I first visited the Pyramids in 1969 when I arrived in Cairo to attend a concert by famed Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. Her concerts occurred on the first Thursday of every month and were broadcast live throughout the Arab world. Arab streets from Tangiers to Baghdad were deserted those nights, and in nearly every taxi, cafe and residence Umm Kulthum was their welcome guest and that night, amidst strangers in the Kasr El-Nile Theatre, I became a member of her family.
Friday morning, I had breakfast on my Nile Hilton balcony from where, looking westward across the Nile I saw — through the haze, silhouetted through the desert dust — the 4,500-year-old Pyramids of Giza. The tallest, Khufu, clearly distinct, was for over 3,800 years the world’s tallest structure.
“Today the traveller on the Nile,” wrote famed archaeologist James Henry Breasted, “enters a wonderland at whose gates rise the colossal pyramids of which he has had visions perhaps from earliest childhood.”
The wonderland of the pharaohs’ Pyramids beckoned, and as soon as I finished my Egyptian breakfast made from fava beans, I made my way to visit one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
I’ve visited the Pyramids often, most recently five months ago, but the most memorable time was in the late 1970s when I did all the photography for a book on Cairo for Time-Life’s Great Cities of the World series. I even was able to climb a pyramid and photograph Cairo and the Nile as the pyramid builders would have seen it over four millennia previous.
This week, I was pleased when it was revealed that the leading GOP contender for president, Dr. Ben Carson believes, “My own personal theory is that [Old Testament] Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. Now all the archeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, [something to store that grain] would have to be something awfully big, if you stop and think about it.”
Not only could I write about the Pyramids but his story affirmed for me all that I believed about Carson, all I believed about many of the Republican candidates and much of what I believed much of the GOP white, right-wing evangelical base: That they are not only anti-establishment and anti-Washington; they are arrogantly anti-intellectual and anti-science – and that that is a dangerous combustible, ideological mixture,
As one archeologist responded to Carson’s claim, (1) The Pyramids are not hollow and, (2) the Egyptians were literate: we have a contemporaneous record of how and why the Pyramids were built.
I would add, too, that if one wanted to build granaries 4,500 years ago you wouldn’t build them at the highest elevation in the region — as a Yankee farmer once said, “Up is work!”
I believe Carson, an avuncular, soft-spoken man of faith with a compelling personal narrative of achievement and a distinguished resume as a pediatric neurosurgeon, is an idiot savant whose narrative, however confabulated and limited, is compelling.
Yet, whether Carson stays a front-runner in this campaign, indeed, if he stays in this campaign after recent revelations, is in the end irrelevant. What is relevant, and scary, is that Carson, with little more than a story and a prayer, has managed to stay ahead of the competition with no non-surgical leadership accomplishment other than he’s a nice guy.
Have we so lowered the bar that the president doesn’t need to know anything — just be nice?
In a 1979 movie, “Being There,” Chance the gardner (Peter Sellers) becomes known as Chauncey Gardiner, a naive, simple man, soft-spoken and simplistic.
As with Chauncey, Carson’s supporters are drawn to his simplistic and humble demeanor — even when he spouts nonsense. Drawn to his plain speech followers have few expectations and attribute to him imaginary characteristics, insights and wisdom, little of which can sustain intellectual scrutiny.
With a life seemingly informed entirely from Scripture as he understands it and embracing a simplistic binary worldview, Carson was, in 2013, elevated to political and celebrity status after an appearance at the 2013 National Prayer breakfast when he compared contemporary America to ancient Rome:
“Moral decay. Fiscal irresponsibility,” he railed. “They destroyed themselves. If you don’t think that can happen to America, you get out your books and you start reading.”
Yes, America, get out your books and start reading.
Learn that pharaohs built the Pyramids and we’re largely responsible for climate change. Learn that evolution is fact, not theory, and that it contradicts neither Scripture nor science. Learn that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Learn that such truths are self-evident.
Dr. Ben Carson’s rise, and perhaps fall, should be cautionary, particularly to GOP candidates. They should recognize that education and intelligence matters. That ignorance is neither excuse nor crutch, that context is important and that complex problems require complex policy solutions – not pandering to the lowest common denominator – and that solutions should be debated in a secular Public Square without regard to privilege and bias.
The election, still a year away, will not be about the Pyramids or a West Point appointment. It won’t be about the “liberal” media, secular humanists, atheists or even Muslims.
It’ll be about whether America wants to again embrace dark days of ignorance, bias and prejudice – about whether Americans want to endure the continued marginalization of the have-nots by the haves.
Today, as America calls out Carson for his ignorance and bigotry, for his laughable assertion about the Pyramids, for his lack of knowledge that America’s Founding Fathers were intimately, and broadly, learned men deeply involved in the governance of their communities, it must recognize that decisions and choices made by our leaders, even when we don’t agree with them, should be based on respect, knowledge, compassion and humanity.
America doesn’t prevail just through blood, sweat and tears, We prevail because we recognize that as a nation we value all the principles upon which this country was founded, for which sacrifices are made and wars fought. To sacrifice those values on parochial altars of ignorance and prejudice disrespects us all.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.