Ah! Dull witted mortal, if Fortune begin to stay still, she is no longer Fortune. ~ Boethius
Those who fancy themselves part of what Albert J. Nock called "the remnant," i.e., the die-hard advocates of natural rights and civilized values, may sense, as this winter campaign stretches on and the spring of victory seems to recede, a feeling that it has all been in vain. Indeed, it would have been in vain if either we or our candidate had embarked on a campaign for political plunder, rather than what I prefer to call a "prophetic pantomime." The remnant may remain firm in its anti-political creed…but it has been a long season of acting out the part of men and women hungry for the spoils of victory. Even so, we should remind ourselves that it was never a game of win or loose, it was a game of speaking truth to power…which is more of a prophetic than a political function. Now it's perfectly understandable that many people (and by no means just the fans of Senator Obama) would warm to the advent of a "great" president. But Ron Paul supporters wouldn't want the good doctor to be quite as "great" as a Teddy Roosevelt, or even a Franklin Pierce, a William Henry Harrison, a Millard Fillmore or a Rutherford Hayes. I'm not sure how Thomas Carlyle would have answered Tina Turner's assertion that "we don't need another hero" but the Scottish curmudgeon at least had the perspicacity to point out that heroism comes in a variety of forms, some of them less dangerous to life and limb than others. For example if one consults the Bible one will find a distinction between the office of a seer and of a king, the latter being what today we would call a "politician," with some not too subtle hints that the former is more reputable than the latter. Note, in this regard, that Samuel usually comes off in a better light than David.
And closer to home, hasn't America had far greater non-presidents than presidents? Perhaps the archetypal non-president was William Jennings Bryan, the crusher of youthful Vachel Lindsay's political hopes, who whines,
Defeat of the alfalfa and the Mariposa lily. Defeat of the Pacific and the long Mississippi. Defeat of the young by the old and the silly. Defeat of tornadoes by the poison vats supreme. Defeat of my boyhood, defeat of my dream.
Be that as it may, reading between the lines of his work, it's curious that Lindsay's self-pitying effusions don't carry conviction, for the poem gives ample testimony to the enduring power of his hero, Bryan the prophet who overshadows and outlives Bryan the president-manqué.
And Bryan took the platform. And he was introduced. And he lifted his hand And cast a new spell. Progressive silence fell In Springfield, In Illinois, Around the world.
For better or worse (and I'm no Bryan fan) much of the "progressivism" of Bryan's 1896 presidential campaign became prophetic of what America would become in the 20th century. His "cross of gold" speech was a classic example of speaking truth to power. Today of course it is an endless torrent of paper and Matrix-like information bytes which crucify mankind, but we can't be too hard on old Bryan for not foreseeing that, for as I will explain, foresight is not the primary characteristic of prophecy. And moreover, we have our own political prophet, Dr. Ron Paul. Rather, we must come to grips with the everlasting difficulty of understanding the prophetic (as opposed to the political) modality of power, which is simply a problem of patience, of being able to endure the interval between the "speaking truth" and the "to power."
On the other hand, why would anyone want to pin the label "prophet" on a nice guy like Ron Paul, a sobriquet which, possibly second to "politician" is the most despised job category (or is that Job category) on earth? It all depends what one means by a prophet, so let me offer, once and for all, a handy all-purpose definition: A prophet is a person who sees some higher reality which is invisible to others. This higher reality doesn't have to be something complicated or metaphysical, it could be a moral principle which is so basic that most people take it for granted, and hence render it invisible. Ron Paul, when debating with his so-called peers in the Republican primary debates seemed to dwell in a world of entirely different premises. It wasn't just that Dr. Paul and his antagonists were disagreeing on the issues, which of course they were, but more fundamentally, Dr. Paul was using an entirely different "tool kit" from the mental "tool kit" (or absence thereof) used by his opponents. His antagonists were accustomed to talking about facts on the ground, facts in a constant state of flux, whereas Ron Paul consistently recurred to first principles. Is there any wonder that there was no meeting of minds? Even if the debates had been broadcast in a fair manner, which they weren't, there could have been no communication between minds habituated to operating along different dimensions.
Which brings us to another uncomfortable fact: prophets are generally considered to be mad by the vast majority of their contemporaries. Not that even madness itself should be considered without redeeming value. After all, one of the charms of American culture is that the national landscape is periodically enlivened by the outburst of some joyous madness, either sacred or profane. From the ecstasies of native shamans to awakenings in Pentecostal tents, to hot jazz and hotter rock n' roll…an occasional delirium has been known to soothe the collective soul. No, it is not madness per se which deserves censure, for there is a salutary ecstasy, as well as a calculating, sober tenor of mind which leads to perdition. And for this latter reason I am not willing to grant the title of "prophet" to divines who spin future military history from the margins of their Schofield Bibles, or to kabbalistic rabbis whose angels have told them to exodus the Labor for the Likud. These people might be prognosticators but they certainly aren't prophets in the true sense.
The problem with all prognosticators, whether they speak in the language of religion or some warmed-over Marxian dialectic, is that they are simply looking down the barrel of a gun called "the future." If they are wrong they loseand we have been made fools of, and if they are right we all loose, for it means that they have succeeded in locking the rest of us into their own tunnel vision, a nightmare in which the future is merely an exaggerated form of the present. On the contrary, true prophecy should increase the indeterminacy of events yet to come, stirring up the crucible of time using novel insights into timeless principles. This is the sine qua non of a true prophet.
Yet it is proverbial that the lying prognosticator is less likely to be accused of insanity than the true prophet, for the former appeals to prejudice and probabilities, while words of the latter refer to values which are not only intangible to the senses but often difficult for the mind to grasp. This is classically true of metaphysical prophecy, as in the numerousand inexplicable "wheels" and "eyes" and "feet" of Ezekiel's visions. It also manifests itself in the world of art, for example in the incomprehensible visions of surrealism, which provoked Salvador Dali's famous quip that "the only difference between a madman and me is that I'm not mad!" But oddest of all is that this disjunction between ordinary and prophetic perception should even hold true in the seemingly mundane realms of public ethics and political economy. Yet it apparently does, as recent events have shown. It is clear that a Ron Paul, and the remnant that are able to follow his mind, are capable of "seeing" freedom and justice in a manner which is at radical variance from that of the other candidates and the general electorate.
Now given the assumption that the prophet in question is indeed a true prophet, we must proceed by turning conventional wisdom on its head. From this vantage point only the prophet is sane! Conversely, insanity can be seen as normative, with the exception of the remnant who can follow prophet's logic. Hence, to the mad majority the words and the behavior of the prophet seem more than a little "off." The primary reason for this is that the prophet is using an entirely different mental "tool kit" (which philosophers, with their penchant for Greek jargon, term an organon). While the multitude is hypnotized by the flow of palpable events, the prophet lifts his or her face up to "heaven"…a vertical dimension of intangible values and principles. This transcendentalism elicits a common response from the flatlanders, a response which all members of the remnant will instantly recognize: the characteristic rolling of the eyes, a shrug of the shoulders, and a studious avoidance of any serious communication.
But it gets worse, for there is a corollary factor which confirms the majority in its opinion of the prophet's madness. One must keep in mind that the prophet, as the emissary of a higher truth, is not free to desist from communicating the message. Seeing that mere words fail to move the majority, increasingly dramatic modalities of expression must be resorted to. For example Jeremiah, that patron saint of all sandwich-men and placard bearers, roamed the streets of Jerusalem with a yoke around his neck, warning of a Babylonian captivity. Our own captivity to an increasingly out-of-control world order, an order based on militarism, administrative edict, and fiscal legerdemain has evolved so insidiously "within the form" of traditional institutions, that it is as invisible to us as the impending captivity of Israel was to Jeremiah's contemporaries. Ron Paul's response to this emergency has been, like that of Jeremiah, one of prophetic pantomime. The good doctor has put himself forward as candidate for emperor! In doing so he has lost the sympathy of a few self-righteous anarchists, caused a goodly number of his followers to mistake him for a "messiah," and confirmed the majority in their opinion of his eccentricity. Of course all of these mistaken, though perfectly predictable, reactions have been elicited through the old prophetic trick of stirring up the pot of public opinion with the unexpected. Indeed, nobody expected Ron Paul to get as far, in as short a time, as he has managed to do. It has created more than anxiety in establishment circles…it has created indeterminacy.
One may bewail the fact that Congressman Paul is unlikely to ascend to the imperial purple. But would any action less dramatic have brought the remnant together, given it a voice, and started it off on the road, not to the future, but to a possible time when people are ready and sickened of our present future?
March 3, 2008