A Self-Awareness Mr Magoo

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson smiles during a campaign rally at West Memphis High School on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, in West Memphis, Ark. (Nikki Boertman/The Commercial Appeal via AP)
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In case you missed the late news yesterday evening, the Carson-Yale mystery has taken a paradoxical turn in which all can apparently rejoice: new evidence both suggests the possibility that Ben Carson may be telling some version of the truth as he remembers it (good for supporters) while also showing him to be a pompous buffoon (good for opponents and consumers of comedy). As you’ll remember or as you may have heard in recent days, Carson’s autobiography tells the story of an incident during Carson’s days at Yale in which a psychology professor engineered a ruse to find the most hardworking and honest student in his class. Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be Ben Carson.

In Carson’s telling, the professor falsely alerted students in a school newspaper announcement that their final exams had been destroyed in an accident and that they’d have to retake the test. 150 students assembled in the lecture hall as instructed but everyone but Carson left after they saw the incredibly hard make-up exam they were being asked to take. The ruse was a test to see which students were honest enough to take the make-up exam. And with Carson the only student who’d passed the test, the professor had his answer. As a reward, the professor gave Carson $10 for being the “most honest” person in the class. A photographer from the student paper was even on hand, according to Carson’s biography, to capture the moment.

No article ever appeared documenting Carson’s honor and there were questions about the name of the class. So it seemed like the whole thing may never have happened. And there were still plenty of questions and contradictions after Carson unearthed a school paper article describing a similar prank (albeit one played not by the professor but by the college humor magazine). But now reporting by TPM and Buzzfeed has unearthed new details which make Carson seem both potentially more honest and more ridiculous than we ever could have imagined.

It now appears that the college humor magazine did more than print up the hoax announcement of a test retake. They actually sent a student to the lecture hall to impersonate a teaching assistant to administer a made up test. By the end, when only one or two students remained out of several who showed up (still not getting that it was a hoax apparently) the fake teaching assistant even gave out “a small cash prize.” No one has been able to identify the fake teaching assistant or specifically attest to Carson being one of the last or last students still taken in by the joke. But if you step back you now have independent corroboration for a chain of events which – giving some allowance for exaggeration and imperfect memory – largely matches up with Carson’s account.

The only problem of course is that the whole thing was a practical joke that the extremely earnest young Ben Carson not only fell for at the time but hasn’t realized was a prank for the last 45 years. Even now Carson either doesn’t seem to realize or won’t cop to the fact that even if it was an innocent and honest mistake, what actually happened isn’t remotely what he described. As with so many other anecdotes and examples, this latest incident reveals Carson as a sort of lifelong self-awareness Mr Magoo, with perhaps a dash of Chauncey Gardner, walking through life often with little awareness of what is going on around him but consistently interpreting things in the most self-glorifying and parablistic terms possible.

Usually when you have a story like this or the Hillary Clinton/Sarajevo or Brian Williams stories someone after three or four days will come forward with an article explaining – quite rightly – that none of our memories are as sure as we assume or hope that they are. Contemporary neurology and psychiatry has shown that our brains are consistently amending, changing old memories or even manufacturing them entirely. So people can, if going by recollection alone, honestly recall events which demonstrably did not happen.

Even in my own life I have one such case where I’ve seen this phenomenon directly and indisputably. When I was about four or five years old I had my mom pack me a lunch Tom Sawyer-style, wrapped in a bandana on the end of a stick that I’d go off somewhere and eat on my own as a little childhood adventure. I’m pretty certain this happened. But my visual memories of this moment are of watching myself a short distance away from the apartment building we lived in at the time in U. City, a section of St. Louis. In other words, my memories, which seem totally real to me, are ones I must have imagined my mother had watching me. They are recollections of things I cannot possibly have seen myself. I’m still pretty sure the incident itself happened. But given the jumbling of this key part of my memory, who knows?

Carson’s misfortune is that his resume in public life is almost entirely made up of these kinds of anecdotes. Carson’s accomplishments as a surgeon are extremely impressive, of course. But it’s the morality tale of dedication and morality wrapped around it which has put him at the center of the nation’s politics. Everyone’s memories play tricks on them. We may also accurately remember things we did not actually understand properly at the time. But I would submit that the issue is not simply that Carson has no legislative or executive resume and thus his biography, shot through with inaccuracies as any of ours might be, is the only scrutinizable data on which to judge his candidacy. The issue is more that, seemingly without fail, every misperception or failed memory Carson invariably casts in the most self-glorifying and self-righteous light imaginable. As I suggested above, the most charitable reading of the Carson spectacle is that Carson is a sort of self-awareness Mr Magoo consistently or at least repeatedly misunderstanding or misremembering incidents in his own life and piecing them together or reconstructing them a narrative of his own awesome. Much like his predilection for confidently pronouncing on topics he knows absolutely nothing about, this is less a matter of failed memory (if we’re to interpret this generously) than arrogance.

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