Monday, October 26, 2015

The Parable of the Selfish "Hero"?

There are so many strange little stories coming out of the US presidential race that it’s hard to keep up with them all. However, one involving Ben Carson has stood out in my mind.

In the wake of the fairly recent school shooting in Oregon on October 1st, Carson, the soft-spoken ex-neurosurgeon and Christian patriot, made some news by offering his advice on how not to get shot. I say “fairly recent school shooting”, since there have been at least three others in the ensuing three-odd weeks, though none as deadly.

In his reaction to the Umpqua Community College shooting spree in which nine people were killed and eight wounded, Carson instructed future victims of such tragedies to be proactive. He said that rather than waiting to be gunned down, the students in Oregon should have rushed the shooter.

On the face of it, this advice makes sense, but was seen by some people as being insensitive, as basically accusing the victims of being too passive. Others have suggested that in extreme-stress situations, such as facing an active shooter, humans often react differently than someone sitting comfortably in a TV studio might think they should. Even if that someone is a famed brain surgeon.

What is enlightening is that Carson, currently number two in the GOP race, does have some experience in facing someone with a gun. Following the kerfuffle over his remarks, Carson related a story from thirty years ago of how he himself had the barrel of a gun jammed in his ribs by an armed robber. He said it was no big deal.

It happened in Baltimore in a Popeye’s fast-food restaurant, where Carson was presumably a customer. As Carson has told the story, an armed man held a gun to him until Carson helpfully pointed out that the robber should be threatening the restaurant's cashier, not a mere patron like himself. Carson explained, no doubt patiently and with a wry smile, “I believe that you want the guy behind the counter”.

The robber apologized for his mistake and proceeded (perhaps sheepishly) to force the hapless restaurant worker at gunpoint to clear out the cash register.

To say this all sounds a bit off-kilter is not the least of it.

Imagine someone, intending to rob a fast-food joint, walks in and threatens the first customer he sees waiting in line to order his meal of Handcrafted Spicy Tenders. Maybe we can assume that the would-be robber had, in fact, never been in a fast-food restaurant. Maybe he didn’t realize how a retail business works and – unlike Willie Sutton – had no clue where the money actually was. The man’s potential for a life of crime at this point would have suffered an unfortunate setback, if not for the sage advice of the good Dr. Carson that he should instead stick up the cashier, or as Carson has phrased it the “appropriate person”.

The entire scenario sounds unreal. What’s more, reporters have not been able to find any official record of this particular robbery ever taking place. When confronted with this fact, a Carson spokesperson speculated that perhaps the police didn’t file a report. Right. Popeye’s must be a very forgiving corporation if it doesn’t require some kind of official paperwork to explain the disappearance of a whole day’s worth of receipts. With a laid-back work environment like that it's perhaps a nice place to work, though maybe prone to get robbed often, not least by its own employees. In other words, the notion of no police report being filed doesn’t ring true.

To my mind, it’s much easier to believe Carson’s little narrative never happen, or at least that it didn't happen the way he "remembers" it. It's called stretching the truth, and many a public figure has been caught out doing it (see Brian Williams, Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, etc.). 

Now, of course, a narrative doesn’t have to be true to be “true”. I went to Sunday School enough to know that Jesus supposedly told many stories that were not likely true, but had a moral point to them. I’m talking about parables, such as the Parable of the Talents, which apparently illustrates the moral of compounding interest rates and investing through the tale of a servant who came to ruin by burying money in the ground rather than plowing it back into the economy. (The same moral was put to music in “Mary Poppins”, though in that case it was portrayed in a negative light compared to the simple joy of “feeding the birds”).

Maybe Ben Carson sees his Popeye’s story as a parable, not factually true, but serving a larger purpose. The trouble with that generous interpretation is the moral to Carson’s story can be summed up this way: “When faced with a dangerous criminal, it’s best to redirect the danger away from yourself towards someone else.” The Parable of the Selfish Non-hero?

It’s baffling why someone running for president would trot out such an unflattering story, even if it were true, especially if it were true. Maybe he really believes it. Or maybe he sees no reason to let reality stand in the way of a good story, even if the story's not truly that good.  

Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore.


  1. There is a group of people who tell stories as if they had happened to themselves. Rap artist Paleface tells how he met in US a couple who had gave their son name Adolf Hitler. There was indeed such a case, but it was in New Jersey ten years after Paleface had been in Kansas. And author Katja Kettu told the urban legend about a car with men kidnapping women in Töölö as a true story really happaned to her. Unfortunately, she could not be sure about whether it had happened in the summer or in the winter.