Ben Carson, the Media, and Word Pretzeling

Some media outlets and some of my friends on Facebook have been in an uproar over comments made by Ben Carson at a Monday meeting with Housing and Urban Development employees. They have expressed outrage over Dr. Carson’s use of the word “immigrant” to refer to slaves brought, in cargo holds, to the United States.

“There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less,” Carson, the new HUD Secretary, said. “But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters, might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”

The dictionary defines “immigrant” as “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.” No choice is indicated in this definition. According to Henry Louis Gates, in his 2009 book, In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past, Carson has at least one ancestor who was abducted from Africa. Carson certainly understands the difference between an “involuntary immigrant” and a “voluntary immigrant.” He was not suggesting that slaves came to this country of their own free will. I read his comments before HUD in this way: once here, those who came to this country not by choice, as well as those who came to this country of their own volition, all hoped and prayed for better lives for their progeny.

In fact, Monday night, Carson expounded on his remarks saying, “You can be an involuntary immigrant. Slaves didn’t just give up and die, our ancestors made something of themselves.”

It should be clear to anyone, who cares to look, that the majority membership of the media in the United States didn’t actually report on the HUD meeting. Instead, like heat-seeking missiles, they went in search of a word or a phrase that could be twisted into something vile, something damaging. Sad to say, this intentional mangling has come to characterize much of what the industry is putting forth as journalism. It’s all a matter of capturing readers. And, sad to say, much of the American populace has been eating up these manufactured pretzels without taking a moment to question what they’re ingesting. They do so at their peril.

Accompanying image taken from “Notices of Brazil in 1828 and 1829” by Robert Walsh, published 1830, in public domain

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