Earlier this year, programmer David Barry released a fun estimation of how rectangular each country’s borders are.
Ignoring some outlying islands (and archipelago nations whose shape isn’t approximated by any shape) it turns out that between 60 and 95 percent of national borders fit within that blockiest of shapes.
But many national boundaries have been set by things such as “coastlines” or “mountains” or “colonial compromises.” Much of the United States — especially west of the original 13 colonies — has been set by more geometric criteria, such as lines of latitude and longitude.1 (For more information, Mark Stein’s “How the States Got Their Shapes” is a quick, breezy read.)
So I modified Barry’s code to estimate how well each state can be approximated by a rectangle. To score well, a rectangle has to include as much of the state’s land as possible — while excluding as much area outside the state as possible. (This account for why California, a sort of angled box shape, scores so poorly. You can easily draw a rectangle that takes in most of California — but you’ll also get a bunch of not-California in the rectangle, too.)
As it turns out, U.S. states ARE somewhat more rectangular than world countries. The median rectangularness index for countries in Barry’s estimations was 0.843 (on a scale from 0 to 1). The median U.S. state, by contrast, is 0.861. Setting aside Alaska (which the code just couldn’t handle), the range runs from Hawaii’s 0.581 to nearly perfect Wyoming, 0.999.
After the jump, view the data for yourself — plus an even deeper dive into the rectangularness of U.S. counties.
- An infamous French Revolution proposal to divide France into square départements would have given America a run for its money. ↩
In the game of thrones, you live or you die — often no less on Earth than in Westeros, where Cersei Lannister warned Ned Stark about the high stakes he was playing with.
Though there are fewer thrones around the real world these days, the principles of seizing and holding power aren’t much different whether you’re trying to become the king, the president, or the president-for-life.
That’s according to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, anyway: two political scientists who’ve studied the “logic of political survival” and written it down in a mass-market work called The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics.
Their thesis: holding power poses basically the same challenges whether you’re a democratically elected prime minister or a totalitarian dictator. “No one rules alone; no one has absolute authority,” they write. “All that varies is how many backs have to be scratched and how big the supply of backs available for scratching.”
It’s an over-simplified model, to be sure, but a useful one. By eliminating differences of kind between types of governance in favor differences of degree, de Mesquita and Smith create a system that can compare presidents and juntas — or mayors and CEOs.
At their core, they argue that the logic of holding power is the same whatever the system: win over the people whose support is essential to remain in power.
Specifically, they argue there are three fundamental groups in any political society:
- The interchangeables are the people who has “at least some legal say in choosing their leader.” That includes everyone eligible to vote in democracies like the US — as well as in dictatorships like the Soviet Union, which also had formal universal suffrage. Even in a democracy, any given “interchangeable” doesn’t have very much power. The real difference between government types comes in at the other two levels.
- The influentials are the “real selectorate” — the people who actually choose the leader. Though every Soviet citizen could vote, the actual decisions were made by the members of the Communist Party. In Saudi Arabia, it’s the senior members of the royal family. In the U.S. — the vestigal electoral college aside — it’s the millions of voters who back the winning candidate.
- The essentials are “the people whose support is essential if the leader is to survive in office.” For a military dictator, that could be the handful of colonels capable of marshaling enough military force to overthrow the leader. In many democracies, at a minimum, it’s 50.1 percent of the voters in 50.1 percent of the districts — theoretically as small as 25 percent of the electorate, though often much larger.
The difference between a dictator and democrat, then, is primarily in the size of the essentials. A democrat might need to keep millions of people happy with her, a dictator could rely on as few as a dozen.
This matters because if you just need to keep a dozen people happy, you can just bribe them. Each colonel or prince gets mansions, cars and Swiss bank accounts. But you can’t effectively bribe millions of people, so the only way to win their votes is with “public goods”: a strong economy, good education and health care, a system of political rights, national pride, etc.
The bigger the population of essentials, in other words, the more leaders have a personal incentive to better the whole country instead of looting the country to pay off a handful of top lieutenants.
But this is already starting to get a bit dry. So let’s take it all back to Cersei and Ned, and see how the rules of the Dictator’s Handbook apply to the would-be leaders in Westeros and Essos.
(Spoilers ahead for the five published novels in A Song of Ice and Fire and the first five or so seasons of Game of Thrones.)
Rule: Identify your essential supporters and pay them whatever it takes to get them on your side.
Poor Lord Stark (in what will prove to be a repetitive chorus for his family) instinctively knew many of the rules of holding power but implemented them less successfully than his rivals. As Hand of the King and a powerful lord in his own right, Ned Stark was in a prime position when King Robert Baratheon died. What he needed to do was identify a coalition that could exercise a preponderance of power in King’s Landing, secure this coalition’s loyalty, and then use it to eliminate his enemies. And he came so close! After some dithering, he asks the Master of Coin, Petyr Baelish, to bribe the City Watch to supplement his own household guard, giving him the force he needed to overcome the Queen Regent, Cersei Lannister.
But Ned waited too long and didn’t promise enough. The king’s brother, Renly Baratheon, proposed what de Mesquita and Smith would identify as a more effective approach: a preemptive strike to seize control of the underage king Joffrey. Ned rejected this approach as dishonorable, and so Renly fled the capital with the 100 soldiers he had offered to aid Ned’s coup. “It is absolutely essential to seize the reins of power quickly enough to make sure that your group gets to control the instruments of the state, and not someone else’s,” the Dictator’s Handbook advises.
The slower-moving strike Ned ended up with could have succeeded — except he was outbid. He didn’t offer Baelish any particular personal payoff. But Cersei did. And so when Ned marched into the throne room with a force of Littlefinger’s Goldcloaks, he — but surely not de Mesquita and Smith — were shocked when the watch turned on Stark and cemented Cersei’s power. “Paying supporters… is the essence of ruling,” they write. “Buying loyalty is particularly difficult when a leader first comes to power. When deciding whether to support a new leader, prudent backers must not only think about how much their leader gives them today. They must also ponder what they can expect to receive in the future.” Petyr Baelish, by grace of Cersei the future Lord of Harrenhal and Lord Protector of the Vale, is nothing if not prudent.
Another rule Ned Stark broke: silence is golden. The Dictator’s Handbook cites the example of President Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria, who in 1965 plotted to purge his rivals in the Algerian government. But Ben Bella made the mistake of announcing a politburo meeting to change up the cabinet and army command one week before that meeting was to take place. Given a week to organize, Ben Bella’s underlings overthrew him and seized power for themselves. Similarly, Stark foolishly warned Cersei that he knew Joffrey was not the rightful king — a sentimental gesture that gave her time to organize a forceful claim on power.
Rule: Depend on as few people as possible for power, and especially not on those people who helped you seize power in the first place.
Though Cersei won control for her house by outplaying Ned Stark, she wouldn’t become the paramount ruler of the Seven Kingdoms until several years later, after the deaths of both her imposing father Tywin and her teenaged son Joffrey. With the impressionable child king Tommen on the throne, Cersei as regent at last had the power she believed was rightfully hers. And though in the long run she would botch the job — you don’t need to be a political scientist to see how creating a religious military force outside her direct control was a mistake — she seemed to grasp some of the more basic dictator’s rules.
“A wise leader does not count too much on those who helped her gain power,” de Mesquita and Smith write. “A prudent new incumbent will act swiftly to get some of them out of the way and bring in others whose interests more strongly assure their future loyalty. Only after sacking, shuffling and shrinking their particular set of essentials can a leader’s future tenure be assured.” In George R.R. Martin’s fourth novel, A Feast For Crows (though not in the television adaptation), Cersei pushes potential rivals (especially loyalists of the rival Tyrell family) out of the Small Council that runs the Seven Kingdoms’ government, and instead appoints a collection of nobodies: “the biddable Harys Swyft” as Hand, sickly courtier Gyles Rosby as Master of Coin, mercenary bastard Aurane Waters as Master of Ships, and the disgraced ex-maester Qyburn as Master of Whisperers. None of these men had significant forces of their own, making them more dependent on Cersei for their wealth and power.
This achieved Cersei’s immediate goal of securing her reign against enemies at court. But what Cersei overlooked is the long-term picture: in a feudal society such as Westeros, military power does not rest primarily in the hands of the central government, but rather in the array of lords scattered across the land. So excluding the Tyrells and the rump Lannister forces under her uncle Kevan may have given Cersei a freer hand in the capital and given her more time to plot without being overthrown in a palace coup — but in the long run her smaller coalition doesn’t appear to possess the money or power to hold on for long, even with her temporary control of the mechanisms of the state.
(This section has been updated and expanded.)
Rule: Autocrats should keep wars brief so they don’t waste resources better used keeping themselves in power.
Holding power doesn’t just depend on wielding force in throne rooms. It also involves wielding force on the field of battle. And while the Young Wolf was second to none at winning battles, he lived up to his family’s unfortunate legacy by being a second-rate student of the laws of power.
For an autocrat, it is “better to preserve resources to pay supporters than it (is) to carry on fighting,” the Handbook advises. Democracies will often fight to the bitter end, because it’s not merely the regime’s survival at stake. Autocrats are “likely to grab what they can and return home.” For all his tactical brilliance, that’s not what Robb Stark did in the War of the Five Kings.
After raising his banner in rebellion and being proclaimed the King in the North, Robb Stark won a series of lightning victories over Lannister forces that gave him military dominance over the heartland of the Seven Kingdoms. But rather than using his superior position to bargain for a favorable peace, Robb fought to the bitter end. A fine position for a modern, democratic nation-state. But continuing the war meant Robb was forced to expend resources he could have used to pay off his supporters — not only in private goods for his nobles, but also the public good of security for his northern homeland. Continuing his foreign war left the North vulnerable to Ironborn invaders, weakening the loyalty of Robb’s vassals.
Eventually, two of Robb’s key subordinates betrayed him after getting a better deal from Robb’s enemies. A leader following the Handbook would have known that Robb’s first priority should have been to keep Walder Frey and Roose Bolton fat and happy.
(Bolton, though Robb’s inferior as a general, showed he was better at the politics of war. Commanding Robb’s infantry at the Battle of the Green Fork, he sent other houses’ soldiers to the front line, held his men back — and even rained arrows down upon friend and foe alike. He weakened his own army — but not the core part of the army loyal to him. As the Handbook notes, “autocrats don’t squander precious resources on the battlefield. And elite well-equipped units are more for crushing domestic opposition than they are fighting a determined foreign foe.”)
Rule: Don’t be afraid to hurt your economy to reward your coalition.
Zoomed out, the biggest legacy of Tywin Lannister’s period as King Joffrey’s Hand may be his decision to ravage the Riverlands, the second-most agriculturally productive region of the kingdoms he was ostensibly managing. Yes, Tywin was doing so to help crush a rebellion in the area. But his decision is also defensible from the standpoint of political survival — even with the onset of a years-long winter nigh.
“Ruling is about staying in power, not good governance,” the Handbook advises. “Leaders buy support by rewarding their essential backers relative to others… First it provides leaders with the resources to enrich their most essential supporters. Second, it reduces the welfare of those outside the coalition.”
This creates a situation where “people are rich precisely because they are in the winning coalition, and others are poor because they are not” — a strong incentive to join Tywin Lannister’s coalition!
Any gold hidden in the village, the silver, gems and food, all that was more valuable for Tywin’s men — and thus for him — than finding out where the Brotherhood Without Banners was. He unleashed his soldiers to improve their lot at the expense of the country, and in so doing secured his own hold on power.
The strategic benefits of feeding your own army at the expense of your enemy just so happen to align here with Tywin’s political instincts, but if they hadn’t, I think we could count on Tywin to do what it took for him to stay in power even if it cost him a victory in a war.
The Iron Bank of Braavos
Rule: It’s cheaper for rich nations to buy the support of autocrats than of democracies.
The Handbook’s passages about less-autocratic forms of government aren’t only useful for looking at the modern world. Westeros, too, had a number of republics to go along with its thrones. Martin doesn’t spend any time dealing with their inner workings, but his World of Ice and Fire makes it clear that the Free Cities of Lorath, Lys, Myr, Tyrosh, Pentos, Volantis and Braavos are all governed to some degree by their citizens. (Norvos is a theocracy, while Qohor’s leadership is not specified.) Some are formally governed by representative councils, while others elect non-hereditary leaders like Braavos’ Sealord (and assumedly maintain influence in between those elections).
Braavos in particular is relevant here, not for its largely unknown politics, but for its foreign policy — or rather, the foreign policy of the Iron Bank of Braavos, which while formally independent also appears to act as an arm of the Braavosi state. Specifically, the Iron Bank is in the business of loaning money to foreign lords and kings — not merely to profit, but also to shape policy. If one king or prince defaults of his debt to the Iron Bank, it then funds a challenger who will promise to pay.
Given all this, why does the Iron Bank keep lending money to fickle kings and monarchs? As James Macdonald wrote in A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy, historical kings had a terrible record as debtors — while republics were much more likely to pay back their loans. So wouldn’t it make more sense for the Iron Bank to fund republicans?
Not according to the Handbook. Its same logic applies to foreign aid as to internal politics: the bigger a polity’s pool of essentials, the harder it is to pay them off. “Buying policy from a democracy is expensive because many people need to be compensated for their dislike of the policy. Buying policies from autocracies is quite a bit easier.” That’s why even today, the United States — far more democratic, and committed to the ideology of democracy, than the oligarchic republic of Braavos — is happy to mouth platitudes about democratization while propping up a range of unsavory regimes with foreign aid. It’s cheaper to get the basing rights or diplomatic support you want from a president-for-life than from a prime minister. So while Braavos and America alike might benefit in the long term from promoting fellow republics, their short-term interests push both to supporting tyrants.
Rule: Never deprive your core supporters to make the people’s lives better.
Another Stark, another cautionary tale. After being raised as Ned Stark’s bastard, Jon Snow eventually got to rule in his own right — as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. His tenure proved quite short for reasons clear to anyone who had read the Handbook.
Its fundamental rule is to identify your essential coalition and make sure you keep them paid off. But the “flip side” of this is “not to be too cheap toward your coalition of supporters. If you’re good to the people at the expense of your coalition, it won’t be long until your ‘friends’ will be gunning for you.”
Or knifing for you, as the case may be.
As the 998th Lord Commander, Snow undertook a farsighted and responsible policy that was about the worst thing he could have done in terms of ensuring his political survival. Snow distributed lands, power and resources to wildling captives. The effect of all this, had it worked, would have been a greatly reinforced Night’s Watch, better able to fulfill its duty of defending the wall. But “effective policy… doesn’t necessarily produce loyalty among essentials,” and can sometimes produce the exact opposite.
This isn’t to say that the Sworn Brothers who brought a violent end to Jon Snow’s reign were acting intelligently. Indeed, when The Winds of Winter is finally published (not “if”) it will likely become quickly clear that the conspiracy was quite short-sighted. Taking power and holding it, the Handbook notes, are very different things.
Rule: Half-measures are often the worst possible course of action for holding power.
When Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons used her army of freedmen to take over the city of Meereen from the slavers of Slaver’s Bay, she had far more going for her than Jon Snow did in his contemporaneous ruling position at Castle Black. While Snow depended merely on traditions of deference and his personal reputation for heroism, Dany had an army, dragons, and the alluring potential that she could conquer all of Westeros to alternately cow and co-opt potential opponents.
And yet Dany ran into problems almost as severe as Snow’s in Meereen, and saw her new city fall almost to pieces with civil strife. Her mistake may have been trying to have it both ways: to be lenient but also strict. Dany insisted on upending the socioeconomic order in Slaver’s Bay by abolishing slavery and thus depriving the previous ruling class of a large portion of their wealth. All well and good! But then she vacillated between cracking down on dissent among the Ghiscari and trying to appease them.
Taking either path — brutally suppressing the former slavers, or sacrificing her abolitionist ideals to co-opt the old elite — could have succeeded. People “want a government that provides for them and under which they can live secure, happy, and productive lives,” Smith and de Mesquita write. “There is a delicate balance here. If a regime excels at convincing people that stepping out of line means incredible misery and even death, it is unlikely to experience rebellion… Thus it is that middle-of-the road dictators… are more likely to experience a mass uprising than their worst fellow autocrats.”
But alternating between trying to intimidate your enemies (by ordering mass crucifixions) and trying to seduce them (by forging a marriage pact with a former member of the elite) accomplished neither goal. The slavers didn’t see that they could profit more by joining Dany, but they also didn’t believe that resisting her (done with proper caution) would bring certain doom. This way lay chaos.
Littlefinger and Varys
Rule: Strike when coalition faith in leaders is weak.
Some people believe the entire Game of Thrones — the whole non-supernatural aspect of A Song of Ice and Fire — is basically a battle between the two secretive master-manipulators, Varys the Spider and Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish.
The two men have different motivations and different tactics, but are unified in their mastery of the inside game of politics. It’s no surprise that the two of them seem to follow the Handbook’s rules better than any of Martin’s other characters (with the possible exception of Tywin). They eliminate their enemies, induce loyalty from allies and know when to jump ship. But let’s focus on one particular aspect of the game they’ve played well: weakening ruling coalitions.
It seems truistic that a divided government is easier to topple, but Varys and Littlefinger go beyond mere Iago-ish manipulation. Instead, they both seem to intuitively understand the importance of ruling coalitions’ expectations of future reward.
“If essential backers know their leader is dying, then they also know that they need someone new to assure the flow of revenue into their pockets,” the Handbook advises. None of the recent kings of Westeros died of a wasting disease, but advanced knowledge of a king’s death — such as if you are about to kill him with poisoned wine at his wedding — can obviously be valuable information. More generally it speaks to the value of information, something Littlefinger and especially Varys make it their business to know.
Financial crises are also “an opportune time to strike,” since the state’s money troubles inspire uneasiness among lots of people who depend on payments from the crown. The Seven Kingdoms find themselves in just such a crisis at the end of A Dance With Dragons as Varys prepares his strike, and he takes steps to ensure the crisis isn’t solved. More cunningly, Littlefinger was in direct control of the crown’s finances for years, time in which he not only skimmed off lots of money to enrich himself and buy allies, but in which he may have deliberately weakened the Seven Kingdoms fiscally, all the better to enable a potential takeover.
Dying leaders aren’t the only time regimes are exposed. They’re also vulnerable shortly after a new leader takes over, because new leaders are “unreliable sources of wealth for their coalition” — they may or may not know where the money is, and coalition members don’t have the bonds of trust to make them comfortable with their future rewards. Stable inheritance can mitigate this, since “princes are well-equipped to continue to reward supporters” — presuming, that is that they have been groomed to the throne. If a prince takes over as a child, though, this may not be the case. And so we see Littlefinger and Varys act to ensure young kings with weak advisers. Littlefinger kills one Hand of the King; Varys kills a second directly (in the books) and a third indirectly. Littlefinger also puts a child on the throne by assassinating the prior king.
All this scheming may or may not work out for these two master manipulators; you can read the Dictator’s Handbook all you want and still be helpless if someone shows up with three full-grown dragons. But there’s a reason people like Varys and Littlefinger stay alive and powerful while Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons and Tyrells rise and fall in turn. They know what it takes to win power and keep it in an autocracy: it’s not about creating a strong economy or a happy people, but about identifying core supporters and keeping them happy and loyal.
Varys may have critiqued Littlefinger as someone who “would see the realm burn if he could be king of the ashes.” But while that’s bad for the realm, Smith and de Mesquita insist it’s a mistake to see that as anything but good for Littlefinger.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cultural phenomenon of a musical, “Hamilton” (review) has gotten plenty of attention for its words. It’s chock full of them, for one thing, with more than 20,000 words its two hour and 23 minute runtime (an order of magnitude more than “1776,” a prior generation’s Revolutionary War musical). For another, the very concept of the show is about words, and how a young man’s capacity with a pen lifts him from poverty to power.
So I think it’s worth a closer look at those words. Here they all are — the most important ones, anyway:
The most common words (common English words like “the” and “a” have been omitted) are those repeated over and over again in motifs, such as the show’s effective motto, “I’m not throwing away my shot.” Character names are frequently mentioned, as are a handful of short action verbs: “look,” “wait,” “take,” “see.” In fact, lots of the biggest words there are just a single syllable — overall, the average word in the show is just 1.4 syllables long.
But we can delve deeper. Different characters have very different voices in the show — from the dense verses of Alexander Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler to the more balladic stylings of George Washington and Elizabeth Schuyler to the basic raps of Hamilton’s first act friends.
Here’s side-by-side comparisons of Hamilton’s and Burr’s word uses in the musical:
Or the two main Schuyler Sisters, Eliza and Angelica:
Other characters have distinctive personalities in the show, but are defined lexically by their role as a backup chorus:
And some just don’t have enough lines for any of them to be especially significant:
For completeness, here’s the show’s three presidents:
And the words spoken, sung and rapped by the show’s background chorus:
Pretty cool? We don’t have to say goodbye yet.
As you could tell by the relative size of the wordclouds, some characters have far more words in the show than others. Unsurprisingly, the titular character has by far the most words, followed by his rival Aaron Burr:
But not all these words are created equal. Though the show as a whole is dominated by a pretty simple vocabulary, some characters are much more likely to break out a $10 word than others — and Alexander Hamilton is perhaps surprisingly not the leader in that category.
I calculated the Flesch-Kincaid reading level scores for each significant character. Their numbers reflect the number of years of education generally required to understand a text:
King George, in fact, has the longest words of the bunch, despite singing languidly instead of rapping furiously. Philip is second, though he has so few words that may be an anomaly. My favorite character, Angelica Schuyler, uses the most complex language of any of the major characters, at just shy of a 10th grade level. Hamilton and Burr rap at a middle school level, as do Washington and Jefferson. Meanwhile Laurens, Lafayette and Mulligan, who perform what Miranda describes as “super beginner raps,” are understandable by a typical third grader.
I sense the convention is listless, so one final piece — the most complex text-mining tool so far. There’s an algorithm called “fuzzy c-means clustering” which divides up data into groups “so that items in the same class are as similar as possible, and items in different classes are as dissimilar as possible.” (For other examples of how this can be used, check out this piece on 2016 presidential candidates and my own article on Minnesota State of the State addresses.)
In this case, the code divided each character’s combined lyrics between three different categories. These categories don’t have any inherent meaning, but each reflect certain words that are distinctive to that category. For example, Group 2 is most strongly associated with Angelica and Eliza, and is typified by words such as “satisfied” and “sister” — though it also features refrains from other characters like “must” and “nice.”
The details are less important than the big picture, which is that the algorithm immediately pegs Alexander Hamilton’s lyrics as distinctive from the rest of the cast. He dominates his category in a way that no one else does:
The man is simply non-stop.
(Can we get back to politics, please? For a different take on the time period covered in “Hamilton,” check out my essay on the Election of 1800: “1800 and the politics of the absolute.”)
Visit my GitHub to view the code used to create this project.
In these days of high-octane political rhetoric and a party system defined more by “voting against the opposing party rather than for their own party,” it’s worth casting back into American history to another time when political tensions ran so high that each side believed the other would lead to the destruction of American ideals. Unlike now, things got so divisive that some states talked about seceding from the union and even stockpiled arms and mobilized militias to achieve their political goals through force.
I speak not of 1860, when all those things happened on the road to a brutal and bloody civil war, but rather of 1800 — when all those things happened but were averted just shy of bloodshed.
This seminal election was held when most of America’s Founding Fathers and drafters of the Constitution were not only alive but were active political leaders. Why were such men willing to risk dismemberment of the Union they had fought so hard to forge? Part of it reflects a tense time, with war in Europe threatening to spill over into America, and part of it reflects the still tenuous American political experiment.
But much of the cause, James Roger Sharp argues in his book “American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis,” was how leaders of both the Federalist and Republican proto-parties viewed the beliefs and activities of their counterparts. There was “no acceptance of the idea of a loyal opposition, nor was there a tradition of political parties sharing and alternating in power.”1
Instead, members of both parties believed that the “public good” was objectively determinable, and that reasonable men would thus naturally arrive at this public good through debate and discussion. When it became evident that deep divisions about the proper direction of the country existed and persisted, the Founding Fathers did not question the idea of a single, easily discoverable public good. Instead, “followers of each proto-party believed that their vision exclusively embraced the public good”2 — and that the opposing party, by process of deduction, was operating contrary to the public good.
The intolerance bred by such attitudes forced the leaders of the proto-parties to cast desperately around for new modes or approaches to vanquish their (antagonists)… Leaders sought to tap, organize, and channel the ultimate source of political strength in a republic — the people — in order to legitimize their own interpretation of the public good.”3
But when elections went against these early American political leaders, they didn’t conclude that the other side’s views had been legitimized. Instead, these elections were “evidence rather that the people had been temporarily misled by unscrupulous leaders outside the republican consensus, leaders who had been animated by crass, self-interested and partisan objectives.”4
This slow march toward civil war picked up steam in 1798, when America was in the middle of an undeclared naval war with France. Federalists, who controlled Congress and the presidency, passed the Alien and Sedition Acts which, among other things, punished anyone who “unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States… or to impede the operation of any law of the United States… or to intimidate any person holding a place or office in or under the government of the United States,” and to ban “any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government.”5
These extremely provocative laws outraged Thomas Jefferson and other Republicans. In response, Jefferson and James Madison authored the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, which asserted states’ rights contra the federal government and even — in earlier versions, before being tempered by moderate allies or in the face of opposition, advocated a right of secession.
During the debate over the Virginia Resolutions, Federalist Virginians hit upon what seemed like a master stroke: though Republicans claimed outrage over the Alien and Sedition Acts, they had passed a Virginia Sedition Act in 1792, and Jefferson was on the record saying that “in preventing the abridgment of the freedom of the press, punishment for uttering falsehoods ought not be inhibited.”
Sharp, however, notes that “the Virginia Republicans were not, in their own eyes, being hypocritical.”
Since they sincerely believed they were the defenders of republicanism, they saw the powers of government in their hands being used to further noble goals, whereas power in the hands of the Federalists, who represented factious interests, was being used to undermine the general good. Politics in the early republic… was the politics of the absolute and not the politics of interest brokerage.6
That attitude about the general good would have far more significant consequences than merely justifying a bit of apparent hypocrisy.
Tensions ran so high in the latter years of the Adams administration that Virginia Republicans didn’t merely debate secession — they appear to have actively stockpiled arms toward that end. Fears ran high “about Federalist plots to use the newly strengthened army led by Alexander Hamilton to destroy domestic opposition;”7 in response, the Virginia legislature voted on party lines “to arm the militia, and to make provision to purchase 5,000 stands of arms.”8 The purpose, one contemporaneous Republican admitted, was “enabling (the people) to oppose the government of the United States.” 9
Federalists, for their part, heard rumors of Virginia stockpiling weapons and took them very seriously. Hamilton proposed a range of measures to destroy sectional opposition to the federalist regime. “‘Vigorous measures of counteraction” had to be adopted, he concluded, for it had become obvious that the opposition had resolved to make the union’s ‘existence a question of force.'”10 He proposed expanding the army and navy, dividing states into districts and appointing federal justices of the peace “to avoid obstruction by local judges,” and tightening sedition laws beyond even the existing Alien and Sedition Acts to “preserve confidence in the officers of the general government, by preserving their reputation from malicious and unfounded slanders.”
Most radically, Hamilton even privately proposed to divide “the great states” into multiple smaller states with the aim of destroying big states’ — read, Virginia’s — ability to resist the federal government.11 Federalists in Congress even proposed a “remarkable bill” that would have let a committee appointed by the Federalist-controlled Congress “decide which votes to count and which ones to disallow” in presidential elections.12 They then pursued criminal charges against a Republican newspaper editor for “unauthorized publication” of the bill. (The measure was ultimately defeated in Congress, and the editor avoided prosecution by hiding until Congress adjourned — to the great annoyance of James Monroe, who was hoping for “the creation of a Republican martyr.”13)
After the Election of 1800 ended in a tie between Jefferson and his ostensible running mate Aaron Burr, “rumors swept Washington, D.C…. and the various state capitals about Federalist plots to deny Jefferson the presidency by a usurpation of power or by throwing support to Burr. Talk was rife about militias arming, a possible civil war and the breakup of the union.”14 In two mysterious — and, to many, suspicious — fires, the War Department burned down on Nov. 8, 1800, followed by parts of the Treasury Department on Jan. 20, 1801. Each side believed the blazes to be arson but blamed the other for setting them.
Tensions swept higher. Federalists in Congress debated ways they could hold on to power despite the Federalist Adams losing the election decisively. Jefferson told Monroe, the governor of Virginia, that if Federalists tried to usurp the government, “the middle states would arm.” The Washington Federalist newspaper dismissed these concerns, arguing that the “militia of Massachusetts… with those of New Hampshire and Connecticut united almost to a man” would easily suppress “factious foreigners in Pennsylvania or a few fighting bacchanals of Virginia.”15
Talk of uprisings in Pennsylvania and Virginia was not mere rumor. Monroe and Republican Gov. Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania “took bold steps under the cloak of secrecy to prepare their states for a possible military confrontation. McKean made arrangements to mobilize his state’s militia force in the event of a showdown. Monroe made plans to use the Virginia militia to block the federal government from removing the federal arms stored in a Virginia arsenal and from transporting them out of the state.”16 Federalist governors apparently took no such concrete steps, but Federalists in Congress did seriously consider a strategy of preventing the House of Representatives from meeting to decide the election — which would let them appoint the Federalist President of the Senate as acting president when Adams’ term expired. When some Federalists despaired of the deadlock and proposed to let Jefferson win, New Englander congressmen allegedly “declared they meant to go without a constitution and take the risk of a Civil War.”17
The crisis was only averted when several Federalists decided the wrong president was better than no president and abstained, allowing Jefferson’s election. (Hamilton’s anti-Burr letter-writing campaign during this time helped lead to the duo’s infamous and fatal 1804 duel.)
During those critical days in late 1800 and early 1801, public men considered violence and the destruction of the union as distinct and even likely possibilities. Both Federalists and Republicans seemed willing to go to the bink to secure an electoral victory… There was a peaceful transition of power from the Federalists to the Republicans in 1801, but the potential for violence was real. The country was in as much peril then as in any other era in American history with the single exception of the Civil War.18
In hindsight the Election of 1800 is seen as a turning point, a peaceful transition of power from one party to another — “a milestone in republican government.”19 But “clearly this was not the way the participants in perceived the transfer of power. For political parties to have ‘come of age’ in 1800 would have required a general acceptance and toleration of an opposition party on the national level. This had not been established by 1800 and indeed evolved only gradually over the next few decades.”20
Jefferson, indeed, saw his presidential victory not as a foundation for the alteration of power, but as a permanent vindication of his ideals and reputation of the Federalists’. “To the victorious men of 1800 and their immediate successors, a ‘band of patriots’ — the Republicans — had saved the nation from the excesses of party, excesses that were embodied in Federalism. And it was up to the Republicans to (ensure) that the Federalists were never handed the reins of power again.”21
Later, Jefferson would declare “that the Republicans were far more than a political party.”
“The Republicans,” he declared, “are the nation.“22
It would take another 25 years for America’s political system to evolve into what we know today, when Martin Van Buren organized the Democratic Party (followed shortly in its image by the Whigs) along the principle of parties as “valuable institutions” that kept “strife within manageable limits,” and of organized opposition having “a powerful, beneficial role in forcing the majority party to seek unity and cohesion in order to escape defeat.”23 Fortunately, the dangerous crisis of 1800 did not recur in the time it took for this new intellectual model to emerge. (And of course the even more damaging crisis of 1860, when strife broke free of the “manageable limits” placed on it by the old Jacksonian party system, happened under Van Buren’s model.)
Does the broadening partisan gap in 21st Century American politics reflect a return to the uncompromising late 18th Century ideas that helped take the Founding Fathers to the brink of civil war? However much modern-day Democrats and Republicans hate each other, that seems over-strong. History may repeat itself, but usually in variation rather than an echo. Besides, while the flaws in the Founding Fathers’ “civic republicanism” ideology seem evident today, they certainly didn’t seem evident at the time. So who is to say that we are any more self-aware about our own beliefs and assumptions than Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton were? But understanding the consequences of the “politics of the absolute” can be a helpful corrective whenever modern politics gets too heated.
- James Roger Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 282 ↩
- Ibid., 11 ↩
- Ibid., 11-12 ↩
- Ibid., 276-277 ↩
- Ibid., 177 ↩
- Ibid., 198 ↩
- Ibid., 203 ↩
- Ibid., 204 ↩
- Ibid., 205 ↩
- Ibid., 216 ↩
- Ibid., 216-17 ↩
- Ibid., 219 ↩
- Ibid., 220 ↩
- Ibid., 250 ↩
- Ibid., 267 ↩
- Ibid., 268-9 ↩
- Ibid., 271 ↩
- Ibid., 274-5 ↩
- Ibid., 273 ↩
- Ibid., 274 ↩
- Ibid., 286-7 ↩
- Ibid., 277-8 ↩
- Ibid., 285 ↩
In their post-apocalyptic comedy novel “Good Omens,” authors Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman describe the nefarious handiwork of the demon Crowley, an agent of Hell on Earth with a particularly acute grasp of human nature:
Many phenomena — wars, plagues, sudden audits — have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of Man, but whenever students of demonology get together the M25 London orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders for Exhibit A.
Where they go wrong, of course, is assuming the wretched road is evil simply because of the incredible carnage and frustration it engenders every day.
In fact very few people on the face of the planet knew that the very shape of the M25 forms the sigil odegra in the language of the Black Priesthood of Ancient Mu, and means: “Hail the Great Beast, Devourer of Worlds.” The thousands of motorists who daily fume their way around its serpentine lengths have the same effect as water on a prayer wheel, grinding out an endless fog of low-grade evil to pollute the metaphysical atmosphere for scores of miles around.
It was one of Crowley’s better achievements. It had taken years to achieve, and had involved three computer hacks, two break-ins, one minor bribery and, on one wet night when all else had failed, two hours in a squelchy field shifting the marker pegs a few but occultly incredibly significant meters. When Crowley had watched the first thirty-mile-long tailback he’d experienced the lovely warm feeling of a bad job well done.
Remembering this passage now as I live in St. Paul — just an hour away from Gaiman’s current home in Menomonie, Wisconsin — has me fixated on one thought: Did Crowley ever pay a visit to Minnesota during the planning of the downtown intersections of Interstate 94 with Interstates 35E and 35W?
I-94 doesn’t merely intersect with its north-south cousins in downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, but it actually merges with them for one-mile stretches through the densest parts of the 3.8 million-resident metropolitan area. The concurrences cause miles-long back backups every rush hour as cars are funneled together and then yanked apart, with a significant portion of those cars attempting to cross multiple lanes of traffic to continue on their planned routes. Moreover, it’s actually impossible to make certain direct exchanges — shifting from eastbound I-94 to southbound I-35E, for example — without leaving the interstate altogether and using side roads.
I’m sure there are reasonable spatial and financial reasons for constructing the mergers this way, and even a perfectly designed interchange would have rush hour backups from the sheer traffic volume — as some other merger-less Twin Cities interchanges do. But still: my hypothesis remains the devil’s hand at work.
Almost eight years ago to the day, Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the vital caucus state of Iowa shot itself in the foot. I helped pull the trigger.
It was early November, and Clinton was still the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. But in retrospect she had already begun the decline that saw her finish a shocking third place in the Iowa caucuses, and thus the decline that saw her lose the nomination to an Illinois senator named Barack Obama. On Oct. 30, Clinton had stumbled badly in a national debate when she waffled on the question of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. On Nov. 10, Obama would deliver an acclaimed speech at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner that helped accelerate his Iowa campaign.
In between, on Tuesday, Nov. 6, Clinton visited Newton, Iowa, and called on a 19-year-old Grinnell College sophomore named Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff, who asked a question about her approach to climate change.
Also at the event was a reporter for the Scarlet & Black, the Grinnell student newspaper, of which I was co-editor. The reporter, Pat Caldwell, naturally interviewed Gallo-Chasanoff about her experience getting to ask Clinton a question, but got way more than she bargained for: Gallo-Chasanoff mentioned off-handedly that a Clinton staffer had given her the question to ask.
“I said ‘Yeah, can I ask how her energy plan compares to the other candidates’ energy plans?'” Gallo-Chasanoff later told CNN about the incident. Instead, she told CNN, the staffer said Clinton might not be familiar with the other candidates’ plans, and instead opened a binder to a page with more than a half-dozen questions on it. The top question, which said “college student” in brackets, read: “As a young person, I’m worried about the long-term effects of global warming. How does your plan combat climate change?”
Caldwell immediately recognized the news in Gallo-Chasanoff’s off-handed mention of the planted question, but tried to play it cool to avoid spooking her in the middle of the interview.
But things didn’t come together easily. Clinton representatives on campus quickly pushed back on the story, and they successfully got to Gallo-Chasanoff. A few hours after talking to Caldwell, she emailed him to try to put the genie back in the bottle:
“im feeling a little uncomfortable about the whole planted questions thing so i’d really appreciate it if you would talk to emily or jordan about it first and please respect whatever wishes they have regarding the info,” Gallo-Chasanoff wrote to Caldwell in an email. She later told CNN that “a Clinton intern spoke to her to say the campaign requested she not talk about the story to any more media outlets and that if she did she should inform a staffer.”
“Emily” and “Jordan” were the on-campus leaders of the Clinton campaign. Caldwell, myself and co-editor-in-chief Abby Rapoport agreed quickly that we weren’t going to defer to the Clinton campaign’s wishes and forged ahead.
As Rapoport took the lead in working with Caldwell, I tackled another problem: at this very moment, the Scarlet & Black was in the middle of a long-overdue website overhaul. The paper’s old site had become essentially nonfunctional, and for some time we had only uploaded PDF versions of the paper. If individual articles were posted at all, they went onto a free Blogspot blog. We had hired a student, Saugar Sainju, to build us a new website, but the project wasn’t supposed to be done for a few more weeks.
I emailed the Sainju with the subject line “Urgent—web site”:
We’re going to have a major story coming out in this Friday’s issue. It’s political and will probably attract a lot of traffic from political sites. We’d like to have this coming to our web site, rather than the blog or a third party site.
Is there any way we can rush the web site, or at least one particular article, up by Friday afternoon? This would automatically kick in that extra bonus I talked about–$750 for the job.
For the bonus, he agreed to rush the job. (Though neither of us are quite sure, I believe the $750 was the total cost for the job, not the bonus. Our paper had limited budgets.)
The article continued to face difficulties. We couldn’t track down a Clinton spokesperson to get the response the story needed — though the other Iowa campaigns responded quickly to our vaguely worded inquiries about planted questions, seemingly worried that the story might have been about them. On-campus Clinton leaders met with us to try to kill the story. We were starting to feel nervous about the story as our deadline approached.
All this time, the staff still had to produce the regular paper by Thursday night — 20 pages long including a special section on mental health on campus, while juggling our normal class schedules. (At Grinnell, the Scarlet & Black has no academic affiliation, so students work on it like a campus job while taking a full courseload.) Even before the Clinton article arose, both Features and Sports had planned articles fall through, necessitating a scramble to fill the vacated space. Moreover, Caldwell was the Features editor, responsible for editing and designing a section of the paper in addition to writing his story. Rapoport stepped in to handle his editing duties.
Finally, late Thursday evening, the Clinton campaign got back to us. Their response didn’t just give us the quote we needed for the story — it also helped quell our fears. Clinton’s Iowa communications director drove from a small town into cell phone range to try to talk Caldwell into not running the story, but his tone immediately made it clear that this had actually happened. The Clinton spokesperson ducked Caldwell’s questions, giving him only the non-denial that “It’s not a practice of our campaign to ask people to ask specific questions.” We finished the story Thursday night — really into Friday morning — and got a few hours of sleep.
By midday Friday, our web designer finished the new template to upload the planted-questions story (and one other article, just so it didn’t look like we had made the website just for this one article, even though we had). Rival campaigns made sure that political media got the story, and suddenly the Scarlet & Black was at the center of the a national media frenzy.
By Friday evening, Caldwell had been deluged with requests from national reporters wanting to interview him as a part of the story. He emailed me at 8:10 p.m. with the subject “national attention.”
“Just wanted to give you a heads up,” he wrote. “I was over in pubs office and answered a phone call that was from ABC news. A Hillary reporter found my story and was calling looking for me. I talked to her for a few minutes, and it’s likely they are going to be doing something on it… It’s starting to sound like this story could really catch on further than just the blogosphere.”
At 2:16 a.m. Saturday morning — we were college students — our copy editor emailed with the headline “We did it!” to note that Fox News had published a story about the planted question in which they got the Clinton campaign to admit planting the question (though Fox referred to the college as “Grinnell University”).
Caldwell ultimately did a national television interview from our paper’s office. Our student newspaper story was the lead link on the Drudge Report for two days, which made us glad that the college’s robust servers were hosting our content.
I wrote a story for the next week’s S&B about the national reaction — which led to one of my more embarrassing moments as a journalist. I did a phone interview with Major Garrett, then Fox News’ Obama beat reporter, but a day after the interview my computer’s hard drive crashed. I lost the interview notes and was forced to beg for a do-over interview — which I never ended up getting. As student newspaper reporter I was lucky to get one interview with a national figure; I wasn’t going to get a second chance.
For Clinton, the incident stung. A story about planting questions would be bad for any campaign. But like Clinton’s driver’s license answer, the planted questions story was particularly damaging for Clinton because it reinforced a narrative about her: that she would say or do anything to get elected.
Would Clinton have still lost the Iowa caucuses without a controversy about planted questions? Almost certainly. But it didn’t help, another cut in a steady diet of bad news Clinton endured in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses.
In addition to the statewide repercussions, the planted question story had local impact, too. For months before the story, the Clinton campaign had been preparing for an as-yet-unscheduled campaign visit by Clinton to the Grinnell College campus. After the planted question story, all that talk suddenly stopped. Clinton never did campaign at Grinnell College, a center of Democratic caucus goers — possibly to avoid reviving an embarrassing campaign incident. (Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, did give a speech on her behalf, though he didn’t take media questions at the event.) All the other major Democratic candidates that year made at least one stop on campus.
That hurt Clinton come caucus day, when her supporters were humiliatingly blown out of the water at the on-campus caucus — earning no delegates and finishing behind not just Obama and John Edwards but also then-Sen. Joe Biden, who would drop out of the race after the Iowa Caucuses.
But time heals all wounds. Yesterday, on Nov. 3, 2015, Hillary Clinton finally visited Grinnell College for a rally eight years after a planted question nearby contributed to her loss of the nomination. Her town hall event focused on gun control and the minimum wage and apparently included no references to the 2007 planted question incident.
But the story definitely would never have broken without the Scarlet & Black, and for that, I’ll always be proud, even though I was just an editor on the story, not the writer. It was the first real major scoop I was ever involved with as a journalist.
We didn’t get the scoop through any hard-core Woodward-and-Bernstein investigations, but because our reporter was trying to write a small-bore, hyper-local story for the campus newspaper about a student who got to ask a question to a presidential candidate. A national reporter, following a candidate around in case they make news and listening to them give the same stump speech and take similar questions at event after event, might have never gone to the trouble of talking to the girl who asked about global warming. Were I covering such an event today, I probably wouldn’t have.
Many of the key players in this incident have continued in journalism. I stayed in political reporting after graduation, in South Dakota for six years and now for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Caldwell went on to write for The American Prospect and Mother Jones, while Rapoport wrote for the Texas Tribune, the Texas Observer and the Prospect.
Sainju stayed in web development, and said the rush job to finish the S&B’s website for this story was a key element on his resume early on and helped establish him in the field.
Ironically, looking back on this first big scoop with the eye of an experienced journalist, we made a lot of mistakes. The article backed leisurely into the planted question issue with a discursive lede about the nature of the Iowa caucuses, instead of a straight news lede (“Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign planted a question with a Grinnell College student at a Tuesday event in Newton”) or an anecdotal lede (“Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff ’10 got a brush with fame Tuesday when presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton called on her to ask a question at a Newton rally. But Gallo-Chasanoff’s question about climate change didn’t come from the second-year student. Instead, a Clinton aide gave her the pre-written question, Gallo-Chasnoff said.”).
More glaringly, we totally buried the story in our print edition. The lead article in the Nov. 9, 2007 Scarlet & Black was about the annual “Love Your Body Week” event — likely chosen because it had the best photo of any of our news stories that week — while additional stories covered on-campus events including assaults at a Halloween party, the hiring of a new dean and the travails of a proposed campus drug policy.
The Clinton story appeared on the 10th page of the paper, in a special section devoted to Iowa Caucus stories. We did tease the story on the bottom of the front page — but again in an oblique, backwards manner: “Are presidential campaigns planting questions in the audience at events?” asked the third of four “Inside this S&B” teasers at the bottom of the page.
But despite all that students apparently did manage to find it. Don Smith, a professor emeritus at Grinnell and at the time the chair of the local county Democrats, told Guardian reporter (and 2006 Grinnell alum) Ben Jacobs that the planted question story “may have cut back on student support” for Clinton — either directly, or by keeping her from doing a campus rally that might have garnered more supporters.
Despite our placement of the story in print, we knew the planted question story would be bigger national news than it was locally. Our focus had been on getting the story online, rather than splashing it over the front of the paper. Were I in charge today, I’d have made sure to lead the paper with the Clinton article. But I didn’t feel bad at the time about its placement. It was a learning experience as a journalist, and having been free to make mistakes like our placement of the Clinton story helped make me into the reporter I am today.
I realize that I am somewhat biased, as someone whose idea of recreation is reading late-18th Century biography. So keep that in mind but try to set my funny sense of fun aside when I tell you that the new musical “Hamilton” is the most electric listening experience I’ve had in years.
A bunch of guys in breeches and frock coats singing about arcane two-century-old political disputes? Well, I did like “1776,” but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” is something else entirely. Read my review and hear some samples after the jump.
While researching historical elections this week for a future blog post, I stumbled across a fascinating piece of data: a table from an 1876 almanac summarizing the literacy rates in each of the 87 French départements at the time. The results varied wildly, from near-universal literacy in Paris and the country’s industrial northeast to majority illiteracy in the interior of La France profonde.
“The census of 1872 showed an extraordinary difference in the degree of education between the 87 departments of France, the percentage of ignorance ranging between six and sixty,” wrote Frederick Martin in The Statesman’s Year-Book: Statistical and Historical Annual of the States of the Civilised World: Handbook for Politicians and Merchants for the year 1876.
While the northeastern corner of France is a dense cluster of strong education, there are other pockets of literacy as well. “Some regions that were supposed to be far from the light of civilization turned out to have surprisingly high rates of literacy,” writes Graham Robb in The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War. By 1830, “many Alpine villages had been running their own schools for decades.”
Overall about 30 percent of the French population over 6 years old was unable to read or write. In the United States at that time, the illiteracy rate at 14 or up (a different, more generous threshold) was about 20 percent — and about 10 percent if one excluded African-Americans, many of whom had been forbidden by law to read or write less than a decade before. (The French illiteracy rate was higher among adults over 20, at 33 percent, than it was among children 6 to 20, at 24 percent, so I’m not sure how much the different age cutoffs between the French and American censuses matters.)
Hurting the French literacy rate was the aftermath of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War, which saw France forced to cede several northeastern provinces to the new country of Germany. These provinces, as can be inferred from the map, had very high literacy rates.
“In the departments now constituting the German ‘Reichsland’ of Alsace-Lorraine, France lost the most educated portion of her former inhabitants,” Martin wrote. “The progress of education indicated in the census returns of 1866 and 1872 was very slight, due to some extent to the loss of these provinces.”
(This census in question was taken during the time of the French political conflicts I wrote about in March in “The Accidental Republic” — a post whose sources also inform this analysis.)
After the jump, an exploration of some of the factors behind this varying literacy rate, as well as an interactive version of the map:
Today, my colleague Rachel Stassen-Berger and our competitor J. Patrick Coolican had a Twitter fight about how Patrick reacted to one of Minnesota’s senators attending a rock concert.
It was, everyone involved readily admitted, pretty stupid.
But Patrick made a further claim: that the exchange was, in fact, the stupidest Twitter fight of the day (to that point, about 12 hours old). Rachel disagreed:
— R. Stassen-Berger (@RachelSB) July 7, 2015
After Patrick’s co-worker Ricardo declared himself to be on #TeamCoolican, Rachel asked me to back her up. This was a mistake:
As of Rachel’s comment at 12:06 p.m. today, there had been an estimated 416 million tweets, at the average rate of about 9,500 tweets per second.
About 0.7% of tweets are negative in tone, according to one study. (Other studies have found higher rates of negativity on Twitter, particularly when discussing subjects like politics. But I’m going to go with the lowest number I found, in part because it’s universal and we’re not just interested in political Twitter fights, and in part because we don’t need to consider a higher rate to settle this.)
That’s 2.9 million negative tweets in this first 12 hours. This particular Twitter fight had seven tweets (including Ricardo’s interjection but not Brian’s query), so for the sake of simplicity, let’s take seven as our average Twitter fight length and divide out for about 417,000 Twitter fights. Scale the following smaller if you prefer a different definition of the number of tweets per fight, though we’re really just making numbers up left and right here.
Let’s further assume the intelligence of those tweets follows a normal distribution, with tweets of average intelligence the most common and really smart and really dumb tweets of decreasing frequency. We’ll apply a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is peak stupidity, 50 is average intelligence and 100 is peak intelligence.
All sides have stipulated that these tweets are, in fact, dumb. So we’re limited to just one side of the normal distribution: this fight is somewhere between 0 and 50 on the intelligence scale.
What is in dispute is to what degree this fight is dumb. Is this the dumbest Twitter fight humanly possible (a 0)? I suspect we can all imagine dumber possible Twitter fights. But that’s not necessarily fatal to Patrick’s argument that this is the dumbest fight of the day — or even, in our sample, of the first half of the day.
Now, the exact stupidity level of this fight is so subjective that it’s impossible to know for sure. But we can speak probabilistically. We know the stupidity value, which we’ll call S, is somewhere in the range 0 <= S <= 50.
But most values of S are immaterial. If this conversation is a 45, then it’s clearly not the stupidest Twitter fight of the day. In fact, we only care about about the extreme low values.
With a population size of about 417,000 fights, our normal distribution can tell us how many Twitter fights we can expect for each stupidity score range:
|Stupidity score||Number of fights|
|0 – 5||1|
|5 – 10||12|
|10 – 15||84|
|15 – 20||466|
|20 – 25||2,025|
|25 – 30||6,894|
|30 – 35||18,362|
|35 – 40||38,281|
|40 – 45||62,468|
|45 – 50||79,798|
For example, we can expect almost 80,000 fights between 45 and 50 — just slightly stupid fights. But there will be just 84 fights between 10 and 15, where the stupidity is becoming impressive.
Fortunately for Patrick, you can still be the dumbest Twitter fight in the day without being the dumbest Twitter fight possible (a score of 0). Unfortunately, you have to get pretty darn close. A score of 6 would put you among the two dumbest fights, and the “winner” likely has to achieve a score of 5 or less.
The odds of that happening are one in 294,319, an 0.00034 percent chance.
They brought in some people from the west and I was one of them, and I was talking to a number of the older science-fiction writers in China, who told me about how science fiction was not just looked down on, but seen as suspicious and counter-revolutionary, because you could write a story set in a giant ant colony in the future, when people were becoming ants, but nobody was quite sure: was this really a commentary on the state? As such, it was very, very dodgy.
I took aside one of the Party organisers, and said, “OK. Why are you now in 2007 endorsing a science-fiction convention?” And his reply was that the Party had been concerned that while China historically has been a culture of magical and radical invention, right now, they weren’t inventing things. They were making things incredibly well but they weren’t inventing. And they’d gone to America and interviewed the people at Google and Apple and Microsoft, and talked to the inventors, and discovered that in each case, when young, they’d read science fiction. That was why the Chinese had decided that they were going to officially now approve of science fiction and fantasy.
Personally I suspect this says more about China (or at least the Chinese Communist Party) than it does about science fiction, as much as I’m a fan of the genre. But maybe it’s both!