In an earlier era, Dr. Benjamin Carson's speech before the National Prayer Breakfast last week would have been a really big deal rather than mere fodder for a brief squall on Twitter and cable news.
Born in crushing poverty to an illiterate single mother dedicated to seeing her children succeed, Carson became the head of the department of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins medical institutions when he was 33. He's been a black celebrity role model ever since.
Even if you didn't like the substance of what Carson had to say at the breakfast, his speech made for great political theater. President Obama was seated on the stage, just a few feet away, and he didn't look like he was having a good time.
Intellectual historians of black America might make a great deal out of the image of a frowning Obama listening as Carson inveighed against a culture of victimology and dependency. It's too trite to say that the president is the incarnation of W.E.B. DuBois and Carson of Booker T. Washington. After all, DuBois renounced his American citizenship, became a communist and moved to Ghana at the end of his life. Obama, the son of a leftist (if not an actual communist) from Africa, went on to become the president of the United States -- a significantly different story, to put it mildly.
But as Mark Twain allegedly said, history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The great argument between DuBois and Washington is often boiled down to integration versus self-help. Washington believed that blacks should emphasize education and self-advancement first and worry about integration later. DuBois favored a civil-rights-first strategy combined with reliance on the leadership of technocrats, including what he called the "talented tenth," or the best African-Americans.
Culturally, DuBois won the argument and the allegiance of liberals and the left, while Washington has often been unfairly cast as an Uncle Tom (despite fighting against racial injustice his whole life).
But in a country that's elected a black president -- twice -- and passed the Civil Rights Act half a century ago, even if Washington was wrong about the sequence of priorities, it seems fair to ponder whether the time has come for his philosophy to get a second look.
Although much of Carson's speech focused on personal responsibility, he offered two concrete policy ideas. The first is a flat tax. The Bible endorses the idea, Carson explained. Everyone should tithe -- give 10 percent -- in good times and bad. It doesn't have to be 10 percent, he conceded. It's the principles of proportionality and simplicity that matter.
Critics complain that the poor guy who puts in $1 will be hurt more than the rich guy who puts in $1 billion. But, Carson asks: "Where does it say you've got to hurt the [rich] guy? He just put a billion dollars in the pot. We don't need to hurt him. It's that kind of thinking that has resulted in 602 banks in the Cayman Islands."
Carson's idea for health-care reform is even more Washingtonian. Instead of the technocratic behemoth of Obamacare, empower the individual. "When a person is born, give him a birth certificate, an electronic medical record and a health savings account to which money can be contributed -- pretax -- from the time you're born till the time you die. If you die, you can pass it on to your family members ... and there's nobody talking about death panels."
The beauty of Carson's argument exceeds its simplicity, particularly as even economist Paul Krugman now concedes that something like death panels are inevitable if we stay on our current path. Taxpayers, the rich or charities can contribute extra money to the accounts of the poor, but at the same time, Carson says, the poor will "have some control over their own health care. And very quickly they're going to learn how to be responsible."
As a conservative, I'm obviously partial to all this. But there's something bigger than a policy dispute going on here. Although DuBois and Washington were understandably consumed by racial questions, the philosophical divide between Obama and Carson is one we are all part of now. And that's a sign of the racial progress both DuBois and Washington fought for.