- - Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Earlier this year, one of the mainstream media networks was planning to do a special on my retirement from neurosurgery. They recorded a lecture that I gave at my medical school, as well as one given at a high school in Detroit. They also accompanied me to my old neighborhoods, where many of the neighbors came out to greet me and talk about old times. I was struck by some of the comments I heard, including the notion that I always had lofty dreams that seemed unrealistic, but that others enjoyed hearing about anyway. Someone else told me that they would always murmur among themselves when I was coming, “Here comes Mr. Know-It-All. Let’s get out of here.” For some reason unknown to me, the network decided not to air the special, but it was still a valuable opportunity for me to catch up with old acquaintances. Similarly, some years ago, I attended the 25th reunion of my high school graduating class. The thing that struck me the most was the fact that many of the “really cool” guys were dead. Many of my other classmates told me how proud they were of my accomplishments and asked me if I remembered how they used to encourage me. Of course I did not, because no such encouragement took place, but people’s memories change over time.

Many of my fellow members of the Horatio Alger Society of Distinguished Americans have recounted similar stories of being regarded as different and not always being part of the “in” crowd when they were growing up. The Horatio Alger Society inducts 10 to 12 new members each year. These are people who grew up under very difficult circumstances and went on to achieve at the highest levels of their respective endeavors. Many of their names would be quite familiar to the public. Are their stories aberrant, or are we truly the captains of our own destiny? In the game of chess, pawns are just used for the purposes of the royal pieces. In real life, “pawns” — average citizens — similarly are used by many in power for their own purposes, while at the same time vociferously proclaiming that they are the only ones looking out for the interests of the pawns, who happily follow their commands, thinking that this “royal” contingent has their interests in mind.

In a chess game, a pawn can become any one of the royal pieces, if it can make it to the other side of the board. The opponent will do almost anything to keep one from reaching its goal, because that would interfere with the power structure. If they can keep the pawns on “their side” of the board, where it is much safer, the status quo can be maintained. Although no analogy is perfect, it is pretty easy to see the point here. By keeping large groups of Americans complacent and afraid to challenge authority, the position, wealth and power of those in authority can be maintained. The last thing those in authority want is independent-thinking citizens who wake up to the reality that this country was actually designed for them and not for a ruling class that thinks it knows what’s best for everyone else. They dread the possibility of people actually scrutinizing their words and deeds, and holding them accountable for same. By using strong-arm tactics and a sheepishly compliant news media, which originally was supposed to be the guardian of truth, they have been very successful at pawn control.

I can’t remember how many times during my medical career I was told, “You can’t do that” or “No one has done that before” or “Do you think all the incredibly bright people who have preceded you didn’t think of that?” Certainly if I had listened to those comments instead of critically analyzing the problems and using both the triumphs and mistakes of others from the past to produce innovative solutions, my career path would have been considerably different. We have these magnificent brains with outstanding reasoning ability in order to be creative and in order to be able to critically analyze what we hear and see. All of us as citizens must stop acting like pawns and start acting like masters of our own destiny.

We should not listen to those who say there is too much corruption for honesty and common sense to succeed. We cannot believe that our enemies are too powerful to combat, and we should not accept that most of the media will never change back to being stalwarts of integrity and truth. We can play the role of nice little pawn or we can be smart, courageous and move out of our “go along to get along” comfort zone to accomplish something that is truly great for our future. At first, it might be a lonely journey, but eventually others will see the light, and we will shed the pawn mentality and be promoted to the position of proud and independent citizen of America.

Ben S. Carson is professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University.