Daily distractions draw our eyes downward: toward our phones, our to-do lists, our immediate needs and wants. We live in a time of economic precarity, when the time to gaze upward, to ponder the bigger questions in life, has grown scarce. We live in a time of information overload, in which we “know more and understand less” than ever before. And we live in a time of frenetic spectacle, where the drama of everyday life and the theater of electoral politics are packaged as pleasurable diversions. Amidst this onslaught of distractions, it is increasingly difficult to sustain focus on the big issues (climate change, nuclear war) that threaten our survival as a society and as a species.
This condition, which we might call myopia, afflicts most of us. The primary meaning of myopia is nearsightedness—it is a medical condition, strictly speaking, but a social one as well. The term refers more generally to a “lack of foresight or discernment,” “a narrow view of something,” or “a lack of imagination.”
Luckily, this condition is treatable. Most world religions, for example, seek to draw our eyes upward and outward, to inspire us to imagine a world beyond our own experiences, beyond human flourishing, beyond “this life.” This can result in a deeper spiritual life, but it can also impact our social lives insofar as it encourages individuals to imagine themselves as interconnected, as “members of one body,” so to speak.
Political systems, too, are designed as correctives to myopia, although this is not always recognized. While the history of the United States is often associated with the concept of e pluribus unum, this emphasizes a process of reduction—we started as many, but now we are one. It is easy to overlook the extent to which democratic life is also about enlargement, by encouraging us to think beyond the self—we may be one person, but we are also part of a people.
The representative system of democracy, for example, was designed to overcome that myopic tendency for individuals to focus on short-term self-interest rather than the long-term health of the country as a whole. In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison highlights its potential to “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” In principle if not always in practice, this was an experiment in enlargement, a technology of transcendence.
To be fair, in other ways, this system was also designed with reduction in mind—specifically, the reduction of possibility. While the nation was born of revolution, the founders believed it would only survive by taming future revolutionary impulses. As such, the system was designed not to enlarge our visions of political possibility, but to tamp them down. Yet this too was justified by emphasizing the need to privilege the long-term interests of the whole over any faction’s particular vision of the good.
Whether the system was flawed in its design or its execution is a point of great debate, but Madison would likely suggest user error. He acknowledged from the outset that the system would fail if “men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”
In light of our current predicament, it is not terribly surprising that political cynicism in the United States has reached new highs (or should I say lows?). Trust in institutions has been steadily declining for decades, but “imploded” during Donald Trump’s first year in office. And voters straining against the confines of a two-party system (and particularly the uneasy alliances and moneyed interests that structure the two parties today) express increasing dissatisfaction with the options presented to them in the voting booth. Confronted daily with the mundane (and sometimes profane) realities of political life, one can hardly blame Americans for looking upon it all with disappointment and disdain. “Is this all there is?” they ask themselves with a sigh (or perhaps a scream). “Is this really all that stands between us and the end of the world?”
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In moments such as these, when our institutions falter and our myopia returns, prophets can help us to find our way again. What is a prophet, after all, if not someone who has vision and who helps the rest of us to see? In a recent book about twentieth-century “American prophets,” the historian Albert J. Raboteau draws on the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to argue that these religious radicals were united by their “divine pathos,” a state of heightened sensory perception. “The prophet hears God’s voice and feels his heart,” he writes. Of course, they also see things that others do not. And then, because this knowledge burns like “a fire in the bones,” they are “impelled to speak.”
Of concern here are those prophets who speak not simply religious truths, but also social and political ones; who call people to imagine alternative futures, not only in the next life but also in this one; whose cure for myopia blends tools from both religion and politics. To understand the role that these civic prophets play in political life, we could turn to history—to the efforts of prophetic figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., who helped the country to see itself and its past more clearly, to see all of its people as interrelated, then to imagine a different kind of world. But sometimes we can also find lessons in unexpected places.
The hit HBO show Game of Thrones (GoT), for example, is billed as epic fantasy, but at its heart it is political allegory. And amid its astute depiction of politics—so nasty, so brutish, so small—we are also treated to an instructive account of the role that prophets can play in political life. Within the GoT world, prophetic visions are revealed in dreams and in flames, by magic and by unpredictable gods. There are also characters whose vision is derived from firsthand experience: they have traveled where others have not—to the past, beyond The Wall, across the Narrow Sea —and they have seen the unimaginable. In each case, they are compelled to convince others that what they have seen is real.
The men and women of Westeros learn the hard way that not all prophets, or at least not all visions, are to be trusted (RIP Shireen Baratheon). As in real life, there is a fine line between prophetic vision and delusion. But, also as in real life, it is difficult to know which is which, especially without the benefit of hindsight or dramatic irony. When prophetic visions advance the interests of those in power, they are often embraced along with their carriers (recall that the Red Priestess and her Lord of Light originally brought flattering news to Stannis Baratheon . . .).
Alternatively, when a prophet’s vision challenges those in power or threatens the social order, they are often ridiculed or silenced. Jon Snow, having gone beyond The Wall and witnessed with his own eyes the size and power of the White Walkers’ undead army, returns to try and convince the heads of several warring families to set aside generations of political animus in order to confront this greater threat to their survival. But they dismiss his tale as the delusional rambling of a madman or the self-serving deception of a power-seeking rival.
“How do I convince people who don’t know me that an enemy they don’t believe in is going to kill them all?” a frustrated Jon asks rhetorically after yet another potential ally expresses hesitancy about signing onto his mission. He does not relent, though, despite wanting nothing more than to return to a quiet life. He has been called—by whom he does not know, but by some higher power that will not allow him to die until his duty on this earth has been fulfilled.
He in turn calls upon his people to do the unthinkable:
I’m asking you to think about your children now. They’ll never have children of their own if we don’t band together. The Long Night is coming and the dead come with it. No clan can stop them. The Free Folk can’t stop them, the Night’s Watch can’t stop them and all the southern kings can’t stop them! Only together. All of us. And even then it may not be enough, but at least we give the fuckers a fight.
His pitch is not simply about winning in the short-term. In fact, it will likely involve significant short-term sacrifices. Still, he asks them to open their eyes, look beyond the here and now and beyond what they thought they knew, and consider what is in the best interest of humankind.
At the time of this writing, we do not yet know if he will succeed, and it could truly go either way. The indeterminacy of the outcome may be part of its appeal—the show has consistently grown in popularity, and HBO estimates that a record-shattering 30 million viewers watched each episode of the last season. Perhaps it is easier to stomach the possibility that a fictional world could meet its demise than to face the indeterminacy of our own fate. Even this is one more pleasurable distraction.
Still, it is hard not to see parallels between the looming threat of the White Walker army and the looming threats to our own survival, from climate change to nuclear disaster. Like the Westerosi, we have proven unable or unwilling to acknowledge these threats, or to prioritize the larger issue of long-term survival over the more immediate gratification of the here and now. Like those who hold power in Kings Landing, many of our elected representatives encourage ordinary people’s myopia and undermine the very institutions (science, higher education, journalism) that encourage us to think beyond.
Yet perhaps prophets now roam among us. Will we recognize them when we see them? Will we, despite our growing cynicism, trust them when they speak? Will we, despite our propensity for distraction, allow them to help us see?