Whatever happens to Ben Carson as far as the Republican nomination goes, he stands on the verge of making linguistic history. On current form, the former brain surgeon will have committed idiomicide by Christmas. The phrase “It’s not brain surgery” will have died at his hand. A steady hand, yes – but the one that wielded the knife .
As a noted historian of the Third Reich – he recently put it out there that gun control might have caused the Holocaust – Carson will know how much one man can do for a name. You didn’t get too many baby Adolfs being registered in the decades after 1945.
But to kill off an enduring popular phrase in the space of a few months is an achievement no one will be able to take away from the Detroit-born presidential hopeful, brilliantly described by the Nation as coming across “ like a neurosurgeon who performed his own lobotomy .” This week’s intervention hastened the demise, with Carson restating his belief that the pyramids were not pharaonic tombs , as some crackpot Egyptologists claim. They were grain stores– and what’s more, they were built by Joseph of Technicolour Dreamcoat fame. Come on – this stuff isn’t brain surgery.
Admittedly, things did look shaky for “it’s not brain surgery” a few years back, at least on this side of the Atlantic. The abortive terrorist attack on Glasgow airport in 2007 was claimed by police to have been masterminded by a brain surgeon – yet you may recall it was primarily self-foiled, as the terrorists had failed to account for the fact the airport door was narrower than the Jeep they intended to storm it with. Photos of the burning vehicle stuck in the airport doors simply cried out for the caption: “Come on, Johnny al-Qaida: it’s not brain surgery.”
But while this stunningly basic miscalculation must have given a few sleepless months to anyone who’d recently undergone brain surgery in his care, the surgeon in question was ultimately acquitted of any involvement, with the jury satisfied he had merely unwittingly given his terrorist friends some money. “It’s not brain surgery” was duly taken off the critical list.
Indeed, it made as full a recovery as it had the year previously, when an urban myth claimed George W Bush had declared of something or other “ it’s not rocket surgery ”. Of course, even if the leader of the free world had muddled the two disciplines that were at some unspecified point deemed the most skilful and complex on the planet, it wouldn’t have mattered – that would just have been the president being the president. It’s not like he’s a brain surgeon. Obviously it would have been a much bigger deal if a brain surgeon had got it wrong.
A brilliant brain surgeon such as Carson, for instance, who has accidentally claimed to have worked with rockets – though he has said Christian dietary supplements cured his prostate cancer symptoms. He was certainly blessed to arrive in the second act of his life with the perfect political catchphrase. “Economics is not brain surgery,” he once opined. He wasn’t worried about the GOP debates , he told Bill O’Reilly, because “it’s not brain surgery”.
He wasn’t worried about the GOP debates, he told Bill O’Reilly, because “it’s not brain surgery”
As for brain surgery itself, the entire global profession can only watch him in horror. Along with neonatal and heart surgeons, brain surgeons are the rock stars of the surgical world. They are the most brilliant, the most feted, the most likely to be played by the hottest actor in a TV drama.
Yet, at the current rate of Carsonification, we could see some epochal disturbance in the rankings, as brain surgeons become gradually but powerfully aware that they are suddenly being talked down to at teaching hospital cocktail parties by an ENT guy, or – shudder – some absolute nobody from orthopaedics. By mid-2016 there will be people who’ve operated on Katie Price who are more respected than brain surgeons. “Heal. Inspire. Revive” runs Carson’s slogan, even as he threatens to do quite the opposite to the reputation of brain surgery. Could he plunge its trust and esteem ranking down to the level of politicians and estate agents? I don’t think even he could debase neurosurgeons down to the level of journalists – still, another few historical digressions and he might surprise us.
Naturally, Carson can afford to be fairly après moi, le déluge about all this. While members of his former profession are condemned to watch him butcher their collective standing, he is out there on the podium trading on the reputation of brain surgery before he was its most high-profile practitioner. And up there, brain surgery does still own the moment. So when he declared at one debate, “I’m the only one here who has separated conjoined twins”, none of his opponents felt logically emboldened enough to retort: “Well, what’s that got to do with the price of rice?” It’s not brain surgery to observe that running the country is not brain surgery.
In this irrational context, furthermore, Carson’s deep Adventist faith is often regarded as an adorably complementary sign of humility. Personally, I do not care for religion in my surgeons. I find it tremendously unsettling. When my child was recovering from neonatal surgery, one of the doctors on his rounds chanced to say something that may possibly have been a reference to the Almighty. Or it may not have – I had been awake in a life-or-death situation for days – but I do remember thinking nervously: no. No, I do not want to think you believe in a higher power. It’s a short step from a higher power to things being out of our hands. You lot are the higher power. You are God – and, unlike lesser versions of this role, you don’t let bad stuff happen. As, wondrously, they didn’t. (If I could have started a religion around the surgeon who saved my baby, I would have.)
At least neonatal surgery is safe from Carsonic poisoning. And we’ll always have “it’s not rocket science”. Or will we? Now that we’ve lost things not being brain surgery, we simply can’t afford the possibility that a future White House race features a rocket scientist who casually mentions that dinosaurs were science fiction. Carson believes being a Muslim should disqualify someone from the US presidency, but I move for urgent legislation that disbars any rocket scientist from running in perpetuity – or, indeed, making any public statement about anything other than rocket science.