A tale of two buses: On Ben Carson, Zoltan Istvan, millennialism and eternal life

Bob and Joanne Pontius attended Ben Carson’s book signing at Costco. Ben Carson brings his improbable campaign for the Republican presidential nomination to Austin Monday for a book-signing of his book A More Perfect Union, at the Costco in Northwest Austin. Carson has suspended most campaigning for the next few weeks for the book tour. He signed books for an hour and a half on Monday. LAURA SKELDING/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Good morning Austin:

Yesterday began with a 7:30 a.m. call from Dr. Ben Carson for what I thought was a pretty good half hour interview about his new book, A More Perfect Union, his primer on the Constitution, which I read over the weekend.

I was pleased.

According to the most recent Fox News poll, Carson is one percentage point behind Trump. According to the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, he is three points behind Trump. All within the margin of error.

In other words, that means, in terms of preciousness-of-time-per-percentage-point-in-the-polls, my half hour with Carson was roughly equivalent to a half hour with Trump.

That’s pretty cool.

And by my preciousness calculation, my half hour with Carson is the equivalent of well over an hour on the phone with Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, between 90 minutes and two hours with Carly Fiorina, three-and-a-half hours with Mike Huckabee, John Kasich or Rand Paul, and a full calendar day on the phone with Chris Christie.

Pretty good.

Carson is also a good interview because his answers are not entirely predictable.

For example, on Sunday’s This Week on ABC, host George Stephanopoulos found himself repeatedly confounded.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let’s turn to some domestic policy. I was struck by reading your previous book, “America The Beautiful,” of things that you wrote there that sound a little bit more like Bernie Sanders than some of your Republican rivals.

In that book, you wrote about taking the positive aspects of socialism and actually implementing them within capitalism.

CARSON: I meant one of the things that happens, for instance, in Europe, for medical school, is that you don’t have to pay for it. And, as a result, they don’t have the skew that we have here. A lot of people, when they finish medical school, they’re hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

And instead of, you know, doing what they may have wanted to do, which was maybe be a private — a primary care doctor, they decide that I’d better become, you know, one of the specialists that makes a lot more money so I can pay this money back.

That’s not an issue in Europe and they don’t have this — the kind of primary care deficit that we have.

And later:

STEPHANOPOULOS:  You are the only Republican, the only major candidate who opposed President Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan after 9/11.

And I want to show what you said at the debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARSON: Declare that within five to 10 years, we will become petroleum independent. The moderate Arab states would have been so concerned about that, they would have turned over Osama bin Laden and anybody else you wanted on a silver platter within two weeks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: That’s what you said he should have done.

But how would that have worked?

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I simply don’t understand how you think this would have worked.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And just before I move on, though, I just want to be clear here. So you’re standing by the statement that, had President Bush simply declared energy independence back after 9/11, that would have caused the moderate Arab governments to turn over Osama bin Laden?

CARSON: I think they — I think they would have been extremely concerned about what the ramifications of that would have been. And I believe they would have been considerably more cooperative.

Of Stephanopoulos, Carson told me, “He’s trying to act like he doesn’t get it and, `I’m a really smart guy, this guy must be way off the wall.’ That’s the impression he’s trying to give.”

Of his campaign’s success, Carson said, “There’s no question that all the experts and political pundits can’t understand it.”

Carson continued:

And I do believe there’s more going on here than meets the eye and I actually do believe in God and interestingly enough, we claim as a nation we believe n God, we’re always saying , particularly when there is a tragedy, “Let us pray.: So are those just empty words?

I am advocating that people be who they are, that they stand up for what they believe in and not allow someone else tell them what they believe and what they can say, and I think that’s a huge part of what being what an American is. We give that away when we allow others to tell us what’s permissible.

Carson said he ran because he was drafted, his house full of boxes of petitions, people imploring him, “you’re the only hope.”

I said, “Lord, if you really want me to do this you will open the doors, I’m not going to bang them down but if you open them I’ll walk through.” And they’ve been flying open.

 

 

Ben Carson at Prestonwood Baptist Church

Ben Carson at Prestonwood Baptist Church

Of course, Carson is not the only Republican candidate called by God to run.

On Sunday, he was one of six candidates who talked about the role faith played in his candidacy at Prestonwood Baptist Church, a huge evangelical church in Plano.

It was an in intense session and both Rick Santorum and Carly Fiorina seemed to me a little too tightly wound.

Carly Fiorina at Prestonwood Baptist Church

Carly Fiorina at Prestonwood Baptist Church

 

Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, seemed wound a little too loosely, like he’s mostly running for president just to get a breather from the rigors of his Fox show and is testing material for his next broadcasting gig.

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Dr. Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church, with Mike Huckabee

Cruz was his usual laser-guided missile, but leavened with well-practiced affability, and was the home state favorite.

Ted Cruz at Prestonwood Baptist Church

Ted Cruz at Prestonwood Baptist Church

Dr. Jack Graham, Prestonwood’s pastor, interviewed each of the candidates, offering warm praise for all of them, though he was especially effusive with Cruz:

The Lord seems to be elevating you and giving you favor with people.

But, even Jeb Bush, with his high church Episcopal upbringing and conversion to Catholicism, hit the right evangelical notes.

“My parents taught me right and wrong,” said Bush, “But my personal journey began a little later in my life.”

A husband with three kids and involved in myriad things, Bush said,  “I was so overwhelmed.”

I decided to slow down. I started to read the Bible cover to cover, and I got about halfway through Romans when I realized that Jesus was my savior I accepted him as my savior and from that moment on I’ve had a partnership with Jesus Christ that gives me counsel .

I can think with serenity. I can think clearly. I’ve learned to pray. I’ve learned to get down on my knees to pray about things before I make big decisions, and in public life today, it is so important to pray and to think about things clearly because the world has been torn asunder.

But, along with Cruz, the crowd favorite was Carson.

Ben Carson at Prestonwood Baptist Church

Ben Carson at Prestonwood Baptist Church

Some find all this God talk unsettling.

But as I thought about it, I realized that if you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and you are running for the Republican nomination for president, and Jesus has not let you know that you may be the one, well, maybe you shouldn’t be running for president.

Yesterday, a few hours after our phone conversation, Carson signed copies of his book for more than 500 people who lined up at the Costco in Northwest Austin, part of a book tour that Carson, with his preternatural calm, can execute in the midst of a presidential campaign – and watch his numbers climb.

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For the Carson faithful at Costco, faith counts for a lot. But, since I first encountered Carson’s foot soldiers at the Conservative Political Conference in March, what impressed was how singularly, positively focused they are on him. They mostly don’t even think about or offer a cross word about the other Republican candidates.

 

 

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photo by Laura Skelding

 

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Kiyan Caras and his mother Mahshid, center at Ben Carson book signing at Costco. Photo by Laura Skelding Photo by Laura Skelding

 

Ryan and Kiyan Caras at Ben Carson's book signing at Costco in Austin

Ryan and Kiyan Caras at Ben Carson’s book signing at Costco in Austin (photo by me)

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Leaving the Ben Carson book signing at Costco in Austin. Photo by Laura Skelding

 

But it seems there is also a touch of Christian millennialism in the rapture for Carson as a chosen figure at a chosen time.

Here is a link to a Carson interview with Sharyl Atkisson on her new Sunday show Full Measure, in which he says we may be getting close to the end of days, a point of view consistent with his faith as a Seventh Day Adventist.

Bob and Joanne Pontius attended Ben Carson’s book signing at Costco. LAURA SKELDING/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“The Bible says, `He who blesses Israel will be blessed. He who curses Israel will be cursed,” a cheery Joanne Pontius told me after getting her books signed yesterday. “That’s why we’re in trouble. We’re not blessing Israel.”

Let’s pause here for a brief primer on Christian millennialism.

 

THE MILLENNIUM

Among Southern Baptists, differences of opinion arise on the nature of the millennium referenced in Revelation 20. That passage describes a 1,000-year period, known as the millennium, during which Satan is bound. Disagreement occurs regarding the timing of Christ’s return relative to the millennium and whether the number 1,000 is literal or symbolic.

Premillennialists believe Christ will return prior to a literal 1,000-year period.

Among premillennialists, there are varied opinions on whether Jesus will remove Christians from the earth prior to a tribulation preceding His return. Some, known as dispensational premillennialists or dispensationalists, believe in such a rescue for Christians. Others, known as historic premillennialists, believe Christians will not be taken out of the world until Jesus returns. A minority of premillennialists believe Christians will be raptured halfway through a period of tribulation preceding Christ’s return.

Postmillennialists believe the 1,000-year period will occur before Jesus returns. Adherents of this position generally believe the millennium will be a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity under the lordship of Christ. Although postmillennialism has enjoyed proponents such as Jonathan Edwards and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary founder B.H. Carroll, the view faded from Baptist life in the last century.

Amillennialists believe the number 1,000 is figurative and that we are currently in the millennium (some premillennialists and postmillennialists also believe 1,000 is figurative). They argue that Satan was bound by Christ through His finished work at the cross and has limited power until Christ returns. Thus, the millennium refers to the current era when Christ reigns in the hearts of believers without Satan’s interference. Christ’s return will mark the close of this era, amillennialists believe.

Then, of course, there are simply millennials – those born after 1980 and the first generation to come of age in the new millennium.

courtesy Zoltan

courtesy Zoltan

Enter Zoltan Istvan, who sent me an email at the fateful hour of one minute before midnight Sunday.

I wanted to invite you or one of your journalists to ride on our Immortality Bus as we tour Austin tomorrow (Monday) promoting transhumanism and cyborgism. Our tour is a bit unusual, but increasingly a number of people consider me the leading 3rd party 2016 US presidential candidate in America. My campaign has some totally original ideas about the future and politics, and we’re the only presidential campaign talking policy on designer babies, artificial intelligence, robots taking all our jobs, a universal basic income, ectogenesis, living to 150, etc. We also think our bus tour is possibly historic, and will one day join the ranks of buses like Ken Kesey’s “Further” which helped start the 1960s.

We are just completing the 3rd stage of our national tour tomorrow, and our final event is in Austin. It will be a show and tell of “biohackers”–who put technology in their bodies as upgrades. For example, many of them (like myself) have chips in them.

Well, that’s different.

LIke the folks at Prestonwood, Zoltan wants everlasting life. He just doesn’t want to have to die first.

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From a recent Huffington Post blog by Zoltan (and yes, it’s such a cool and seemingly fitting first name, that I’m going with it as a standalone name.).

It seemed a wild, impossible dream a year ago when I told my wife and young daughters I was going to drive a bus shaped like a coffin across America to raise life extension issues. A week ago, I just finished the second stage of the tour. Soon I’ll begin the third stage from Arizona to Texas, and then across the Bible Belt to Washington DC, where I plan to post a Transhumanist Bill of Rights to the US Capitol building.

Andi Hatch Photography

Andi Hatch Photography

If the bus tour seems like a wacky idea–especially for a presidential candidate–it’s because it is. Of course, to transhumanists, a more wacky idea is how most of our nation largely accepts death as a way of life. In the 21st Century, with the amazing science and technology this country has, I don’t believe death needs to be left unconquered. If, as a nation, we would just apply our ingenuity and resources, we could probably conquer death in a decade’s time with modern medicine. That’s precisely the reason why I’m running for president and driving the coffin bus around the country; I want to tell people the important news and get them to support radical technology and longevity science.

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Zoltan in Austin last night

From a Dylan Matthews report in Vox:

Zoltan Istvan is the presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party. The party is new, but the movement it represents is not. Transhumanism is the belief that humans can and should use every technology we have to improve and further evolve the species. We should use elective protheses to gain better arms and legs. We should perfect robotic hearts so no one ever dies of heart disease again. We should use cloning and stem cell research and genetic engineering to design the best humans possible. And those humans should be able to live forever.

The coffin-shaped Immortality Bus symbolizes that goal, and serves as a reminder of what Zoltan is promising, and what his opponents are not. Hillary Clinton will let you die, it says. Donald Trump will let you die. Bernie Sanders will let you die. But Zoltan Istvan will conquer death.

Zoltan — who almost always goes by his first name — is only too aware of how fringe an agenda this is. He knows that third-party candidates stand no chance, especially when their party is contesting its first election ever. The operation is about as low-budget as could be. The Immortality Bus is a 1978 Blue Bird Wanderlodge RV, which Zoltan bought for $10,000 near Sacramento, drove back to his home in Marin County, and, along with volunteers, tricked out with a wooden coffin top, new tires, a new paint job, and even some flowers on the roof (how sad would a coffin be with no flowers tossed on top?).

The mission isn’t to win — not yet, anyway. This campaign — including the opening bus trip that will, knock wood, take us from Mill Valley to a “biohacking” festival in the Mojave Desert to the Venetian in Las Vegas — is more of an awareness-building effort. It’s an attempt to force Americans to consider the possibility that the issues that consume most contemporary political debate are basically sideshows distracting from what is, in Zoltan’s view, the only question that really matters: How can we live as long as possible, ideally forever?

So, 12 hours after my wake-up call from Ben Carson, I found myself at a sweet little house tucked away on a little street off Lamar at a bio hackers meet up with Zoltan.

It was easy to find. It was the house with the retrofitted coffin-shaped Immortality Bus parked outside.

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Ok. The Ben Carson bus was cool, and definitely more comfortable.

But the Immortality Bus is sick.

Here are Zoltan’s remarks last night:

And here is a Ted Talk by Zoltan.

On the Immortality Bus with Zoltan was his driver/sidekick/videographer Roen Horn, a reporter from Slate, and two film crews – one from the Guardian and the other an independent documentarian.

Not bad. Carson at Costco had a lot of photographers, local TV, and film crew from the Today Show. And, unlike Zoltan, Carson is about to get Secret Service protection. But still, not bad for third party candidate.

At the meetup, there were presentations by biohackers about cutting edge research – including something that one of the presenters said he stuck inside his gums on one side of his mouth and caused his graying temples to return to brown, and experimental eye drops that allowed for extraordinary night vision.

In between, Horn offered an animated pitch for Zoltan.

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“Dying is mainstream,” he said. “Vote for Zoltan If you want to live forever.”

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Zoltan and Horn are atheists. They believe religion is a drag on sound thinking.

Horn said that dying rendered living meaningless.

That provoked an interesting back-and-forth with some of the biohackers.

Wouldn’t a limitless lifespan sap any urgency and energy out of living?

Isn’t a belief in atheism as much an act of unprovable faith as a belief in God?

Zoltan wants to build a movement among millennials – like environmentalism – devoted to transhumanism.

He would also, in the future, like to make a more serious run for president.

He has a chip implanted in his hand, but it is not about life-extension but convenience. It can be programmed to open a car door, get through a security system, maybe open a garage door.

hand

Machiavelli, the organizer of the meetup, wants to have a Bitcoin wallet inserted in the same place in his hand, but that’s also just as a cool convenience.

But Machiavelli speaks persuasively about how incredibly fast the world is about to change, with people retrofitting themselves with all kinds of enhancements.

On his way to Austin, Zoltan stopped by the cryonics company where Ted Williams is frozen – in two pieces:

After Williams died July 5, 2002, his body was taken by private jet to the company in Scottsdale, Ariz. There, Williams’ body was separated from his head in a procedure called neuroseparation, according to the magazine.

The operation was completed and Williams’ head and body were preserved separately. The head is stored in a steel can filled with liquid nitrogen. It has been shaved, drilled with holes and accidentally cracked 10 times, the magazine said. Williams’ body stands upright in a 9-foot tall cylindrical steel tank, also filled with liquid nitrogen.

I am worried.

How will Major League Baseball survive a world of bionic implants?

What will a defrosted and reassembled Ted Williams think of all this?

I know a defrosted Bernie Sanders will be assailing life span inequality – the one percent living as perpetual 24-year-olds while the 99 percent age and wither and die.

I returned home late night and told my wife that we may be the last generation to die.

“Isn’t that great,” she said. She meant it.

Not to stereotype, but my wife is Irish American and can hold a grudge, and the idea of her refusing to talk to certain people not just for one finite lifetime but  for the rest of time is exhausting to contemplate.

I can hear myself saying, “It’s been 50,000 years. Can’t you just get over it.”

Also, as someone concerned about eking a few more years out of a career in journalism, the idea of having to do it forever is more than I can bear.

But, listening to Zoltan on the Immortality Bus, I realize I’m just not getting it.

Jobs are going away.

With self-driving vehicles, truck driving won’t even be an occupation in five years.

Zoltan’s wife is a surgeon and her job, he said, will disappear not too many years after that.

No wonder Ben Carson went into politics.

I have other practical concerns.

OK. Fine. I can live with living forever. There’s already more good TV being produced these days than any one person can consume in multiple lifetimes.

But the thought of everyone else living forever is disturbing. If new people keep being born, and no one leaves, well, isn’t that a problem? And if nobody new is being born, yuck.

Where have you gone Ben Carson?

 

Kendra Biegalski, left and her daughter, Christa, 8 wave goodbye to the Carson bus. Ben Carson brings his improbable campaign for the Republican presidential nomination to Austin Monday for a book-signing of his book A More Perfect Union, at the Costco in Northwest Austin. Carson has suspended most campaigning for the next few weeks for the book tour. He signed books for an hour and a half on Monday. LAURA SKELDING/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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