In an essay called “Authority and American Usage,” David Foster Wallace argues that Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage establishes its author as an authority on American English. The cornerstone of this argument is Wallace’s analysis of two definitions of “authority”:
- The right and power to command, enforce laws, exact obedience, determine or judge/ A person or a group invested with this power.
- Power to influence or persuade resulting from knowledge or experience./An accepted source of expert information or advice.
To Wallace, Garner’s book embodies the second definition. Instead of “commanding” his readers to acknowledge his authority as if such respect is his “right” as a scholar of language, Garner “persuades” us by displaying sufficient “knowledge and experience” to be “accepted” as a “source of expert information or advice.” Wallace calls this is a “genius” accomplishment.
Why? In a linguistic era defined by intense disagreement over what the standards of usage should be, or if any should even exist, what Garner recognizes, to quote Wallace, is that, “‘authority’ is no longer something a lexicographer can just presume ex officio…That in the absence of unquestionable Authority in language, the reader must be moved or persuaded to grant its authority, freely and for what appear to be good reasons.” It is for this reason that Garner’s book is no mere language guide, but also, and more impressively, a work of persuasion. What it is not is a compilation of grammatical decrees. As Wallace points out, it is instead a piece of “Democratic rhetoric.”
The reason Wallace uses this particular term to describe Garner’s work is linked to the distinction he makes between our two definitions of “authority.” Let’s analyze that distinction a bit more. The key word in each definition is “power.” In the first, power guarantees authority: those with power make the rules, and like it or not, everyone else must step in line, or face the consequences. In the second, that relationship is reversed: a presumptive Authority must first convince the rest of us that he deserves to wield power. Let’s call the first definition, “Tyrannical Authority,” and the second, “Democratic Authority.”
Tyrannical Authority has dominated human social structures for much of recorded history, and it remains influential today. It is perhaps best illustrated in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Late in the play, Lear asks the blinded Gloucester, “Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?” Gloucester responds that he has, and Lear replies, “And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold/the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office.”
The essence of Tyrannical Authority is raw force — the snarling teeth of the dog, warning the beggar, obey or face the consequences. Citizens living in a system defined by Tyrannical Authority are told the same thing: either adhere to the dictates of the powerful, or risk punishment.
Why has such an inherently unequal system been tolerated for such a large percentage of history? Well, here are some advantageous facts about Tyrannical Authority. Humans crave order, and the easiest way to maintain order is by concentrating it in the hands of a few. This way the babbling, chaotic, interests of the many are subdued and order maintained through submission. Ideally, goes the logic of Tyrannical Authority, those few in possession of power and authority, “know what’s best” for the people, and are therefore well-suited for dominion over the people’s interests.
But one of Lear’s most significant realizations as an ex-king is that there are some major holes in this logic. Tyrannical Authority enables the “rascal beadle,” who, “lashing a whore,” should “strip [his] own back,” because, “[he] hotly lusts to use her in that kind/ For which [he] whipst her.” Clothed in the vestments of power, and unchecked by the people, such hypocritical, selfish, and poisonous leaders don’t have to follow the rules they themselves impose, and often, they don’t. When that happens, the idea that Tyrannical Authority can both maintain order, and promote the good of a society’s whole population, is upended.
Even so, for a long time, Tyrannical Authority was an accepted, and unalterable, fact of life. It was easier to live with its limitations than it was to confront the potentially grave disorder which might be invited by scrapping the system. But over time, a new philosophy of power and authority emerged from the libraries of Western Europe to influence the founders of a new world. This philosophy emphasized things like rights, and, the people. With the birth of the United States of America, Democratic Authority was welcomed into the modern world.
In the first paragraph of the first Federalist essay, Alexander Hamilton writes, “it seems to have been reserved for the people of this country … to decide the important question, whether societies… are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitution on accident and force.” Hamilton knew well that the history of his country was inextricably linked with this question: can Democratic Authority function as a superior system of government than that of Tyrannical Authority, or does the American experiment simply invite disorder?
For the last few centuries, history has responded to that question (despite myriad conflicts and imperfections), with a resounding, “Yes.” This is due in large part to a value Wallace defines in his analysis of Garner’s book. This value is called the Democratic Spirit. “A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus sedulous respect for the convictions of others.”
A Dictionary of Modern American Usage is a work of “Democratic Rhetoric” because it is in this Democratic Spirit that it is written. Garner approaches the divisive issue of American language usage with both a strong belief in his own ideas and the capacity to acknowledge the perspective of his opponents.
This is not an easy thing to do. It takes great effort to simultaneously believe deeply in something and respect those who would challenge this belief. But this is an effort Democracy requires. For Democratic Authority to function at all, we must allow for the contrary opinions of our fellow citizens.
Unfortunately, the 21st century’s “culture wars” are defined by obstinate refusal to encounter differing points of view with a “Democratic Spirit.” Instead, many citizens and leaders do just the opposite: Americans of all political perspectives spend too much time considering the issues of our time with the attitude, “my way, or no way at all.” This attitude is Tyrannical, for it asserts a desire to silence the diversity of opinions encouraged by Democracy, in favor of a system that would assert a single worldview on all of us. The so-called feeling of “powerlessness” touted by Trump voters and The Resistance alike, is really dissatisfaction with the system of shared power upon which Democratic Authority depends.
What Democracy demands of us then, is tolerance. This tolerance does not mean accepting the morally outrageous, or backing away from our strongly held beliefs. It does, however, mean tolerating the fact that our nation, and our government, is composed of many individuals who do not see the world from the same place we do. It means striving to speak to these individuals not with derisive, dismissive, hateful, language, but through “Democratic Rhetoric,” just like good old Bryan Garner in his treatise on language, or Martin Luther King in his speeches, or Alexander Hamilton in his essays. The day we can no longer do that, is the day we are no longer capable of “establishing good government through reflection and choice.” On that day, the last flame of the Enlightenment will be extinguished, and the world will fall into a new dark age of Tyrannical Authority.