which he disagrees, he diluted the power of a superior message.
His remarks were inappropriate for the occasion. It would have been just as inappropriate had he praised the president's policies. The president had a right to expect a different message about another Kingdom. I'm wondering if the president felt drawn closer to God, or bludgeoned by the Republican Party and the applauding conservatives in the audience (there were many liberals there, too, as well as people from what organizers said were more than 100 nations and all 50 states)... Whatever happened to propriety?
If Carson wanted to voice his opinion about the president's policies, he could have done so backstage. Even better, he might have asked for a private meeting with the man. As a fellow African American who faced personal challenges and overcame them, the president might have welcomed Dr. Carson to the White House. Instead, Carson ambushed him.
Carson should publicly apologize and stop going on TV doing "victory laps" and proclaiming that reaction to his speech was overwhelmingly positive. That's not the point. While many might agree with his positions (and many others don't as shown by the November election results), voicing them at the National Prayer Breakfast in front of the president was the wrong venue.
Organizers for this event tell speakers ahead of time to steer clear of politics, but Carson apparently "went rogue" on them. I'm told organizers were astonished and disapproving of the critical parts of Carson's keynote address. The breakfast is supposed to bring together people from different political viewpoints and cultures. It is supposed to bridge divides, not widen them.
If this and future presidents think their policies will be prey for political opponents at the prayer breakfast, they might decide not to come. That would be too bad for them and too bad for the country.
There are several reasons why this criticism is unwarranted, and why Dr. Carson should proceed with his “victory laps.” First and foremost, we have turned these occasions into sanguine, boilerplate affairs. What exactly is the purpose of this event? To mouth pious cliches about religion while not deigning to offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities? Dr. Carson did not insult the president, but rather he touched upon very serious issues and offered opinions based on his experience in the field. One would think such honesty and forthrightness would be welcome, but there are certain people among us who think the 11th Commandment is “Thou shall not offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities.” In a world where passive-aggressive disobedience is de rigueur, (see Fr. James Martin’s twitter feed to get a sense of what I’m talking about), it’s refreshing to see someone state their case with no apology. Okay then, you might say, it’s still not the appropriate venue. After all, this an event centered around religious dialogue. Dr. Carson’s subject matter had nothing to do with prayer or religion. Au contraire. To begin with, many of the people criticizing Dr. Carson would have similarly bellyached had he concentrated solely on “social” issues such as abortion. More importantly, it’s a false dichotomy to suggest that economic issues must be kept separate from the social ones. I have rebuked a certain strain of thinking on the right that suggests we need to get away from social issues and instead focus solely on economics. As I’ve said countless times, we cannot divorce social conservatism from economic conservatism. Well, the reverse is true. Those who favor certain socially conservative policies or attitudes – opposition to abortion, a desire to strengthen families, etc. – make a grave mistake when they turn around and embrace leftist economic policies. Just as social libertinism fosters cultural attitudes that lead to left-wing economic policies, statist (or corporatist, or whatever adjective you want to throw out) economic policies foster a cultural milieu that is an affront to what social conservatives desire. In other words, it’s a two-way street. If you want stronger families, don’t encourage economic policies that help chip away at the family. Sexual “liberty” breeds the conditions for single parenthood and the need for a welfare state. But a welfare state encourages attitudes that lead to sexual libertinism. Finally, if we’re honest about all this pablum of “promoting dialogue,” then what’s wrong when someone gets up in a public forum and expresses disagreement with a very public person sitting in the audience? Again, Dr. Carson was in no way disrespectful, and his words could have been addressed to politicians in both parties. Is President Obama so sensitive that he can’t handle someone expressing reservations about some of his policies? Well, I think we all know the answer to that question. Of course we don’t want these events turning into completely partisan affairs. But perhaps the question we need to ask is why is what Dr. Carson said considered to be partisan? Is Dr. Carson emblematic of societal polarization, or is the person sitting to his left the real sign of how disagreeable our politics have become that we can’t even address substantive issues in a meaningful way without it being considered divisive?I would tend to agree that this stuff needed to be said. There are two problems, mind you. The first is that once the doctor follows this path he engages in a partisan engagement. He ceases to be merely a critic of the President nad policy, but a set principled defender of certain the positions. The second problem is what would ultimately become of Dr Carson. He would become, or has become, "boilerplate" in his own personalized way. The difference between Dr Carson and an average political pundit would end up being eloquence and intelligence, and that does not matter if the message ends up being the same.
This was the 2nd entry on a series about Ben Carson. This is Part 2 of the Rise of Ben Carson series.