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,
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.”
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on January 19, 1999.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
Watch Sobran's last TV appearance on YouTube.
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during the FGF Tribute to Joe Sobran in December 2009.
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