Irksome metric

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Today, there’s a piece by Maya Jasonoff in the Sunday magazine of the New York Times on the Americans loyal to Britain during the Revolution, and it has me irked. It’s not the thesis, which I agree with, that we should be more aware that the “self-evident” truths were anything but, to about 20% of the population. It’s not the timing, the seemingly-obligatory article near July 4 warning us that it wasn’t all fireworks and oratory. That’s a useful exercise, too, especially in an age of unquestionable jingoism. No, what has me irked is the following statement:

Yet in all, more than 700 people put their names to the parchment — 12 times the number who signed the Declaration of Independence.

“The parchment” referenced here was a petition by the royalist Americans to their king, declaring their loyalty and dismay at the Revolution. Despite the inherent strength of her arguments, Ms. Jasonoff appears compelled (by insecurity?) to puff up the popularity of the Tory case by a specious popularity contest. She must know better: The Declaration was signed by members “in Congress assembled”; it was not an invitational and the grouping was by design small in number. To compare it to an open petition left out in a New York tavern for three days, is simply absurd. How many roaring patriots would have signed the Declaration (had it be a petition) is unknowable but certainly vast… more vast than 700, if one can judge by how rapidly and how widely it was reproduced.

Ms. Jasonoff’s editorial choice doesn’t really undercut the article and in some ways it’s a tiny thing. But it’s another example of a growing carelessness we display with our rhetoric, a growing willingness to compare apples to oranges and act as if the comparison meant anything. It’s intellectually sloppy.