Monday, December 27, 2010

Encouraging Anthony Weiner’s role as angry prophet

Encouraging Anthony Weiner’s role as angry prophet

My Congressman, Anthony Weiner, does not need any encouragement to forthrightly speak his mind. Google him, and you’ll quickly discover Weiner's brief but memorable speech from July 30, 2010.  Talking Points memo gives both the background, and a link to the video.

The House was debating a bill last night that would provide up to $7.4 billion in health care aid to rescue and recovery workers who have faced health problems since their work in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The bill ultimately failed to get the needed two-thirds majority, 255-159, and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) was not happy about it. Not one bit.

In a rant that lasted for almost two minutes, a hopping mad Weiner railed against "cowardly" Republicans who claimed they were voting against the bill because of "procedure." Weiner spat: "It's Republicans wrapping their arms around Republicans, rather than doing the right thing on behalf of the heroes!"

Weiner attacked those who "stand up and say, 'Oh, if only we had a different process we'd vote yes.' You vote yes if you believe yes! You vote in favor of something if you believe it's the right thing! If you believe it's the wrong thing, you vote no!"

"It is a shame! A shame," he exclaimed.

Political theorist Andrew Bard Schmookler thinks Weiner’s talent for fiery rhetoric can be put to greater use. Schmookler, the creator and author of the website, has a Ph.D. in history, and has written several books on political psychology, ethics & culture. He’s been a commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered,” and is a go-to call-in guest on radio shows, in both blue and red states, on the controversial issues of the moment. One of Schmookler’s readers knows that I live in Weiner’s district, and put me in touch with him. After some discussion, I walked a full version of the proposal you’re about to read, in hard copy, to  Weiner’s district office.  

Lately, Schmookler has been musing in his blog about the need for a progressive champion. Ideally, this would be President Obama, but it’s been a lot of water under the bridge since the 2008 appeals for hope and change.  (You can already see where this is going, right?)

Schmookler summarizes a number of his articles here but I’ll put it in a nutshell for you. America’s governing forces and elites habitually lie in ways that reveal “an arrogant and dangerous disregard of the need to respect reality.” These amoral ruling forces are rapidly dismantling the structures that have protected goodness and decency. They have succeeded in deceiving many good Americans. The situation can easily become much worse.

The American people urgently need to recognize and repudiate both the leaders, and those dark aspects of the American culture that they have embodied. Many American liberals have a hard time with that job, because they have a moral blind spot.  Many are unable to recognize that evil is a real concept, and how profound the distinction between good and evil is. Liberals are unable to connect with and articulate their deep moral values.

Schmookler says we need "a prophetic social movement that speaks moral truth about amoral power in such a way as to awaken our traditionalist countrymen from the trance state into which their leaders have put them."

A comeback strategy for progressive champions

When a conflict on some important issue emerges between Obama and the Republicans, Schmookler suggests, the President should challenge to the Republicans to debate the issue on national television. Frame it explicitly in terms of what’s best for the country. Whether the Republicans fail to accept the debate, or defend their position, which will tend to overlap with those of wealthy, corporate interests, the dark reality of so-called conservatism will be revealed. Obama can reissue this challenge over and over. If the Republicans refuse to debate, Obama can give a talk to the nation comparing his and the Republican proposals. Obama sometimes seems conflict-averse, but he is a very good debater, and with solid positions to defend, is likely to do well. As a way of further anchoring the debates to objective reality, Schmookler suggests including a panel of experts, who can instantly respond to disputed matters of fact. The panelists would be selected impartially by the most respected professional groups in their field, such as the National Academy of Sciences, or the American Bar Association.

What if Obama prefers bipartisanship over confrontation?

It’s possible that President Obama might refuse this role as too confrontational, and damaging to his efforts at bipartisanship. In this case, shouldn't progressive national leaders find someone willing to step up, and turn around the momentum for 2012? Rep. Bernie Sanders is capable of the job, but as the Independent (socialist) Congressman from Vermont, can't represent the Democrats on the national stage.  They need someone in a safe seat, with a very aggressive temperment.  Weiner might be the right man for the job. Which is why I paid a visit to his Kew Gardens office last week. 

A respectable tradition of angry prophets

Maybe I should have asked Schmookler about this.  How accurate is the sterotype of the Old Testament prophet as full of rage on behalf of God against the moral decline of the people, calling for repentence? Wikipedia suggests it's right on target:

In his book The Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the unique aspect of the Jewish prophets as compared to other similar figures. Whereas other nations have soothsayers and diviners who attempt to discover the will of their gods, according to Heschel the Hebrew prophets are characterized by their experience of what he calls theotropism — God turning towards humanity. Heschel argues for the view of Hebrew prophets as receivers of the "Divine Pathos," of the wrath and sorrow of God over his nation that has forsaken him.

He writes: "Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet's words. (The Prophets Ch. 1)"

We have a lot to be angry about.  Some of us are capable of channelling prophetic anger on a regular basis, in an inspiring, effective way.  Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are able to hide their anger in a matrix of humor. 

James Howard Kunstler blogs about peak oil and the collapse of the funny money economy.  He's darkly funny, although without Stewart and Colbert's  extraordinary comedic gifts or capacity for mirth.   I go to his site every Monday morning. 

Some contemporary versions of the prophetic archetype - eloquent, very angry, and not funny at all - are Keith Olberman and William Rivers Pitt from Truthout.  So are Bill McKibben, James Hansen, and Anthony Weiner.  They perform a valuable function, and as Schmookler points out, we need to crank up the volume on our societal prophecy speakers.  So please support your favorite prophets, your local prophets, and your own call to prophecy, whatever it may be. 

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