Political philosopher Michael Sandel was this month unveiled by the BBC as its 2009 Reith lecturer. Widely respected for his communitarian ideas, Sandel is also noted for his willingness to grapple with tricky policy issues like organ donation and the ethics of biotechnology. Surely unbeknownst to Auntie, though, the learned professor is less well-known as an inspiration—physical, if not philosophical—for one of the most nefarious, amoral and anti-communitarian characters in fiction: one Montgomery Burns, the nuclear power magnate in The Simpsons.
How did such a thing come about? Comedian Matt Groening, a Harvard reject, created the series, hiring dozens of clever-dick young writers from his hoped-for alma matter in the process. To those in the know, hidden references to America’s haughtiest university are dotted amidst the town’s yellow-skinned residents. The local Kwik-E-Mart, for instance, is located at 57 Mount Auburn Street—the address in Cambridge, Massachusetts of Harvard’s Lampoon, the satirical magazine that schooled many future Simpsons writers.
Sandel is a well-known figure around campus and teaches the university’s most popular course: “Justice.” Thus, as a slightly smug in-joke, Sandel was made one of the models for the cartoon’s least just character. Mr Burns as the Reith lecturer. Beeb chiefs weren’t to know. D’oh.
This post, along with various others, appears in Prospect’s Diary column, at the front of the magazine.