Law of the letter

The first year wasn’t great because we had a terrible teacher. But then Mr. Clark showed up. I loved math then. I could recite the quadratic formula in my sleep.
Image found on imgflip.

Back in high school, I took four years of advanced math courses, with all A’s. It took my first semester in college under a master’s candidate teacher with a chip on her shoulder to wipe the quadratic formula from my mind forever and make me actually hate algebra. (Sorry, Mr. Clark.)

But no matter. For the work I do, algebraic calculations aren’t really necessary. What is is at least some understanding of reality, logic (sometimes illogic), and human behavior. And a little bit of statistics. (Thank you, Dr. Levenbach.)

So let’s take on a complaint aired by a few people about the balance of liberal versus conservative letters on the Voices page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The argument goes that the president won 60.6 percent of the vote in Arkansas (like Hillary had a chance of winning Arkansas considering the tales that have circulated here since the 1970s), so the letters should reflect that.

Except …

This argument assumes that the balance of letters coming in is the same as the vote, which it’s not. We have been receiving more liberal and disgruntled conservative letters than we have supporters of the president, generally by a ratio of about three to one, but sometimes closer to five to one. The letters that don’t make it in are usually for the same reasons: not following the rules, falsehoods stated as facts, etc.

Seriously, everything in this cartoon has shown up in a letter to the editor.
Editorial cartoon by Jim Morin, Morin Toons.

It also assumes that no one who voted for the president could have possibly changed his or her mind about him. C’mon. Opinions are rarely static, though some will stubbornly cling.

Morning Consult polls 5,000 Americans daily on the president’s approval rating, and found that, “Since Trump took office, his net approval in Arkansas has decreased by 19 percentage points.” (For comparison, his net approval—the gap between approval and disapproval—in Alabama has decreased 8 points from inauguration to now; it currently stands at 28, with 62 percent approval.) In January 2017, his approval rating in Arkansas was 59 percent, versus 29 percent disapproval, for a net approval of 30 percent. In February of this year (the last update for state numbers), it stood at 54 percent approval and 43 percent disapproval, for a net approval of 11. Check the ratings by state and over time here. It’s fascinating to see how the map has changed.

Clearly, opinions change over time. Across the nation, the president went from being slightly underwater in approval in five states in January 2017 (Hawaii and Maryland being the most opposed) to now being mildly to seriously underwater in 23 states (Vermont, especially, which went from -2 to -39 net approval, is not a fan).

But obviously it’s someone else’s fault.
Editorial cartoon by Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

On his covid-19 response, his net approval in the U.S. has fallen 18 points since mid-March, which shows that, sometimes, opinions shift more quickly. As of last week, 49 percent disapprove, while 45 percent approve of his performance. The margin of error is 2 points. (Governors on the whole got a much higher approval rating than the president in a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll. Shocking, I know. Not that it matters, as he’ll just make up some numbers to make himself feel better.)

So why aren’t more of the president’s supporters writing in? Well, I couldn’t tell you, but the tendency here seems to be, especially in the last decade or so, that people less enamored of the president, no matter who it is, are the ones most likely to send in letters. During the Obama administration, we had plenty of letters railing against him, and as long as they followed the rules, they were printed. Those that were inappropriate for family publications (oh, there were lots of those) and that stated falsehoods as fact were the ones most likely to be tossed. It’s the same now as it was then.

Except maybe with more crankiness. Both me and the letter-writers.

It’s like the editor expects me to do something other than complain! Not fair!
GIF found on SpeakGif.

There’s also the fact that some people who complain about the letters won’t write a letter because they don’t think they should have to (yep, I’ve really heard that excuse). Where, exactly, do they think the letters are going to come from? Using Occam’s Razor, I think I see a wee flaw in their logic. Some of the others who complain are people who have more letters printed than a lot of liberal letter-writers. Apparently they think their letters should appear every day.


I can only say what other letters editors across the United States have said, summed up by Paul Thornton of the Los Angeles Times in noting complaints from Trump supporters about “publishing more letters that criticize the president than speak approvingly of his job performance. My simple response to that is what it’s always been: We can only publish what we receive, and the opinions of our letter-writers skew decisively against the president. The coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated this trend.” Sure, that’s California, but as FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate of polls shows, current approval of the president in the United States averages 43.7 percent (hey, it was 43.8 when I first wrote this!). Here in Arkansas, his rating isn’t underwater yet, but his detractors are certainly vocal and have a greater tendency to fact-check what they write. Funny how that works.

That explains the bloodstains on the letter … and I thought it was ink.
Strange Brew by John Deering.

I can offer tips like being sure to couch statements as your opinion, using attribution, and the like, but I can’t use different rules for people according to what politician they support. Not only would that be unfair to everyone, it would be needlessly complicated and likely require the use of spreadsheets and complex mathematical formulae that would make no sense in putting out a daily newspaper and would likely irritate the stuffing out of me and everyone else. I’m cranky enough already.

When planning pages, we have to take into consideration what letters we get each day (because we don’t get all the week’s letters on Monday) while allowing for reactions to news events and differing word counts; whether so-and-so is a RINO or feeds his dog the cheap dog food (don’t do that; your dog deserves more than fillers … why do you think dogs like cat food?) makes no difference.

We’ll keep doing our part here to get in a representative sample of the letters we receive (keyword: receive). You can do your part by following the rules (one letter per 30 days, no anonymous letters, no poetry or copyrighted material, no obscenity, no personal or business disputes, etc.) and, for heaven’s sake, sending in your letter with permission for it to be printed.

I can only do so much. The rest is up to you.

It’s a good thing I don’t do video calls. It’s easier to hide yawning and eye rolls when they can’t see you.
Image found on Vitamin-Ha.

Now, because I know you don’t all come here to read about letters to the paper, I leave you with a couple of videos that made me forget about the quarantine for a little bit. Hope you enjoy.

The Slow Mo Guys are constantly shooting fascinating video of various things and slowing it down, and their joking around and discussions during filming are at least as entertaining. This one is glitter falling toward the camera (don’t watch if you’re prone to seizures as there’s a lot of flashing).

And yes, there is a cat in the background in the beginning … considering how glitter gets into everything, Smee might be shiny for a while just from hanging around there.

The other video is from comedian Steve Soelberg. The whole idea of a pirate hymn had me in tears. I’ll have to remember this one for Talk Like A Pirate Day.