Where Did Ben Carson Go?
It’s a question that grips me often. I’ll be laying in bed, finishing an assignment, or sitting in a car, clutching the steering wheel when I ask myself, “Where did Ben Carson go?” He was a neurosurgeon, and I remember he ran for president and lost and was assigned to some role in the federal government in 2016. A quick Google search reveals this role to be the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, which sounds like an adequate department for castaway politicians.
But did he actually do anything? The Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t typically deliver hard-hitting news, but you’d expect to hear something from him. Another Google search reveals an office furniture scandal that Carson was involved in around 2018, when he allegedly spent $31 thousand dollars to redecorate his office. A bit of research reveals this to be the only real newsworthy thing he did in his four-year term. Interesting. It doesn’t make for a very long article, but it’s nice to know that he’s still alive.
But why do I care?
Ben Carson was a central figure in my life growing up, which sounds weird considering I have never met him. My mom bought me his memoir, Gifted Hands, when I was about 7, and I loved it. His life story sounded incredible to me, and his practicing the same faith as me made him the gold standard for what I could achieve in life. My mother was fully on board with this vision, buying me more of his books and frequently telling me about things he did. Because Ben Carson was a neurosurgeon, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. Because he went to Yale, I wanted to go to Yale. I idolized him, watching his movie frequently and telling everyone I knew about how I wanted to be a doctor just like him.
As I entered my teenage years, I distanced my aspirations from his life, realizing that I did not want to be a neurosurgeon and was not good enough for Yale. I eventually saw Carson as another famous person, and although I found his story interesting, I didn’t really care for him as a person. When he ran for president in 2016, I was shocked, as I came to grips with the idol of my childhood transitioning to a political career on a platform that I didn’t necessarily agree with. It was strange, seeing the man who majorly influenced most of my aspirations in life become a politician with views I found suspect and be hated by many. Reconciling the two Carsons was interesting and even amusing at times.
Celebrity culture is an arguably new phenomenon. With the rise of mass media, probing into the lives of public figures became easier and easier. Now, being a star means being a personality, and giving glimpses of one's private life is a given. Television and radio give artists a large audience, and as an artist’s popularity skyrockets, public fascination with their idols increases, as well. People want to know what their favorite stars are doing, and journalists have pounced on the new demand. Publications like People and Us make intimate details of America’s favorite movie stars’ lives readily available. The boy band era of the early 2000s and 2010s reflected a major point in this celebrity craze, with starstruck teenagers consuming every detail of various singers’ lives. The depth of this coverage was remarkable, and pretty soon the concept of privacy for celebrities became nonexistent. Anything and everything a famous person does now, from getting a divorce to parading to the grocery store in the same outfit twice in a row, is newsworthy.
The intensity of curiosity over celebrities’ daily routines stems from the societal concept of success. Success has typically been associated with wealth and with high social status. Whether or not this is an accurate representation of a successful person is arguable, but typically, those with the deepest pockets are referred to as the peak of society.
For centuries, the only way to be rich was to be born into nobility. After the Industrial Revolution and the rise of big business, the concept of being a businessman and making one’s own fortune became popular. In 1890, 1% of the US population controlled 25% of the nation’s wealth. The large majority of these new white-collar workers were stuck in a new upper middle class, yearning for but never quite reaching the level of true wealth. Very few people actually became rich through business and those who did made sure to keep their business in the family, locking the possibility of a real path to wealth.
But the rise of 20th century mass media changed everything. The entertainment industry skyrocketed, and entertainers started making much more money. Movie stars, singers, and athletes became more and more valuable. As entertainment became a viable way of attaining wealth and success, the dream of becoming wealthy and successful became easier. A new path to success had arisen, rather than being born into a successful business all one had to do was catch a lucky break. Suddenly, wealth seemed much more accessible. These entertainers, who became the first celebrities, seemed much more relatable than businessmen, as these celebrities entered Americans’ homes every night. Ordinary Americans became infatuated with these new celebrities, because they achieved the dream in a way that seemed easy and simple, a way that they felt they could achieve too. These new celebrities made the dream seem accessible, and so people idolized them, and tried to emulate them.
The hyper-fixation of celebrities is not harmless. The sheer amount of information that is made public means that nothing can be hidden anymore. With everything that a celebrity has ever done being on the record, every mistake is documented and readily accessible. The concept of “cancelling” is a relatively new one, but it is a direct byproduct of celebrity culture. With the internet, actions don’t disappear, and because people can readily access people’s gaffes and mistakes, these mistakes can come back into the public eye quickly. The public obsession with and idolization of people who, in the end are just human, brings their flaws to the forefront. Every skeleton in their closets will be brought into the light, whether celebrities like it or not. And thus, the question, what does one do if his idol is a bad person?
Romanticizing humans is not a healthy behavior, and many people have struggled to come to terms with the fact that their idol is no one to idolize. The betrayal of having someone you love turn out to be flawed is not a great experience, and while the sensation felt with celebrities is far less dramatic, it’s still a conundrum that many face in this modern age. How does one support the art and not the artist? Many can agree that with various assault charges to his name, the late rapper XXXTentacion was a horrible person, and yet, he put out some good songs. Armie Hammer has has multiple sexual assault allegations against him, and yet his work in The Social Network and Call Me by Your Name is wonderful stuff. It doesn’t feel right to discredit good music and film, but it becomes hard to support these people. This is a delicate line to walk, and many people feel forced to defend these horrible people, just so that they can maintain this image of their idol. The idealization of these celebrities forces many fans to almost pretend that they do actually reach these ideals, even when they very obviously do not. Many fans of XXXTentacion choose to ignore the things he did, claiming that he had reformed and was working to become better, despite awaiting trial for domestic violence charges at the time of his death. They seem to be in denial, revering him for his music and struggling to come to terms with the things he did. This is not healthy behavior, and yet, it seems to be the trap many fans of these controversial celebrities fall into.
On the other hand, some people choose to pretend these people never existed and completely boycott their work. And yet, as comedian Pete Davidson said on an SNL skit about R. Kelly, recently convicted of multiple federal crimes, “Once we start doing our research, we’re not going to have much [media] left.” Being inspired by these people for their art is no crime. Some of these celebrities have genuinely good work, which can’t be ignored. However it’s absolutely crucial to be able to separate the art from the artist. One cannot excuse someone’s horrible actions, because one believes the celebrity to be good at heart despite actions that prove contrary; at a certain point, one must accept that such a celebrity might be who he or she seemed to be.
I still have my Ben Carson book. I’ll read it every once in a while when I’m feeling unmotivated academically, as his journey from the poorest areas of Detroit to being one of the only black neurosurgeons in the world is still fascinating to me. And I’m still totally comfortable with saying that I don’t support Ben Carson’s politics. This is a delicate line to walk, and when you make these celebrities a part of your personality, it can be downright torturous. When you romanticize a person who will inevitably have flaws you’re bound to be disappointed, and celebrity culture leads unsuspecting teens right into this trap. Teens are constantly disappointed in themselves for not reaching the heights that their idols have seemingly reached, and disappointed in their idols for not reaching the heights their fans thought they reached. It’s a vicious cycle, and until the media makes a conscious effort to stifle the increased growth of celebrity culture, a cycle that will continue.
"R. Kelly arrested in Chicago after being indicted by federal grand jury on new sex crime charges", Chicago Tribune, July 11, 2019.
Dickson, E.J. (January 16, 2021). "We're All Missing the Point of the Armie Hammer Cannibalism Scandal". Rolling Stone. Retrieved January 17, 2021.