Quoting Voltaire - Dr. Ben Carson and The Best of All Possible Worlds
I attended a faculty party this year where someone referred to Dr. Ben Carson’s Panglossian management of HUD (Housing and Urban Development). There was some nervous laughter around the room and then the conversation quickly moved on. While most folks know the term Panglossian, I’m not sure they understood the irony in this statement, but more importantly, the irony in bringing up such a topic, one that hearkens back to pre-revolutionary French fervor that would eventually bring down whole monarchies and start a long period of protracted warfare.
Dr. Pangloss was a philosopher and tutor in Voltaire’s revolutionary 1759 novel Candide. Despite horrible circumstances all around him, he maintained that his world was “the best of all possible worlds.” What is ironic is that Voltaire created the character as an anti-intellectual jab at the ivory-tower professor. This was Voltaire’s effort to discredit not just stuffy academics, but really all those who are detached from the consequences of their actions, including the clergy and the aristocracy.
Dr. Carson, a surgeon by training, is perhaps not well suited to run a department like HUD. However, he also represents the anti-intellectual position towards HUD, because he was appointed to a position he was hardly qualified for. Like many others, he was placed there by a president, and confirmed by a congress, to fix what they believed was broken by too much intellectual/academic input. So Dr. Carson and what he stands for, are the polar opposite of academic and intellectual Panglossians. Instead, they are part of a movement that came to Washington brandishing pitchforks to “drain the swamp” of Panglossians and see their heads roll…
So this leaves us with a rather nasty dilemma: if they are not the Panglossians, then are all those faculty who where nervously laughing around the table the real Panglossians? Or more generally, are those who stand on the other side of the aisle the Panglosses? If Voltaire were alive in 2016, would he also have demanded an end to the old order and voted for Trump? Are we already in the throws of a revolution? And if so, what is next… Napoleon?
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