To my mind, one of the greatest blights on the intellectual landscape is the wannabe prophet. The guy with a pocketful of adjectives who claims intimacy with the future. The prophesy bit may well be buried under a few layers of technical froth, but it’s usually visible to those who take the trouble to look.
Frustratingly you can’t check everything emitted by pseudo prophets because links are absent or not quite relevant or there are just too many to check. These latter prophets seem to hypnotise their acolytes into a kind of stunned acquiescence. The prophet squirts out a morass of comfy cant which moulds itself tightly around acolyte prejudices. It’s like watching a snake snacking on a kid’s hamster.
When tackling the prophet issue I find it’s a good idea to stick to two key mantras as a protective armour against becoming hopelessly lost in their rhetoric.
Mantra 1 – the future is unknown and unknowable. There are a few clues and regularities but these are mostly common knowledge available to all. Such as night following day.
Mantra 2 – prophets have been with us forever. They are a feature of the landscape like rocks, trees and babbling brooks. Some of their guesses are bound to come good through sheer breadth of coverage, but in those rare cases I just pause for a moment and remember those monkeys typing out Shakespeare’s plays.
There are exceptions of course. Some writers such as G K Chesterton have been remarkably prescient about social and political change simply because he was an adept people-watcher and a profound sceptic when it came to novel social enthusiasms.
So who are the prophets these days? Well they swarm through the environment, economics and politics like locusts. Too many to count. Their numbers are so vast because it’s a popular pastime for the inflated ego, but there are prophets who manipulate the future too. Their prophesies come true because in a sense they make them come true. These are the guys who know how to spin desirable illusions.
If it had existed it did exist. And if it did exist, it was worth having. You could call it an illusion if you liked. But an illusion which is a real experience is worth having.
The new prophets have money, lots and lots of money. Their illusions have depth, subtlety and richly persuasive narratives. They also have professionals – employees whose job it is to promote illusions, weave them into the complexities of daily life, hide their origins and their purpose from the vulgar gaze.
Prophesy has a major weakness though, its tendency toward the scare story or doom mongering. Illusion weavers seem to have an ineradicable fixation with a notion that people must be manipulated by pessimism – only rarely by optimism. Hence the scare story as the narrative vehicle of choice.
D H Lawrence, G K Chesterton and Thomas Hardy all wrote about it – how individuals, families and especially societies so often conspire against the flowering of the human spirit. How inevitable it is that free spirits be brought back to earth – sooner or later.
The guy with the placard saying Prepare To Meet Thy Doom, he’s the handy figure of fun, the butt of a thousand cartoon jokes, but he’s not the problem. Never was.
So those who sit in offices, those with digital placards destined to be woven into our lives by professionals – maybe we should treat them as figures of fun too. Maybe we should despise them and raise a sardonic glass to their antics, because in the end their manipulations are perhaps susceptible to a genial determination to get on with life and enjoy it.
Certainly, we would sacrifice all our wires, wheels, systems, specialties, physical science and frenzied finance for one half-hour of happiness such as has often come to us with comrades in a common tavern. I do not say the sacrifice will be necessary; I only say it will be easy.
G K Chesterton - What's Wrong with the World (1910)