And there arose in Egypt a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph

So Ben Carson was in the news last week for a couple of things. One was a kerfuffle about Carson’s claims in one of his books to having been offered admission to West Point. Unsurprisingly, this controversy appears to be mostly bullshit.

The other uproar was over the discovery of an old commencement speech Carson gave, where he detailed his belief that the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built as granaries, not as tombs. To get a flavor of how this has been received, just look at this piece at Slate, titled “[Deep, Exhausted Sigh] Ben Carson Thinks Joseph From the Bible Built the Pyramids.”

I’m going to give my own “deep, exhausted sigh” here and note that the author of the piece, Ben Mathis-Lilley, has probably never done anything in his life that would have been recognized as a real “job” prior to about 1950, and has probably not contributed a single crumb to the stock of human achievement and happiness during the entire course of his life, other than the joy he presumably gave to his parents by being born. But by all means, he should feel free to mock one of the world’s leading pediatric neurosurgeons because he has a few wacky beliefs about the Bible.

I’d add in passing that I can probably find at least one product in Ben Mathis-Lilley’s home bearing one of the following quasi-religious phrases: Gluten-free, organic, non-GMO, vegan, vegetarian, no hormones, 100% recycled, sustainable, fair trade, free range, all natural, farm-to-table, artisanal, homeopathic. But who am I to judge? Oh, and while we’re on the subject of irrational, unscientific religious beliefs, I’d also point out that if Dr. Carson had stepped up to a microphone while wearing a wig and a dress and announced that he was “really” a woman, I’m betting Ben Mathis-Lilley would not be letting out a “deep, exhausted sigh”; he’d probably report Dr. Carson’s newfound womanhood as a completely neutral fact, as objective and rock-solid as the motions of the solar system.

But what interests me the most about both these controversies is how the reaction to both of them really underscored for me how much America has changed. Apparently it’s changed a lot more than I was aware.

Let’s take Carson’s comments about the pyramids first. Of course, the idea that the pyramids were granaries is poppycock, though in Carson’s defense, he didn’t pull this idea out of thin air. Prior to the introduction in the 19th century of both higher criticism in Biblical studies and Darwinism, the Bible was regarded as a largely authoritative historical work even by nonbelievers. And before highly trained Western experts were able to travel to Egypt and extensively survey the pyramids, the idea that the pyramids were granaries built by Joseph was a popular theory among both Christians and Jews.

Everybody knew about the pyramids, of course — they have been among the most famous structures in the world for thousands of years. But in an age before massive, widespread global communication, a lot of people were not clear about why, exactly, the pyramids had been built — looking this stuff up required a lot of work; you couldn’t just click over to Wikipedia. So a lot of folks just tried to fit the pyramids in with the rest of their limited knowledge about Egypt. For most Westerners, what little knowledge they had about the place came from the Bible. The “granary” hypothesis was such a popular idea that it continued long after it was thoroughly debunked; both Christians and Jews were simply too enchanted with the idea that over there in Egypt, you could still go and see for yourself the tangible proof of something you’d read about in the Bible. This is undoubtedly where Carson picked up the idea — he probably first heard it from some preacher or religious authority in his childhood, and it stuck with him.

But here’s what was incredible to me while sifting through all the commentary over the past week or so: It was abundantly clear to me that many, many Americans — including many highly-educated, well-informed Americans — are completely illiterate when it comes to the most basic facts about the Bible. In less than a century, we have gone from a society in which the Bible was so well-known that a three-word quote from the Scriptures — “But if not” — was enough to galvanize an entire nation, to a society where highly educated people flounder while trying to figure out what Carson “meant” about “granaries” in Egypt.

I listened with bewilderment to a podcast last week as the hosts — all conservative Republicans! — struggled to understand what the hell Carson was talking about. One host was confused about why Egypt would have granaries, because he thought the whole country was a desert. I don’t even know where to begin in answering that — though I’d probably start by pointing out that the entire country is centered around the world’s longest river.

There was also confusion about why Joseph, a Jew, would be in charge of building Egypt’s granaries — or why Joseph might want to build granaries in the first place. Good grief. It’s like none of these people had ever been to Sunday school — which, alas, was probably accurate.

I wish I could say this podcast was an outlier, but it wasn’t. For the benefit of readers who aren’t familiar with Joseph, here’s your assignment: Go read the Book of Genesis, chapters 37 through 50. It should take less than 30 minutes. The link I provided is from the easy-to-read New International Version, so it shouldn’t be hard to follow. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

Are you back? Okay, here’s the thing: What you just read was a story I heard innumerable times throughout my childhood. It was as familiar to me as Star Wars or Sesame Street. Joseph was, to me, as familiar as Luke Skywalker. When Carson went off talking about how the pyramids were actually granaries, I was instantly able to place it into context: “Oh, yeah, he’s talking about in Genesis, when Pharaoh made Joseph one of his chief ministers, and Joseph directed that they store up surplus grain. Carson thinks the pyramids were the storehouses where Joseph put the grain.” It was as natural as having a discussion with other Star Wars fans about the purpose of the Death Star. Of course, I knew Carson’s theory was bonkers, but I also knew from my reading that, as I mentioned before, the “pyramids-as-granaries” idea was once a popular one in Jewish and Christian circles before European scholars were able examine the pyramids in detail, and it seemed plausible to me that it had survived in folk memory and that’s how Carson had probably first encountered it.

But now, people are treating Carson as if he’s spouting gibberish, like he just announced he has a pet unicorn and enjoys traveling the galaxy in a UFO. What struck me as a mildly silly belief that is nevertheless comprehensible within the framework of the Judeo-Christian tradition appeared to a lot of people to be the howlings of a mentally retarded lunatic. No, I mean really — folks were really suggesting a guy with an IQ probably two standard deviations higher than their own might be too stupid to tie his own shoes, just because his worldview was so alien to their own. A man whose worldview, I might add, would have been considered normal in the United States as recently as the Disco era.

Then there was the other controversy, about Ben Carson’s claim in his autobiography that he was offered a “scholarship” to West Point. This was yet another instance where I read one story after another written by people who plainly had no fucking clue what they were talking about.

I’m not going to get into the specifics here, but I will note that as recently as 20 years ago, this would not have been a controversy — because back then, there were enough people working in the media who had enough familiarity with the military to understand that Carson’s only crime here was poor wording. People knew enough about the military and the military academies back then to understand what Carson was trying to say and grasp that, no, his clumsy wording really wasn’t that big a deal. It’s not like lying to the face of a grieving family while standing by their loved one’s casket. (Personally, I suspect the whole thing was a scew-up by Carson’s ghostwriter. Carson probably explained to the guy what happened, and the ghostwriter, searching for a simple way to tell the story to readers who aren’t familiar with the West Point admissions process, ended up mangling it.)

I guess what I can’t get over is how this indicates such a huge gulf between different parts of our nation’s citizenry. As I’ve written before, this is worrisome for the future of our nation, at least as currently constituted.

“Fundamentally what ails America is that we have a ruling class that despises the people and nation over whom it rules,” writes blogger ZMan. That’s the pessimistic take, anyway. Let me just end with a bit of advice frequently offered by Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit:

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Promises that can’t be kept, won’t be. Debt that can’t be repaid, won’t be. Plan accordingly.

In a society where people increasingly regard millions of their fellow citizens as if they were aliens from another planet, how much longer do you think the center can hold?

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