Ben Carson's apotheosis, America's political nadir: The surgeon who thinks he's God, and the country that enabled him

Ben Carson's political ascent is alarming -- not only because of what he believes, but for what it says about us

By Sarah Hill
Published October 20, 2015 6:53PM (EDT)
  (AP/Carlos Osorio)
(AP/Carlos Osorio)

Ben Carson has been spouting falsehoods and exaggerations for some time.  Back when he began hatching himself as an authority on things other than pediatric brain surgery, he offended staid academic audiences from Emory University to his very own Johns Hopkins.  Back then the blowups over his shockingly un-academic beliefs (he attributes the theory of evolution to Satan and once equated homosexuality with murder) seemed little more than an Ivory Tower kerfuffle,

But then he decided to run for President and is now one leg in a triumvirate – with Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina - of fatuous bombast.  

So, now we’re all forced to take seriously his nutty policy prescriptions as well as his blissful comfort with innumerable mistakes and inaccuracies: like not knowing who our NATO allies are; like not understanding that the President really does have to abide by Supreme Court decisions; like saying – more or less- that Jews holocausted themselves; like claiming that indentured servitude for undocumented immigrants is a win-win for them and agriculture; and like advising that anyone caught in the crosshairs of a mass shooting should ignore law enforcement recommendations and instead take down the gunman (even though when he faced a shooter, he just steered him toward a different human target). In his latest stunt, Carson has temporarily suspended his campaign to promote his latest book.

Despite gaffe upon gaffe, Carson remains smug and self-confident.  What should be humiliating experiences with public fact-checking do not bother him, although though they bother both his supporters and his detractors.  Why not?

Because Ben Carson suffers from the surgeon’s complex.  

Recall the joke about the surgeon who died and went to heaven.  Upon arrival, St. Peter shows him around and tells him the rules.  In heaven, everyone is equal; all the trappings of status and ranking that gave privileges to some on earth melt away in the holy firmament.  So in the cafeteria, the good doctor is surprised to see a guy, wearing green scrubs and a cloth mask, striding to the head of the lunch line.  In response to his indignant objection, St. Peter explains: “Oh that’s just God; he likes to play doctor.”

You see doctors sometimes take their curative powers too seriously and act like God; some even act like they believe they’re God.

It should humble a doctor to be accused of playing God.  Alas it probably doesn’t offend as much as it should, since the self-confidence of doctors can leave them well above reproach and immune to criticism.  That’s what playing God means: you have unassailable confidence in yourself and your powers.  Thus, you’re infallible, omniscient and – if you’re really, really good at what you do – omnipotent.

And this is where we find ourselves with Ben Carson.  He’s got the surgeon’s complex, which is to say that he has the God complex.  We know he was a good surgeon (he’s bragged about that plenty).  But being that good surgeon trained him to believe as well that he’d be good at anything, including things that he is spectacularly unprepared to do, is spectacularly bad at, and is spectacularly devoid of awareness of his lack of fitness for.  

You might think Carson is just a garden-variety theocratic, reciting the red meat axiom that America is Christian nation.  But the real problem with how Carson got to that axiom runs deeper.  It’s not just, for example, that he clearly believes a religious test for office is appropriate for Muslims; it’s that he believes it, so therefore it’s correct, nearly 200 years of constitutional scholarship and Supreme Court decisions notwithstanding.  

Who possesses that kind of certitude?  

Surgeons do; and in fact, we want them to.  Surgery is a profession that requires extraordinary self-confidence and extraordinary faith in one’s own ability to work successfully at the boundaries of life and death, with – on balance – felicitous outcomes.  Who wouldn’t, after a 22-hour surgery separating conjoined twins, suspect that his gifts were divine in origin? And what society would not celebrate such an extraordinary feat as miraculous?

The problem with Carson is that once he thought his gifts God-given, he went on to imagine that they were also were infinite; you know, like God is limitless.  

There’s no shortage of demagoguery in the Republican airspace right now.  In fact, there’s so much of it that you can choose among sub-varieties that best match your particular tastes and bugaboos:  you can choose from the political types (Cruz, Huckabee, Christie, Jindal, or Paul), between the business types (Trump or Fiorina) or you can opt for the newest, a surgical type (Carson).  While demagoguery in politicians and self-promoting corporate hucksters probably surprises no one, that a doctor could be such a gasbag, preposterous know-it-all keeps disappointing conservatives who look to Carson as their redeemer.

But it shouldn’t.

In essence Ben Carson is our collective fault.  After all, surgeons develop their outsized egos because we encourage them do so.  His faith in himself comes not only from his religious conviction but also from the way that our nominally secular society celebrates the miraculous work of doctoring.

For Carson, who exited surgery to enter a gig telling the truth as he sees it, on Fox News, the belief that he could do anything only grew stronger in a swirl of fabricated events in front of fawning audiences who, like his patients, were dazzled by what he treats as fact: his super-human greatness.

But anyone who confuses what were once his probably really good doctor skills with his current display of really bad leader-of-the-free world skills might want to ask just want kind of doctor this political hack has become.  He has become one that, as Rolling Stone correspondent Jesse Berney suggests, you might not want rendering life-saving aid to you.

None of us should forget what Doctor Ben Carson said in the aftermath of the Roseburg shootings:  That in his years of operating on patients, he “never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.”

While there are doctors out there who advocate all kinds of carry – concealed, open, and crazy wide-out-in-the open – it’s hard to imagine any doctor advocating the bedside manner that Carson has showed us that he – as our elected leader – would offer the nation newly mourning, once again, the loss of sons and daughters in another senseless killing.  

If you think – like him – that his surgical accomplishments suit him to governing, then think again, because his pursuit of politics has, in the aftermath of Roseburg, tarnished the one thing that he could legitimately claim: that he is still a good doctor.  

So what’s the best prescription for what ails us with Dr. Ben Carson possibly in charge? America, heal thyself.

Donald Tump & Ben Carson Way Out In Front

Sarah Hill

Sarah Hill is an essayist who teaches anthropology and environmental studies at Western Michigan University.

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