Archaeologists say that the pyramids were used to store dead pharaohs.
Ben Carson thinks that the pyramids were used to store grain.
Carson is wrong. But to simply point out that he’s wrong is to miss the point. Carson’s error isn’t an isolated counter-scientific blip in the Sea of Facts that is a presidential election. Instead, it’s an unusual, and therefore unusually revealing, artifact of the strange fact-space in which American elections take place.
The one guarantee in this election is that every candidate will say a lot of stuff that seems false, inauthentic, or out of touch with your basic understanding of the cosmos. They’ll try to convince us that they enjoy grilling pig meat in Iowa, and act as if they love nothing better than to schmooze with strangers in rural New Hampshire, in January, early in the morning, after three hours of sleep and two cups of bad hotel coffee (though they probably won’t say “schmooze”). In general, they’ll try to make all their scripted, orchestrated encounters seem unscripted and spontaneous.
Along the way, they’ll sell us exaggerated, ridiculous personal narratives and spin data to serve their agendas. And, more earnestly, but in contrast to the observations of modern medical science, every single one of them, with the exception of Bernie Sanders, will affirm the belief that a first century Jew rose from the dead, after three days in the grave.
This isn’t to belittle Christian theology, of course, or to imply that belief in the Gospels is somehow equivalent to belief in grain-filled pyramids. The point is that a whole lot of what goes on during the course of an election wouldn’t exactly pass muster on Politifact. The question is when to accept beliefs as private and valid, and when to challenge them as public and irrational. And, when confronted with the myriad small fictions of a political campaign, the question is which of those fictions to call out, and which to accept as part-and-parcel of the electoral charade.
Carson’s comment about the pyramids actually provides a helpful guide here, in part because it strikes many observers as being so freaking weird. In 1998, Carson delivered a commencement address at Andrews University, an Adventist-affiliated school in Michigan. Buzzfeed unearthed footage of the speech, in which the candidate suggests that the Pyramids of Giza were built by the Biblical figure Joseph in order to store grain before his prophesied seven-year famine.
Apart from not being true, this theory, which seemingly dates back to the sixth century, isn’t Seventh-Day Adventist doctrine, and it isn’t something that the majority of Biblical literalists believe in.
But when CBS asked Carson last week if he believed that the pyramids were giant pantries, Carson said that, yes, he still did. (Please note: the word “pantry” here is my own interpretation, and does not necessarily reflect the wording of CBS’s question to United States presidential candidate Ben Carson about the ostensible grain-related functions or non-functions of the pyramids).
Carson is a politician, not an archaeologist or Egyptologist. His base appears to consist largely of people who (a) are impressed by his biography, which emphasizes his odds-beating, institutional-inertia-defying rise to professional success, and (b) feel alienated from what they perceive as a decrepit mainstream culture. When Carson talks about the pyramids as granaries, he’s signaling that he prioritizes Biblical interpretation over scientific analysis, and that he values his own intepretation of events over that of scientitic authorities.
In other words, he’s embracing the one consistent principle that animates this bizarre reality TV show we call politics. Really, he’s not just embracing that principle. He’s taking it to its logical extreme: what matters is not the content of a statement, it’s the signal that a given statement sends. In politics, those signals tend to boil down to two fairly similar messages:
- I am similar to you.
- I am different from those other folks.
Sometimes, these appeals are very broad—”traditional values,” the role of government, or other territories that are accessible to big chunks of the population. Other times, they’re tribal (as with appeals to hardline fundamentalist niches) and aggressively exclusive (as with anti-immigration rhetoric).
If Carson made any mistake here with his little foray into armchair Egpytology, it’s that he picked such a niche a group with which to identify (very few Americans feel invested in using the pyramids as evidence for the Bible). On the other hand, the media rebuke he’s received for sticking to an article of personal faith in the face of expert consensus may well give him a boost among the GOP faithful.
Ultimately, while Carson may not prove to be a viable candidate, he’s not the only one playing this game. It may sound cynical, and it may be unfortunate, but when politicians make claims about the world, the most relevant question isn’t always Wait, is that a fact? but: What community is that politician trying to identify with?
Or, sometimes more importantly: What community is he or she trying to exclude?
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