I need Ben Carson in my head.
In my hippocampus, to be exact.
According to Carson, the human brain stores a perfect, indelible record of everything that it has seen, heard and done, and if he just drilled a hole through my skull and planted electrodes in the right region, bingo! I’d have access to the whole wondrous trove.
Drill, baby, drill. I need the access. As things stand now, I lose 45 minutes every week to the retrieval of forgotten passwords, and I recently got three-quarters of the way through a mystery before realizing that I knew whodunit, how he dun it and why he dun it. I’d already read the book.
Carson, our brand-new housing secretary, made an introductory, supposedly inspirational speech to federal employees this week, and while this kind of thing normally doesn’t wind up in the news, there’s nothing normal about Carson.
During the speech, he went on the tangent about the brain that I just described, and while, granted, he’s a renowned neurosurgeon and I’m an expert on little more than semicolons, I do question his assertion that with proper cerebral stimulation, someone can “recite back to you verbatim a book they read 60 years ago.” Maybe “Green Eggs and Ham.” But “The Mill on the Floss”?
Several of Carson’s fellow brain experts scoffed at this claim, although there was much louder scoffing at a subsequent stretch of his remarks that described America as a magnet for dreamers who arrived with “all of their earthly belongings in their two hands, not knowing what this country held for them.”
“There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder, for less. 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.”
Sometimes Twitter goes berserk because it’s Twitter, other times because it should. “Their dream?” tweeted movie director Ava DuVernay. “Not be kidnapped, tortured, raped.”
I was transfixed by “even longer, even harder, for less.” Not to be a stickler, but that doesn’t quite cover the distance between the sweatshop and the plantation.
On ABC’s talk show “The View,” Whoopi Goldberg recalled previous odd statements by Carson, noting that “the man who thought the pyramids were built for grain silos” and who “called the Big Bang theory ridiculous” was back with “a brand-new epic.”
“Were the slaves really thinking about the American dream?” she asked. “No, because they were thinking, ‘What the hell just happened?’” It’s a thought I myself have had after listening to Carson.
Carson is the only African-American in Trump’s Cabinet, and he’s a great lesson – for the left as well as the right – that sensitivity is a function of sensibility, not merely of complexion or membership in a given identity group.
A black person can bumble into racially hurtful comments. A female executive can turn a blind eye to sexism in the ranks below her. A gay person can ignore or indulge homophobia. Diversity increases the odds that an organization sees the world more acutely, accurately and empathetically. But it’s not the end of the effort, and it’s no guarantee.
Carson rose from hardship to acclaim and riches. He performed awe-inspiring surgeries. He also suggested that prison causes homosexuality, which he separately likened to bestiality, and that Planned Parenthood aimed, through abortions, to limit the black population. He compared Obamacare to slavery.
He’s a riveting jumble and an important reminder that brilliance and competence along one axis hardly ensures brilliance or even coherence along another. Although we like to tag people as geniuses or fools – it’s a stark, easy taxonomy – they’re more complicated and compartmentalized than that.
Carson is enraptured by what people can be made to remember. I’m fascinated by what they choose to forget. Just before Trump nominated Carson to be housing secretary, one of Carson’s principal campaign advisers said that the good doctor knew far too little about the federal government to work in it. Trump decided to pay that no heed.
During the campaign, Trump said that incidents of aggression in Carson’s youth revealed a “pathological temper” and lumped him together with pedophiles, explaining: “You don’t cure a child molester. There’s no cure for it. Pathological – there’s no cure for that.”
But Carson shrugged that off when Trump came around with a glitzy job offer. It was all water under the hippocampus.
In his speech Monday, Carson said, “There is nothing in this universe that even begins to compare with the human brain and what it is capable of.” He got that much right, and how.