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In his 1971 novel Being There, Jerzy Kosinski told the story of Chance the Gardener, a simple-minded laborer cloistered his whole life in the townhouse of the wealthy man for whom he worked. When, on the death of his employer, Chance is cast into the world, people insist on mistaking his profound ignorance — he can’t read or write, knows only what he has seen on TV or in the garden — as Zen-like wisdom.
In the novel, virtually everyone who encounters Chance refuses to accept that he could be as limited as he seems, and imagines for him an alternate reality of profound wisdom, which they then manage to see confirmed in the real world. Before long, Chance is advising the President of the Unites States on economic policy. This scene demonstrates how it works::
President “Bobby”: Mr. Gardener, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives? [Long pause]
Chance the Gardener: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.
President “Bobby”: In the garden.
Chance the Gardener: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
President “Bobby”: Spring and summer.
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
President “Bobby”: Then fall and winter.
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
Benjamin Rand: I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we’re upset by the seasons of our economy.
Chance the Gardener: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!
Benjamin Rand: Hmm!
Chance the Gardener: Hmm!
President “Bobby”: Hm. Well, Mr. Gerdener, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.
[Benjamin Rand applauds]
President “Bobby”: I admire your good, solid sense. That’s precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.
In 1979, when Peter Sellers played Chance in the Academy-Award-winning movie, it was an amusing satire that obviously could not happen in the real word. Now that, in the real world, Chance has been elected President of the Unites States, Kosinski’s fiction deserves another close look. Particularly with regard to projection.
We usually encounter the notion of projection — attributing our own attitudes and beliefs to others — in connection with fears and shortcomings, as when people who are serial adulterers, for example, are consumed with suspicion that their spouses are unfaithful. But people also project upwards, as when they assume that people who are well known and/or well off are also wise and good and talented. As the song says, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” but we tend to insist that it is.
Our present-day, real, President Chance and the media mob around him give us an example of this projection every day. One example: the President, at a news conference with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, had this to say about the so-called “two-state solution,” the foundation for decades of the struggle for peace in the Middle East, the presumption that eventually, there will exist there both an Israeli and a Palestinian state:
“So I’m looking at two states and one state. And I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while that two states looked like it may be the easier of the two. To be honest, if Bibi and the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy – I’m happy with the one they like the best.”
In the ensuing hours and days, as Britain’s Independent newspaper reported, “Unable to understand what the President’s inanities actually meant, the lads and lasses of the satellite channels were telling us that he was not as committed as his predecessor to the “two state” solution but might favour a “one state” solution – yet wasn’t ruling out a “two state” solution. “
Now admit it. Isn’t that one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements you’ve heard in a very, very long time? All hail President Chance the Gardener.