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Argument from Status

January 19, 1999

Most educated readers are aware of certain basic fallacies — the non sequitur, the straw man argument, the ad hominem argument, and inferring causation from sequence (post hoc ergo propter hoc). But there is one common fallacy or debater’s trick that I’ve never seen identified.

Let’s call it the argument from social status. It takes the form “All the experts agree that proposition X is true.” Put this way, it may be a legitimate appeal to authority. It doesn’t exclude the possibility that all the experts are wrong; it merely presumes that they are probably right, putting the burden of proof on those who disagree. Fair enough.

But the argument from status comes into play when the advocate says or implies that his opponents are lowlifes. In the Shakespeare authorship debate, for instance, defenders of the traditional view say, “Professional Shakespeare scholars agree that there is no real doubt that Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays bearing his name.” Fine.

But then they go on to sneer that those who doubt Shakespeare’s authorship are “snobs,” “eccentrics,” and so forth, usually adding that such people are “ignorant” and “resentful.” For good measure, they often throw in a bit of unflattering psychoanalysis of the dissenters.

This argument is false, of course, since Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, and other great authors have disputed Shakespeare’s authorship. That’s bad enough.

But the real point is that the argument attempts to bully the reader. It says in effect: “Never mind the merits of the case. Rest assured that if you question Shakespeare’s authorship, you will be put in low company and convicted of bad taste! You don’t want that, do you?”

This is enough to deter most readers from pursuing the question, since most people care less about the truth than about what may happen to them if they take an unfashionable position. They aren’t afraid of torture and prison, which are remote possibilities; they are much more afraid of the faint derision of the “best people.”

This kind of argument can be seen on a much larger scale in politics. Since the early twentieth century, “liberal” and “progressive” political views have claimed the moral, intellectual, esthetic, and social high ground. Some of the greatest modern intellectuals and artists have espoused such views, often flirting with or embracing communism or socialism: Picasso, Einstein, Hemingway, Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Charlie Chaplin, to name a few.

In its heyday, this “intellectual class” — an odd but instructive term — enjoyed a prestige that is hard to imagine now. It managed to create a cultural atmosphere in which aspiring intellectuals and artists, however mediocre, sought to establish left-wing credentials, and in which right-wing became a synonym for philistine.

Never mind that communism had killed tens of millions of people: communist sympathies were signs of good taste, while anti- communism was vulgar, silly, and vicious. Most liberals could always forgive a communist, but never a Joe McCarthy. “McCarthyism” signified not only tyranny, but, worse, low company and bad taste. Nowhere was this truer than in the prestigious universities of the Ivy League, where the nominal egalitarians of the Left enlisted snobbery as their weapon of choice against the reactionary Right.

This is a facet of America’s ideological wars that has received surprisingly little attention. It began to change with the growth of a conservative intellectual movement, led by the brilliant young polemicist William F. Buckley Jr. Others (Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, James Burnham) did the heavy thinking, but Buckley was the indispensable public figure, sneering back at the liberal intellectuals and getting the better of them with caustic wit.

Buckley was called many things, but nobody could call him a redneck. As the first conservative intellectual celebrity, he was bitterly accused of snobbery by the people who were used to doing all the snubbing. His patrician style disarmed the liberals’ argument from status.

Today there are other conservative celebrities: Tom Wolfe (the satirist of status who memorably nailed “radical chic”), George Will, Pat Buchanan, and Rush Limbaugh, not to mention Ronald Reagan. Liberalism still has its media and academic strongholds, but it’s no longer the philosophy of all the “best people.”

Joseph Sobran

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