The other morning I woke up with this ingenious thought that I thought I should develop and share with the world. That is what I’ve placed in the title here. Frankly I see it as the solution to a whole pile of problems at the same time. I really think this idea needs to be spread around thoroughly, ideally going viral and becoming a mass movement. As an idealistic statement it’s far more realistic than Michael Moore’s “Oprah for President” idea anyway.
I will try to avoid polarizing and polemic language here, because, honestly, I believe that this is an idea where constructive thinkers of good will among both Democrats and Republicans could come on board, and I don’t want to mess that up by presenting the idea either as some flaming liberal or some calloused out-of-touch white guy (even if I might be a bit of both).
The basic idea is relatively simple: We have a formerly major US city that is currently way up “Poop Creek” without a paddle, and we have a world famous brain surgeon (literally) who happens to have been born as a poor black child (literally) within the city in question, who is getting on towards an age where he could comfortably retire from the stressful business of getting rich by cutting open white people’s heads and dealing with their brain problems for them (literally), instead focus the rest of his life on giving something back to “his people” in the broadest sense (literally). Why not bring these two situations together as the best hope for both?
Ben Carson is already being touted by some political pundits as the next great hope for the Republican Party. A regular performer on the Washington public speaker circuit these days, he gave what some consider to be a particularly inspiring talk at a Washington prayer breakfast last winter, where in front of President Obama and the rest of America’s most important leaders (literally) proposed a set of values and solutions to address Americas “spiritual concerns” which were music to Republican ears. The problem was that he also clearly demonstrated that he had no concept of how political administrations need to work to get things done.
I’d say Detroit would be the perfect training ground for him in this respect. If he were to dive into that project this year or next, at age 62, and if he would succeed in turning that city around, then even at 69 years old I would consider him to be a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination for 2020. But more importantly this year I believe Detroit needs him and he needs Detroit. And let me stress again, even though he more strongly identifies with Baltimore these days, the city in which he built his reputation as a great surgeon, he originally comes from the ghettos of Detroit.
Dr. Carson began his breakthrough prayer breakfast speech quoting from a few verses in Proverbs 11, followed by 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” His great hope is that through prayer, moral discipline and a restored sense of self-belief, American society can be turned around. I believe that if he wants to pursue that vision he should begin by doing so on what might be called a “Gideon scale”: winning a truly miraculous victory on a very local level, and there is no better place for Carson to start than in the city of his birth.
Among the most conspicuous and least tenable ideas that Dr. Carson tossed out in his prayer breakfast speech was that of a flat tax system. His rationale on this was as simple and elegant, and probably as ultimately unworkable, as his tax proposal itself: “When I pick up my Bible, you know what I see? I see the fairest individual in the universe, God, and he’s given us a system. […] So there must be something inherently fair about proportionality. […] Now some people say, ‘Well that’s not fair, because it doesn’t hurt the guy who made ten billion dollars as much as the guy who made ten.’ Where does it say that you have to hurt the guy?”
On a national scale the unintended consequences of assuming that the Old Testament is the ultimate standard for fair and just government could ultimately be disastrous. I won’t even begin to argue that point here. But in Detroit operating on the basis of that sort of standard could be a very good thing! What Dr. Carson’s native city needs is a restored sense of fairness and compassion and belief in its future, based on significant transcendent values. If that city sees its leaders as holding themselves accountable to a higher standard, rather than pursuing whatever personal advantages they can get away with as long as the loopholes of American law allow for them and joining the Romneys in stashing their loot in the Cayman Islands, that could inspire its residents to come together and work to realize these same higher principles.
Heck, let him try to restructure the finances of that city on a flat tax basis. Let him work with the neighborhoods there on a basis of everyone chipping in proportionately. It’s not like he’d end up making their situation any worse, and he could learn some valuable lessons about practical public management in the process.
But more than his conservative fiscal policy theories, Carson has a true zeal for something close to my own heart; something I believe is key to turning around US culture in general and for salvaging Detroit in particular: education. Again from his prayer breakfast speech: “Our system of government was designed for a well-informed and educated populace, and when they become less informed they become vulnerable. Think about that.”
I have thought about that, and I quite entirely agree. I also fully agree with the aims of Dr. Carson’s own personal charitable organization, The Carson Scholars Fund, which was initiated in the 1990s to address the problems in American education that studies like PISA (which make those of us in Finland’s education system look so good) have pointed out. His goal has been to give “intellectual superstars” the same sort of social status within schools that sports heroes have –– a Quixotic quest if there ever was one, but an incredibly noble one all the same. The basic idea is to pass on to the most vulnerable in society the same sort of hope and vision that Ben Carson himself found as a very vulnerable young man between covers of books that the tax payers provided for him in the Detroit public library!
The ideal of Carson’s scholarship program is not only to build self-reliance, but community involvement among its beneficiaries: “Unless you cared about other people it didn’t matter how smart you were. We got plenty of people like that. We don’t need those. We need smart people who care about other people.” Those they set out to help are “kids who come from homes with no books and they go to schools with no libraries. Those are the ones who drop out, and we need to truncate that process early on because we can’t afford to waste any of those young people. For every one of those people that we keep from going down that path of self-destruction and mediocrity, that’s one less person you have to protect yourself and your family from; one less person you have to pay for in the penal or the welfare system; one more tax-paying productive member of society, who may invent a new energy source or come up with a cure for cancer. They’re all important to us and we need every single one of them.”
Beyond that, Carson sees education as the key to preventing the US from “going down the same pathway as so many pinnacle nations who have preceded us” to self-destruction from within, in spite of their massive military dominance. This has obviously started to happen in America already, but as Carson says, “We can fix it. Why can we fix it? Because we’re smart.”
Dr. Carson’s appeal to Republicans is not only based on his religious ideals and his message of “not accepting helplessness,” but that he is a front line expert in medical matters and health care. The intense and ongoing efforts to block and repeal “Obamacare,” they feel, need a (preferably black) compassionate yet firm and unquestionably well informed human face. This was one of the main issues that Fox (or Faux) News’s Sean Hannity put to Carson in an interview following up on his prayer breakfast performance. To his credit, Dr. Carson replied in terms that largely ignored the bile built into Hannity’s question, with the constructive suggestion that rather than focusing on destroying what they hate, Republicans need to focus on building better alternatives, which shouldn’t be that hard to do. Public health care needs to be arranged in a way that places the emphasis back on local community needs, and on the doctor/patient relationship. He’s probably quite right about that, and Detroit would be the ideal place to start building, from scratch really, a health-care infrastructure based on those principles. While he’s at it he can rebuild the rest of the city’s social service infrastructure in this sort of a way that “puts power back in the hands of the people”.
Republicans have blamed Detroit’s problems on generations of labor union centered Democratic administration. Whether or not that’s a cheap and unfair charge (and I believe it probably is) at this point there’s not much left in terms of entrenched power structures there. The city is ripe for starting over, and rebuilding based on fresh ideas. If there is an idealistic, intelligent and successful black man with a track record of public speaking out about such ideas, who would like to show the world how they would work in practice, Detroit would be just the place for him to do it. In the same Hannity interview he said, ”Part of the problem we’re having right now is that there are a lot of people who lack courage, who always want people to adore them and that just are not willing to take stands based on real convictions.”
Amen! So let’s give him a practical laboratory for putting these educational and economic principles into practice, to show the rest of the country and the world what a difference pride in education and community involvement can make. With the bankruptcy proceedings currently underway in Detroit, let’s insists on emergency replacement of the city’s managers, with an expedited election of a replacement mayor under the supervision of state and federal emergency managers. Let’s come together behind Dr. Ben Carson as the man for this job, not as another political lawyer but as a man focused on fixing things, to give kids very much like him 50 years ago a chance to develop an awareness of their own potential greatness. Let’s let him put his money where his mouth is, not only in helping individual children with promise, but in terms of administrating substantial reform and renewal.
Carson claims to want to follow his mother’s spiritual leadership model. After ignorantly getting married at just 13 years old to a man of very limited integrity, his mother went on to divorce this shyster and raise two sons as a single mother in a ghetto in the troubled times of the fifties and sixties the best way she knew how: by setting very strict rules and high standards, and not accepting excuses for any form of poor performance. This included strict limitations on television and requirements for regular reading and writing outside of school. During his childhood Carson never actually realized that his mother herself was illiterate.
On this basis Carson really has no excuse for distancing himself from Detroit’s problems. Everything he is, and every value he promotes, finds its starting point and its future relevance in what used to be Motown. The fact that it seems unlikely that he could succeed in of solving Detroit’s problems is all the more reason that he should focus on trying to do so! With so much of his rhetoric focused on not accepting excuses for defeat and not being the prisoner of preconceptions, to be consistent about things he really has to apply these ideals to the city of his birth. He might not be able to get away with bluffing as much as his mother did in insisting on high performance from those under his leadership, but that is no excuse for not believing in himself and his city and not trying. Not to try would be worst form of failure in this case. Carson should know this on the basis of being a doctor rather than a lawyer. Back to his prayer breakfast speech, “What do lawyers learn in law school? To win! By hook or by crook, you gotta win. So you’ve got all of these Democrat lawyers and all these republican lawyers and all their side wants is to win. We need to get rid of that. What we need to start thinking about is how do we solve problems.”
I really can see where Detroit doesn’t need more well-meaning white liberals telling it what to do. Detroit needs one of its own –– a kid who grew up poor but somehow made it anyway –– to return and restore a sense of vision, combined with a conviction that none of the little black kids in decaying neighborhoods can be treated as disposable.
So seriously, let’s get a movement started to draft Ben Carson for the job. I know that some of you actually know him. Put this idea to him. Light a fire under him to get him moving on this. Detroit needs him, and the world needs the hope of seeing Detroit rise out of its ashes.