“He’s made a record not without hope but which doesn’t come with any easy or comforting answers. In that way, the man is clearly still committed to speaking the truth.” — Will Hermes, on Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 record, ‘I’m New Here’
In the age of demagoguery, uncritical orators and even-more-uncritical audiences, hopeless optimism and sarcastic responses to all of the aforementioned, Hermes, a music critic and contributor to National Public Radio, gives us both an antidote to the sweet poison of punditry and, perhaps by accident, a sublime description of the prophetic voice.
Hope, as noted here previously, has no place in the mind of the optimist. It requires a realistic acknowledgement and acceptance of a dire situation; optimists default to a best [possible or otherwise] outcome. Like faith, which requires doubt as a grounding, hope requires the ability to embrace–and reject–despair. Thus, hope often looks anything but Pollyanna-ish, and often is, conveniently or otherwise, mistaken for bitterness, rebellion or heresy.
With that in mind, the hopeful mindset rejects the quick fix or easy, pat answers. With focused attention and analysis, clarity of voice and unapologetic commitment to resolution, hope confronts the messiness of the real for all that it is, rejecting straw men and ideological blindspots, and working toward its own actualization. Those who would pretend to be hopeful we should rightly regard as cynics: those who are ultimately only interested in themselves and their own self-preservation.
To commit one’s self to truth is to necessarily take up the prophetic mantle, to speak to power the injustices of the day and to make a clarion call toward repentance and reconciliation. This is to say that the prophet takes no side, save for the restoration of fair relations amongst the people of a society. Where binary social systems inexorably seek the destruction of or domination over the other and any way and/or means to justify such destruction or domination, the prophet calls all to account with nothing but the truth on his/her side.
There is no such thing as a popular prophet; this is a contradiction in terms. But there is a reason the prophetic voice dominates the narrative of Tanakh, and has an eerie, resonant quality wherever it is found in history, religion, literature, art and, occasionally, in the vulgarities of pop culture: we are people who are for generations so enslaved to fact-based deceit and ideological bias that, while we prefer the lie, we yet elevate truth to a place of honor. Perhaps we do the latter precisely because we are enslaved to the former.
The prophet, like Twain’s classic, is praised but never heeded.
What would happen if we heeded our prophets?