Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I Fight Authority, Authority Always Wins

I wrote this a few months before my first book came out. It strikes me in rereading it that perhaps my discomfort with authority as conventionally understood has less to do with a generation gap and more to do with the thrust of history; in electing Barack Obama president we ended a long run of presidents with primarily executive, not legislative experience. In fact both major candidates for president last year were legislators, not governors as seven of the previous eight presidential campaigns had produced. It's possible that not only I but the entire country is suffering from authority fatigue. I maintain, however, a sense bordering on conviction that how we understand authority must necessarily change.

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I guess I need to be concerned for my reputation. My editor is telling me to be more "authoritative"—less deferential to competing and critical voices not only in my writing but in my casual conversations. People need to be given confidence, the argument goes, that whoever calls them to follow along knows where they're going to wind up and what they'll encounter along the way.

Here's my problem, though: I'm thoroughly Gen X. I ride the slacker waves that birthed, among other things, the song "I'm a Loser, Baby (So Why Don't You Kill Me?)" Let's just say I'm not comfortable with the concept of authority—at least as authority is commonly understood.

"The authorities" are the ones who come get you when you've done something wrong. Their opinions are incontrovertible and their decisions decisive. Authority in this sense is a thoroughly modern concept—patented property of the Baby Boomers. No wonder I resist it.

Still, authority has the word author written right there in it. So if I want to claim the one, I'll have to contend with the other.

I brainstormed a list of what I might convincingly claim authority over in the minds of my Boomer friends:

 self-promotion
 underachievement
 humor as defense mechanism
 musical snobbery
 sinning

Rereading this piece, I'm starting to have my doubts about that first one, though I think I can now make a strong case for being named chief of sinners. Nevertheless, with a resume like this you can understand why I favor a more nuanced understanding of authority.

My preferred model comes from the U.S. House of Representatives. You don't necessarily get to Congress because you know Arabic or have secured cheap prescription medication for your octogenarian parents. You get to Congress mainly because you've convinced a plurality of the population that they’re safe authorizing you to speak and act on their behalf.

That’s a whole different ball of authorial wax. Rather than dictating to their subjects—“Respect my authority!” in the language of South Park—people of authority under this model are accountable to their constituents. They are obligated to responsibly represent the needs and wishes of their audience no matter what they come across. They govern with the consent of the governed.

Maybe I’m making too big a deal out of this. It’s not like I’m writing foreign policy or security codes for the Department of Defense. I write about stuff like comic books and television and eating with the wrong fork. But we’ve become a culture that wants immediate, authoritative answers, even though many of our questions can’t really be answered immediately or authoritatively. If you want to know the meaning of life, you won’t turn to a dictionary or a phone book; you’ll start out on a quest that likely won’t end.

A quest like that can be humbling and perplexing—not something that cultivates authoritarian impulses in people. We need to commission people willing to embark on such a quest and brave the confusion it engenders, authorizing them to report back whatever they discover.

Hmmm. Authorized confusion. I could commit to that.

1 comment:

inkless said...

"People need to be given confidence, the argument goes, that whoever calls them to follow along knows where they're going to wind up and what they'll encounter along the way."

This mindset can also lead to a lack of personal responsilbity/engagement. Merely following this or that expert's recipe for happiness, sucess, and the perfect BMI and then blaming "the authority" when things don't pan out is in some ways a failure to brave the journey yourself. And no one can predict the outcome. Except for God, of course.

Interesting that God is an authority in all three senses of the word. He is a ruler, author, and an advocate for us. Cool.