An Anecdote About an Appeal to (but not of) Authority

Years ago, around when I first started writing, someone told me about a conversation that person heard about blogging.  I’ll share it with you, and explain why it was, initially, hard for me to understand.  The person telling me about the conversation was reputed to be especially clever, and that reputation actually made it harder for me to understand what was being said.

Clever Person: There was a conversation about your blog, between Official X and Official Y, when they first learned about it.  Official X thinks it’s terrible, one of the worst things that could happen to the town.  Official Y thinks it’s just wrong and unimaginable that anyone would read a blog with a pseudonymous author.

Adams: No one has to read what he or she doesn’t want to read.  People are free to choose.  Still, our country has a proud tradition of anonymous commentary, even before the Revolution.  What people read is their choice, not mine.

Clever Person (in a slightly stronger voice):  Official Y thinks it’s just wrong and unimaginable that anyone would read a blog with a pseudonymous author.

Adams:  Yes, no one has to read what he or she doesn’t want to read.

(It’s at this point that I became confused.  Clever Person had just repeated part of the prior observation, with emphasis.  I’d heard it the first time, replied briefly, and so I didn’t understand the need for repetition.  But Clever Person was said to be, well, a clever person, so I assumed there was some worthy justification for the repetition.)

Clever Person (stronger still, with particular emphasis):  Official Y thinks it’s just wrong and unimaginable that anyone would read a blog with a pseudonymous author.

It was then, but not before, that I understood Clever Person’s concern: it wasn’t that someone disagreed with pseudonymous authorship, it was that Official Y disagreed with that authorship.

The reputed cleverness of my interlocutor contributed to my confusion – my mistaken assumption was that a sharp person would only care about someone else’s substantive objection, not someone else’s status.  The truth of criticism, after all, should hold regardless of someone else’s role or authority.

Instead, in that moment, I saw that Clever Person may have been clever, but not so much so that someone else’s title, role, status, whatever, didn’t exert a powerful sway.  In Clever Person’s mind, the criticism wouldn’t have mattered so much, I suppose, it it had come from a vagrant; it mattered because it came from supposed town notable.

There are, however, no notables, no dignitaries, no very important people, no higher or lower, no above or below.  It’s a small American town, meant always to live in conditions of liberty and equality.

To see our community otherwise is to see through cloudy eyes, imagining things that do not exist.

And that, I’d say, isn’t so clever at all.