We were reading the papers today and came across a letter published in the Jackson County Pilot over the signature of Les Opheim of that fair southern Minnesota city. Labeled Food for Thought, here it is:
To the Editor:
About the time our original 13 states adopted their new Constitution in 1787, Alexander Tyler, a Scottish history professor at the University of Edinburgh, had this to say about the fall of the Athenian Republic some 2,000 years earlier:
“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority will always vote for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years.
During those 200 years, those nations always progressed through the following sequence:
1. From bondage to spiritual faith (pilgrims);
2. From spiritual faith to great courage;
3. From courage to liberty;
4. From liberty to abundance;
5. From abundance to complacency;
6. From complacency to apathy;
7. From apathy to dependence (here now);
8. From dependence back into bondage.”
Professor Joseph Olson of Hamline University’s School of Law in St. Paul points out some interesting facts concerning the 2000 presidential election:
- Number of states won by Gore: 19; Bush: 29
- Square miles of land won by Gore: 580,000; Bush: 2,427,000
- Population of counties won by Gore: 127 million; Bush: 143 million
- Murder rate per 100,000 residents in counties won by Gore: 13.2; Bush: 2.1
Olson adds: “In aggregate, the map of the territory Bush won was mostly the land owned by the taxpaying citizens of this great country. Gore’s territory mostly encompassed those citizens living in government-owned tenements and living off various forms of government welfare.”
Olson believes the United States is now somewhere between the “complacency” and “apathy” phases of Tyler’s definition of democracy, with some 40 percent of the nation’s population already having reached the “government dependency” phase.
If Congress grants amnesty and citizenship to 20 million criminal invaders called illegals and they vote, then we can say good-bye to the U.S.A. in fewer than five years.
Most of that looked pretty familiar, so we went online and sure enough, it isn't original. With the expection of the final paragraph about illegal immigrants, it's an urban legend, according to a page at Snopes' Urban Legend Reference site.
What makes it an urban legend? According to the Snopes site:
1. The population of the counties and square miles of area won by each Bush and Gore appear to be accurate. They are consistent with the election-result map published by
USA Todayon 20 November2000.
2. The number of states won by each candidate is wrong, but the numbers given (29 and 19) imply this piece was written before the results of the Florida and New Mexico vote-counts were determined. The final tallies were
30 statesfor Bush and 20 forGore.
3. The quote from "Alexander Tyler" is very likely fictitious. His name was actually "Lord Woodhouselee, Alexander Fraser Tytler," and he was a Scottish historian/professor who wrote several books in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
However, there is no record of The Fall of the Athenian Republic or The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic in the Library of Congress, which has several other titles by Tytler. This quote has also been cited as being from Tytler's Universal History or from his Elements of General History, Ancient and Modern, books that do exist. These books seem the most likely source of the quote, as they contain extensive discussions of the political systems in historic civilizations, including Athens. Universal History was published after, and based upon, Elements of General History, which was a collection of Professor Tytler's lecture notes.
Tytler's book, Universal history, from the creation of the world to the beginning of the eighteenth century, is available for viewing and searching
on-line. The complete text was searched for each of the following phrases:
- Athenian Republic
- generous gifts
- public treasury
- loose fiscal
- 200 years
- two hundred years
- spiritual faith
In no case was text identified that was remotely similar in words or intent to the alleged Tytler quote.
4. Professor Joseph Olson of Hamline University is not the source of any of the statistics or the text attributed to him. Professor Olson was contacted (by me) via
e-mail,and he confirmed that he had no authorship or involvement in this matter. And, as Fayette Citizen editor Dave Hamrick wrote back in January 2001:
I really enjoyed one recent message that was circulated extremely widely, at least among conservatives. It gave several interesting "facts" supposedly compiled by statisticians and political scientists about the counties across the nation that voted for George Bush and the ones that voted for Al Gore in the recent election.
Supposedly, the people in the counties for Bush had more education, more income, ad infinitum, than the counties for Gore.
I didn't have time to check them all out, but I was curious about one item in particular... the contention that the murder rate in the Gore counties was about a billion times higher than in the Bush counties.
This was attributed to a Professor Joseph Olson at the Hamline University School of Law. I never heard of such a university, but went online and found it. And Prof. Olson does exist.
"Now I'm getting somewhere," I thought.
But in response to my e-mail, Olson said the "research" was attributed to him erroneously. He said it came from a Sheriff Jay Printz in Montana. I
e-mailedSheriff Printz, and guess what? He didn't do the research either, and didn't remember who had e-mailedit to him.
In other words, he got the same legend e-mailed to him and passed it on to Olson without checking it out, and when Olson passed it on, someone thought it sounded better if a law professor had done the research, and so it grew.
Who knows where it originally came from, but it's just not true.
5. The county-by-county murder-rate comparison presented in this piece is wrong.
According to the
U.S. Departmentof Justice (DoJ), in the year 2000 the national murder rate was about 5.5 per 100,000 residents. Homicide data by county for 1999 and 2000 can be downloaded from the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data (NAJCD), and the counties won by Gore and Bush can be identified using the county-by-county election results made available by CNN. (The NACJD provides not only the number of reported murders for each county, but also the population for each.) The average murder rate in the counties won by Gore vs. the rate in the counties won by Bush can be determined from this data.
By calculating the murder rate for each county and then taking the averages, we find a murder rate (defined as number of murders per 100,000 residents) of about 5.2 for the "average" Gore county and 3.3 for the average Bush county. But since people, rather than counties, commit murders, a more appropriate approach is to calculate the total number of murders in the counties won by each candidate and divide that figure by the total number of residents in those counties. This more appropriate method yields the following average murder rates in counties won by each candidate:
There is a distinct difference between these two numbers, but it is nowhere near as large as the quoted
Last updated: 3 April 2008
As readers may remember from early April, the publisher of the Redwood Falls Gazette recently published a passed--along-email that is often attributed to Andy Rooney, who disavowed the contents as hateful and contrary to everything America stands for. The column, published on April 1, was not a joke.
Now we find a local Jacksonian passing another urban legend off as his own letter. Presumeably the editors simply trusted the words to be original to the author. The final paragraph strays from the version at the urban legend reference site, though it, too, is not original, as a Google search turns up this blog post and other hits. Just the current version being spread around.
It's certainly an interesting trend: conservatives circulating urban legends in their search for The Truthiness. We're guessing Opheim will probably use the same defense as the publisher--who cares about facts, when the sentiment is "true." As the contemporary Ameircan philosopher Stephen Colbert said:
"We're not talking about truth, we're talking about something that seems like truth—the truth we want to exist."
Who knew that the Snopes site--intended for checking up on facts--would become the lending library for the forces of Truthiness in Minnesota?