Thursday, March 08, 2012


Howard Beale came along at a time when “The dollar buys a nickel's worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it.”

Who was Howard Beale? He was the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, from Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 classic, “Network.” He prophesied at a time when inflation was in double digits and about the only solution the Ford administration could conjure up was those ridiculous “Whip Inflation Now” buttons. They had come on the heels of wage and price controls which had been implemented by Richard Nixon’s economic team as a hedge against inflation. The effect of these political decisions on the buying power of the average American was devastating. Goods that could be purchased for a hundred dollars in 1971 cost over two hundred and three or more by the time Jimmy Carter came along.

He was a blue collar guru who paved the only sensible avenue of protest for the bruised and battered. “Open your windows” he screamed. Tell them “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” As soon as he uttered them, his words became like a medicine to society’s rank and file. In city after city windows opened and their impassioned cries filled the night air. “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

There seems to be a madness that goes with the prophetic trade. They wear it like a mantle. Ezekiel laid outside the city gate for over a year, most of it on his left side, followed by a few weeks on his right. He saw wheels spinning within wheels and a valley full of dry bones. Isaiah had the temerity to call the prophets, politicians, and sages of his day “mute dogs.” Jeremiah alternately raged and wept. Howard Beale railed against the system.

Howard Beale was as mad as a March hare and for all I know Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah might have been downright committable. But there was a method to their madness. They said what needed to be said; they said what the disenfranchised intuitively knew was right. They filled a niche few were willing to embrace. While the rest of society, particularly its leaders, floundered in the darkness; the mad prophets exposed the folly to the light of day.

Their rewards weren’t what we normally consider rewards, unless we somehow accept the idea that ridicule and exile, shivering in a cold, dark well, being cut in half, or becoming an assassin’s target is proper compensation for telling the truth. It’s strange, really, the punishments meted out to the mad prophets rarely fit the crime. Dr. King said, “There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.” That and talk of brotherhood put him in the gun sight. Brother Solzhenitsyn criticized Stalin’s soviet system and spent eight years in the Gulag. Years later he was stripped of his citizenship and sent packing to the West. He came as a darling of the progressives, but as soon as he criticized our materialism and humanism he became persona non grata and they sent him packing back to the East.

Nowadays the punishments for truth-telling are more civilized. Mad prophets are shunned. They don’t get invitations to the big bashes. You’ll never see them on the guest lists of the VIP events.

Every age and every hamlet needs its mad prophets. Size, either great or small, doesn’t confer immunity from their penetrating words. New York City isn’t immune. The well connected of Foggy Bottom aren’t immune. Media moguls might think they are, but they’re not. Nor are the big, important fish cruising around Emporia’s small pond.

In a small pond like ours the prevailing belief seems to be that our faults (if they can be called that) don’t merit the wrath or the acid tongue. Everything is just fine. We’re doing fine, therefore everyone else is too. But the mad prophets know better. Neglect is neglect. It doesn’t work on a sliding scale that says a little bit of it is okay. A blind eye is a blind eye is a blind eye.

Do we have mad prophets here in Emporia? Yes! But it’s hard to hear them. Their screams only seem silent because they’re coming from the wrong side of town. As the lyric prophets of the 60’s observed, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls, and whispered in the sounds of silence.”

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