In 1865, American slavery ended with the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Since that time, these things have happened:
In 1871, a fire destroyed the city of Chicago.
In 1896, the Supreme Court legalized segregation.
In 1906, an earthquake leveled the city of San Francisco.
In 1929, the stock market crashed, plunging the nation into the Great Depression.
In 1941, more than 2,400 Americans died in a sneak attack upon Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
In 1963, the president of the United States was murdered in Dallas.
In 1974, a president resigned in scandal and disgrace.
In 2001, 3,000 people died in a terrorist attack.
In 2005, a hurricane swamped the Gulf Coast.
In 2008, corporate greed brought the nation to the brink of economic collapse.
But the most awful thing America has faced in the last 148 years is a law Congress passed in 2010 requiring that those who are able, purchase health insurance.
So says Ben Carson, celebrated neurosurgeon and newly minted star of the extreme political right. Speaking last week in Washington before the so-called Values Voter Summit, he said, “Obamacare is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery. And it is … in a way, it is slavery.”
At one level, the comment is sadly unremarkable. Carson is only obeying commandments that are evidently chiseled on a stone tablet somewhere for all the extreme right to follow:
Thou shalt not understate;
Thou shalt not be thoughtful;
Thou shalt not make a lick of sense.
Accordingly, it has become common for the extremes to liken health care reform to slavery. This juxtaposition, asinine on its face, has been embraced by New Hampshire state legislator Bill O’Brien, Rep. John Fleming and Rush Limbaugh, among others. Again: not surprising. Hyperbolic nonsense is the water in which the extremes swim.
But, of course, the claim carries a different weight coming from Carson by dint of the fact that he is African-American. It becomes a gift to the white right, inoculating them (or so they will surely feel) against charges of racism or racial insensitivity when they say the same stupid thing. That Carson would give that gift suggests an unseemly obsequiousness, an eagerness to please at all costs, even if that cost is one’s own soul.
The Affordable Care Act, should it need saying, may be a bad law, may be a good law, may be something in between. But it is assuredly not “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”
In making that claim to the enthusiastic approval of a room full of white conservatives, Carson is, ironically, reminiscent of those slaves who identified so fully with “marse” and “ole miss,” craved their approval so desperately, that they lost their very selves.
It is one thing for white conservatives to sing “nobody knows de trouble I’se seen” and proclaim themselves victims of slavery. It is quite another for an African-American man who, by definition, should know better, to second that delusion and thereby lend their racism a sheen of respectability.
The question of why he would so fully betray heritage is best left between Carson and his mirror — or, perhaps, between Carson and his mental health professional. The effects of that betrayal are, however, easy enough to enumerate.
It calls into question Carson’s grasp of basic history. It further damages the GOP “brand” and the party’s professed goal of outreach.
Worse, it trivializes one of the great sins of the last millennium, urinates on the unmarked graves of ancestors for a cheap rhetorical stunt. As such, the statement is beneath contempt.
And Dr. Carson is, too.
(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr