The Five Kinds of Appeal to Authority You Meet on the Internet


We know that humans-especially popes-are fallible. Any logician worth her adorable sweater vest will tell you that random philosopher p endorsing premise x affects a deductive conclusion in the amount of not one whit. Still, debaters are happy to hang their hats on dusty quotes and arguments from authority, the nastiest result being a communal tolerance of sickly ideas propped up by rhetorical parlor tricks. If only there were some credible source (preferably dead and/or otherwise unable to clarify himself) to which you might ascribe your toxic viewpoint… what? No, sorry, God is taken. But here are a few other ways to make the fallacy take wing; all remain facepalmingly common and resonant in the right echo chamber.

The Misappropriated Founder
AKA The Bumper Sticker Wisdom. If there’s one thing that unites most tax-hatin’, gun-and-bitterness-clutchin’, not-in-their-own-self-interest-votin’, until-recently-Scott Brown boosters, it’s a predilection for dubious Thomas Jefferson quotes overlaid on a crying star-spangled eagle in a font that would make your average design geek slit their wrists or become an i-banker, whichever is more painful. It goes without saying that we needn’t take every statement from a long-departed slave-owner at face value, especially given that he couldn’t have anticipated more than 0.001% of the current geopolitical circus. But because wingnut foot soldiers are the gift that keeps on giving, many of these quotations are bloodless. One that has found its way onto many a T-shirt-”The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”-is, according to The Jefferson Encyclopedia, “not found in any of the writings of Thomas Jefferson” and first appeared in print in 1986. If the tea partiers can’t whip a Reagan-centric conspiracy theory out of that fact, then we’ve truly overestimated them.

The Overwhelming Fan Consensus
I hesitate to pick on a popular tumblr that often makes me smile, but the collection of canonical Simpsons stills, quotes and .gifs that is Eye On Springfield bears a sneering self-description that has the hollow ring of fatigued groupthink: it is, succinctly, “a retrospective of Simpsons hilarity spanning from seasons 1 to 9, when it was still funny.” The blog’s architects can put it this simply and unapologetically because the idea-that if you really loved The Simpsons, you would have jumped ship long ago-is received fan wisdom, pre-approved by whichever Gen X burnout first unthinkably dissed the show. Which isn’t to say that its quality hasn’t fluctuated, just that critical histories need to be more nuanced than collective absolutism allows. Otherwise you might miss the episode where George Plimpton tries to bribe Lisa into throwing a national spelling bee with promises of a full college scholarship “… and a hot plate!” That’d be from the outstanding season 14, if you’re looking to catch up.

The Borrowed Moral Imperative
Andrew Sullivan is nothing if not meticulously contrite, hence his recent Daily Dish post concerning George Orwell’s Nazi-era anxiety that “Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist.” Sullivan, who cited the line in what he describes as his own “shameful” defense of the Iraq war, reveals that Orwell himself later backpedaled from the notion. Surely Sullivan does not mean his argument was shameful because it appealed to the wisdom of a political luminary who later wobbled on his words-it was shameful because it was ultimately wrongheaded regardless of who he namechecked. Which makes me wonder: why bother bandying about these wicked little ideological fragments in formulating a policy position if they neither weaken nor strengthen your case? They shade in the author’s particular worldview while doing nothing to justify it. It would probably be more instructive, before enshrining a sound bite, to delve beyond what somebody said and into what they said it about. I’ll come running to Orwell if and when we encounter a Quisling problem.

The Untouchable Artistic Gospel
AKA The Strunk & White. There are plenty of tips out there for being a good stand-up comedian, or painter, or musician. Most help the aspirant to hem in that paralyzing freedom, lay a groundwork of productive habit and then to polish middling material. Most do not pretend to be a priori truths, except those provided by Robert McKee. Still, the essence of creativity is not to be strictly bound by prescriptive ideals, right? Wrong. Here comes a New York Times user comment deploring an article’s split infinitives, immune to the fact that this is an artificial solecism cooked up by prudish Latin-lovers centuries ago to suppress an evolving English vernacular. Here comes Chuck Klosterman to inform us that F. Scott Fitzgerald would disapprove of the exclamation points peppering our interspace, because I guess an alcoholic crack-up artist I read in ninth grade should get the final say on web 2.0. What Klosterman can’t bring up is how Kurt Vonnegut gravely insulted the semi-colon; I myself could do without periods. Buried titans have plenty to teach us about aesthetic and craft, and tower with influence besides-must we be shackled by their pet peeves as well?

The Useful Tautology
When the shit hits the fan in America, just dig up a pungent cynicism from Upton Sinclair or Hunter S. Thompson or Mark Twain to drive home your despair. Maybe a bleak koan from Nouriel Roubini if the market is having a disastrous week. This way, no matter how bad it gets, a prophet saw it coming. The country never changes-it has always been exactly what we claim to abhor. We are a nation of dangerous lunatics, fueled by pure id but controlled by the insoluble forces of greed and vanity. It is what it is. And in the absence of hope, which we never truly had, we will not even have to try. We are excused from action. It’s a comforting fatalism, no? So I guess we can hold on to this one, since it’s gotten people through some dark times. My only request is that The Wire’s Omar Little become our patron saint of blanket, timeless, trenchant insight. You can cover all your bases with a gem like “all in the game, yo, all in the game.”

Miles Klee knows all about this game you’re running.