My edition of 1984 contains an afterword by Erich Fromm. I’m afraid I’ve been in publishing long enough to be somewhat cynical about “value-added content” that’s used to sell subsequent printings. Those who buy a book off the shelf want the text of George Orwell’s classic, not the comments of some academic, right? The intended market, however, is for classroom use—the sweet spot for academic publishers. A few adoptions at major university and what is otherwise any old tome from the used book market becomes a profitable venture. My edition of 1984 is a 62nd impression with a copyright of 1961. The class I took where it had to be read was two decades later than that. In any case, Erich Fromm. I first learned about him in college, and given the underlining in his essay I know I read it back when I took the class. In rereading it decades later, an un-remembered point came clearly to me—Fromm’s brief essay is on prophecy.
In the popular mindset, prophecy is predicting the future. While there’s some element of that in the Bible, by far the majority of prophetic texts serve as a warning to change how things are done before it’s too late. There’s a contingency about it. “Or else.” If there’s no possibility of change, why castigate people you’re only going to destroy anyway? Prophecy, despite its often dire outlook, is ultimately hopeful. Wrote Fromm “it was quite obviously [Orwell’s] intention to sound a warning by showing where we are headed.” But more important are the next words: “for unless we succeed in a renaissance of the spirit of humanism and dignity” all will be lost. The spirit of humanism.
Fromm was writing during the nuclear fear that I recall very well from childhood. As soon as I was old enough to comprehend what we had created, I feared we would eventually loose it upon ourselves. I was hardly a humanist at the time, but I was, even in my young days, an unwitting advocate of its spirit. I believed all people had a chance, or should have a chance. Foreign evil, as it was being presented by Ronald Reagan, seemed more fictional than Orwell. The average person didn’t want war. It was the Party that needed our fear. I graduated from college, seminary, and my doctoral program, eventually forgetting Fromm’s words. The Whitehouse had finally found its way out of the Bushes and into moderate humanism. Then Fromm came back.
The dangers of prognostication were well known in antiquity. Most prophets, who didn’t so much tell the future as warn about probable outcomes, weren’t the most popular of people. They knew that feeling of walking into a crowded room and announcing their career had something to do with religion only to have the place fall silent. Cricket chirps. We all have our secret sins we’d rather not have some stranger judge. So it is with the weather. Something like this must’ve been in the back of my mind as I was trying to write Weathering the Psalms. I lived in Wisconsin in the days before Paul Ryan and, like said Ryan, tornados could strike at any time, unannounced. My family and I spent an anxious afternoon or two in the spider-infested basement based on the inherently uncertain predictions of how a nearby tornado might move.
Those of us in the northwest are sitting here wondering about this monster nor’easter. It’s been in the making for several days and the forecasters, unlike the prophets of old, have been hedging their bets. If this massive cold front from the midwest fails to meet up with the intense storm off the east coast we could end up with only a smattering of snow. If the two collide, well, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel together can’t help us. It’ll be like the book of Revelation. Only colder and with far more snow. Oh to be able to predict the future! It would certainly help when it comes to deciding whether to climb onto that bus or not. I mean a simple rainstorm can add two hours to the homeward commute without the threat of a meteorological Trump coming our way. I thought Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow.
Although predicting the future wasn’t really what prophets did, it didn’t take long before people thought that’s what they were up to. People have always wanted to have the advantage of being able to see disasters before they arrived. Wouldn’t it have been helpful to know the results of 11/9 before Thurston Howell the President was elected? We could’ve bought our Russian grammars and dictionaries before there was a run on the local Barnes and Noble. At the same time I politely dispute the saying that hindsight is 20/20. If we could see anything that clearly we would be such Untied States at the moment. Right now the glass seems to be falling and the wind’s picking up from the northeast. What does it mean? Nobody really knows.
Prognostication used to be the remit of oversized rodents and individuals we’d now classify as mad. And news used to be stories about things that had already happened. Past tense things. I don’t read any daily newspapers—a personality flaw, I know—but I do read stories that are sent my way, even if it takes some time. One of the things I’ve noticed, particularly in this election year, is the amount of prediction that passes as news. Future tense reporting. And the future is very tense.
Always one to assume that others know more than I do, I consider the opinions of experts as more valid than my own. After all, they are paid for what they think. Nobody spends good money on amateur opinion, which is one of the cheapest resources available in the civilized world. So when I read the headlines about what to expect this fall I see that the prophets and anti-prophets are lined up along party lines and, if democracy holds up, we’ll find out which group is which, come November. This makes me wonder what life would’ve been like under biblical prophets. No, their job was not primarily foretelling—future prediction was a small percentage of their job description—but they occasionally made political predictions when the boss told them to. Some people think they were primarily concerned with a future political figure, even if Messiah isn’t exactly an elected position. Hoi polloi must have been in a state of high anxiety. Who’s right? We know that for every prophet, according to the laws of rhetoric, there must be an anti-prophet. If a message is coming from on high we don’t know from whom.
Long ago media moguls learned that anxiety sells papers. Or news broadcasts. Sales boom after disasters. Extra! Extra! Read all about it! I’ve seen it in movies and televisions shows, so I know it must be true. As if real life events don’t generate enough trauma, we speculate about a future that tends towards the bleak. What’s a polis to do? The dilemma hasn’t changed in the millennia since we’ve outgrown prophecy—there’s no way to know who’s right. It’s all speculation. As for me, I wonder what the local groundhog thinks. And while we’re at it, could we get a bit nicer weather for a while? I thought the prophecy was April showers bring May flowers, not the other way around. But then again, my opinion is a decidedly amateur one.