Today we have a bold president standing athwart history gesticulating and crying ‘Stop!’ And the world pays no notice as it walks around him.
Why should anyone pay attention?
Authority is the name we give the power to demand attention. The problem is that there are several types. And most are ethically dubious.
Most Americans agree with Chairman Mao that power grows from the barrel of a gun. The man with the gun certainly commands our attention, but it is the authority of the brute. I know people who play chess by removing pieces until the game is simple enough to understand without effort. Such folk value the authority of the gun. It only works well when used as a symbol. If one actually rules that way society devolves to violence and revolt. The authority has the legitimacy of armed robbery.
The Roman concept of Auctoritas, as I was taught it, is much more congenial. [Thanks, Josiah Ober.] In republican Rome authority was a game: Those who were often right gained auctoritas. Those who were often wrong found no one to listen to them. The society elevated competing authorities and followed disagreements like battles. One had something to gain and lose by stating an opinion.
I fantasize about an America where candidates say what will happen and people keep score. Imagine a world where a nonsensical statement would be accurately remembered and checked against reality. Where Al Sharpton and John McCain lose their audiences. Where climatological predictions that work earn status and money. Rather than the money flowing to those who cause the greatest alarm. The scientific method as I was taught was a bit like that. Alas, I’ve never seen it work that way.
There is the authority of the leader. If you have hordes of people following you, you simply must be listened to. I don’t care what you think of, say, Glenn Beck or Noam Chomsky. They have large followings and must be paid attention. Sadly, having a following doesn’t make you right. I must listen to Justin Bieber. I needn’t take him seriously. In fact I cannot. I am sorry Miley Cyrus.
There is such a thing as moral authority. Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi spoke truth as they saw it. Their virtue shown out. One could not look upon them and believe them to be frauds. They had the power to compel an audience by virtue of their integrity. Moral authority does not make one correct. Jim Jones led his followers all the way to mass suicide. The Boxer Revolt and the Ghost Dance led to bloody folly. How many times did the Millerites go up that blessed hill for the end of the world?
Authorship gives authority. If one has been clever enough to come up with something novel people keep listening. England kept to Newton’s inferior calculus for some time after they knew better. Wozniak deserves his authority. Period. Yet authorship is not fallible either. Tesla. Tesla did so much good work – some he never claimed but we can deduce – that people kept listening long after he quit making sense. People still credit him with things he never did or did badly. Such is the power of what he did accomplish.
Money is a power anyone can achieve. As such it engenders deference without respect.
When I was in school I saw demonstrators marching on the television. I was moved by their passion. I couldn’t make out what they were chanting in unison, but I was impressed. The power of their passion moved me without even understanding the issue or their chants. In fact as I grew older and more jaded I grew to understand that such chants generally consisted of such intellectual statements as:
[Insert issue here]
Has got to go.
Authority that is reduced by understanding is dangerous.
Some people who wish to manipulate claim the authority of law. The power of 50 per cent plus one done long ago. Not compelling. But laws allow one to claim an authority that doesn’t exist in oneself. There is a sign I often see: ‘It’s not just wrong. It’s illegal.’ This drives me crazy. It has the power of argument exactly backwards.
“He had learned a great secret: The engines must turn.” In the Sand Pebbles the engineer knew he was indispensable. He was the only one who could keep the ship moving. He had authority from need. You may outsource your billing to India. You may choose to go without things from anybody you dislike. But at 7:00 when your drains won’t flow, your plumber has all sorts of authority.
I know a bull-headed, intransigent man. The man lived in a small town. He was not a big wheel in business, nor wealthy, nor politically connected, but everyone knew him. No one had ever had cause to consider him to be anything but honest. Once he was given a traffic ticket for something he did not do. The stubborn man spent a night in jail rather than pay a fine for that which he did not do. This is notable because he told everyone what happened and what he saw when he went to jail. He was believed. In this manner he had much more authority than the ‘authorities.’ Within two years the police chief was demoted and three police officers were let go. Shortly after the old city jail was torn down and replaced with something more modern. No one ever, to my knowledge, said that what happened was a reaction to the stubborn man, but I believe it.
I think about this because most types of authority are nonsense or dangerous. I have a dream that auctoritas and radical honesty will be restored to preëminence. All that depends on it is a civilization worth having.