Is our knowledge really empirical? Could it ever be? Here’s the ultimate test

Okay, it’s time for some of your assumptions to be jolted – prepare to let loose a few times with “C’mon,” and “No way!” and maybe even “this Arbenz dude’s not living in the real world!” uttered between raised eyebrows and a dropping jaw as you read six statements that are going to seem preposterous.

But hey, Brian’s not lyin’ when he tells you:

The US has had two bilingual presidents.

Montreal, Canada is farther south than Trieste, Italy.

An eyewitness to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was interviewed about it on network television.

Beverly Hills, Cal. is only the sixth wealthiest city in Los Angeles County.

The only U.S. state whose legislature has had a socialist majority is North Dakota.

More Mormons live in Los Angeles than in Salt Lake City.

Still skeptical? That’s okay; these statements go against our understanding. Well, in fact, every one of them is true. Socialization plays perhaps a stronger role than empirical observation in our deciding what is factual. Here the doubtful half-dozen are explained:

THE MULTI-LINGUAL EXECUTIVE MANSION — Martin Van Buren (elected president in 1836) grew up in the Dutch speaking community of Kinderhook, N.Y. and began learning English at about age 7. Perhaps ironically, the world’s most widely used American contribution to the English language, the expression “OK,” was created by the only English as a Second Language U.S. president. During his presidential campaign, Van Buren referred endearingly to “Old Kinderhook” by using the initials. The term caught on, and 180 years later OK still is in constant use on many continents to mean positive, upbeat or stable.

Herbert Hoover lived in China in his 20s while working as a manager for a western mining company. While there, the future president and his wife Lou Henry Hoover became fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Though some accounts say the president was merely proficient while the First Lady was the fluent speaker, both conversed in Mandarin frequently while in the White House after Herbert Hoover’s election in 1928.

Another parallel: Van Buren and Hoover were defeated in bids for re-election after financial crises occurred within one year of their taking office — the financial panic of 1837, and the stock market crash of 1929.

NOT SO NORTH COUNTRY — Americans overwhelmingly perceive that Canada’s large cities such as Montreal are in the far north because of their deep winter freezes and heavy snowfalls, but their cold climates are due to how far inland Montreal and Toronto are, not how far north (to further dispel the “Great White North” myth, Toronto is even with northern Spain, and the southernmost point of Ontario is farther south than parts of California).


Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa are cold because Atlantic trade winds don’t moderate winters in inland places like they do coastal cities such as New York or Boston. The effect of trade winds is much more pronounced around the Pacific: The latitude of Portland, Ore. is three degrees farther north than that of far colder Windsor, Ontario, Canada, across from Detroit.

Seattle, which seldom gets snow, is farther north than Montreal. In fact, about 70 percent of Canadians would be north of where they live if they were sitting in the stands of a Mariners’ home game or sipping a latte at the original Starbucks.

WITNESS TO HISTORY – The amazing appearance by Samuel J. Seymour on “I’ve Got a Secret” in 1956 can be seen at

Seymour was days short of his 96th birthday when Garry Moore escorted him to take his seat on the popular game show. He had fallen in his hotel just before the live airing of this show and he resisted pleas to postpone his appearance. Seymour’s steadfastness was fortunate, because he died months later back in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., the city where on April 14, 1865, at age five, he and his godmother attended the play “My American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater

i-sawIn an article in The American Weekly magazine in February 1954 co-authored by the then 94-year-old Samuel Seymour and journalist Frances Spatz Leighton, Seymour said a shot rang out inside Ford’s Theater during the play, then an unknown man “seemed to tumble over the balcony rail and land on the stage,” prompting the five-year-old to tell his godmother, “hurry, let’s go help the poor man who fell down!”

Seymour wrote, “John Wilkes Booth, the assassin, had picked himself up and was running for dear life… Only a few people noticed the running man, but pandemonium broke loose in the theater, with everyone shouting: ‘Lincoln’s shot! The President’s dead!’ ”

An eerie foretelling of the horror occurred hours earlier as Seymour and his godmother, Sarah Goldsboro, arrived in front of their Washington hotel, completing the carriage ride from the Seymour family’s Talbot County, Md. Home. The Weekly story said that as Goldsboro tried to persuade the restless and obstinate boy to exit the carriage, he falsely reported he had torn his shirt in a bid to resist disembarking.

The godmother pulled out a large safety pin to repair the phantom tear, accidently sticking the jostling Samuel. In earshot of passersby, the boy shouted, “I’ve been shot! I’ve been shot!”

RICHER MEANS POORER — Beverly Hills has per capita income and housing values lower than considerably less wealthy but still upscale L.A. area communities such as Pacific Palisades and Redondo Beach, according to Census Bureau figures. That is because Beverly Hills has a larger percentage of residents who are rich enough to employ live-in servants. Census Bureau methods count the incomes of live-ins and consider most servant quarters in out buildings as separate residences, bringing the average income and home value down.

YES, THAT’S NORTH DAKOTA, NOT NORTH KOREA – Media who were baffled at Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign being popular out there in many parts of oh, so red state Middle America needed to do their homework.The Nonpartisan League, a socialist bloc of legislative candidates, won majorities in both houses of North Dakota’s state legislature in 1915. Two of the League’s reforms, the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and a state-owned mill and elevator to market and buy the grain from farmers, are still central to life in the agricultural prowess of North Dakota, and are quite popular.

“We’re both in existence today doing exactly what we were created for,” Bank of North Dakota president Eric Hardmeyer told Mother Jones in a 2009 story about alternatives to the Wall Street methods which had crashed the housing market and ruined the nation’s economy.


Back before Palmer Raids, the Taft-Hartley Act and the McCarran Act made hostility to socialism a required American trait (a trend helped along by the Bolshevik Revolution’s morphing into totalitarianism), Americans could judge a socialist movement on merits, not fear words, and grass roots resistance to corporate greed rose up in the Great Plains.

“Basically, it was a very angry movement by a large group of the agrarian sector that was upset by decisions that were being made in the eastern markets, the money markets maybe in Minneapolis, New York, deciding who got credit and how to market their goods. So, it swept the northern plains. In North Dakota, the movement was called the Nonpartisan League,” Hardmeyer said.

THE MATH ON MORMONISM — The relative Mormon population inside Salt Lake City’s limits is vastly larger than in Los Angeles — demographic sources’ recent estimates place the percentage of Salt Lake City’s population who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons at 35 percent and Los Angeles’ at 1.7 percent. However, the surprisingly small size of Salt Lake City proper of 191,180 residents (within its expansive metro area of just over 1 million) gives it fewer Mormons than Los Angeles, when L.A.’s Census figure population of 3.8 million is noted. That’s about 40 times the population of Salt Lake City, meaning a 35 to 1.7 Mormon ratio of the cities, even if that should be a considerable undercount, would mean more Angelino Mormons.

Brian Arbenz is a Louisville-based writer and researcher.


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