‘an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary’

[I wrote this three years ago but slightly misquoted Mencken; he actually wrote “most of them” not “all of them.” So here’s a slight rewrite, #TBT on Tuesday.]

Remember when the government flew off a fiscal cliff and collapsed because Congress didn’t pass an extension of the national debt? Remember when millions of kids starved because of cuts to the federal school lunch program? Remember in the early 1980s when the world supply of oil ran out? Remember when all those computers crashed on Jan. 1, 2000, because they weren’t programmed to register years that began with “20”? And oh, yes, and remember when the world ended after the ancient Aztec calendar expired in 2012?

For Throwback Thursday, I’m going all the way back to yesterday and all the other times I reminded you of the venerable H.L. Mencken quote:

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.

Now, Mr. Mencken wrote that in In Defense of Women in 1918, so that bit of wisdom is 100 years old this year. And if he felt it was true in 1918, imagine what Mencken would make of 2018.

Watch any news broadcast, surf any web, browse any social media site, and that’s all you see: One after another, something alarming and a clamor that someone (usually the government) do something to lead us to safety.

You might hear a whisper from time to time of someone calling BS, but that person is likely to be shouted down, and perhaps insulted or defamed in the process.

I want to focus briefly on the final clause of Mencken’s quote: “an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

Those last four words are strong stuff.

It’s clear the political beasts among us are rolling out “an endless series of hobgoblins,” but “most of them imaginary”?

Yep: Imaginary. That’s why the practical politicians don’t like to be reminded of what they were warning us about 10 years ago, or six months ago, or two weeks ago.

My favorite Tom Petty quote (you’ve heard this before, but hey, #TBT) is from the song “Crawling Back to You”:

Most things I worry about never happen anyway.

Let me mix and match Mencken and Petty:

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of which never happen anyway.

The only real menace is the practical politician. That’s the person who is whipping up fear and anger and fueling the flames of the clamor so that we can be “led to safety” – meaning the safety of the chains the practical politicians have graciously forged for us.

You can get an even clearer picture when you combine the hobgoblin quote with this other bit of pith and vinegar from Mr. Mencken in 1922:

The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.

I find it somewhat comforting that Mencken described the government 96 years ago as “dishonest, insane and intolerable,” because that means the human race managed to survive another century – and is even much healthier, wealthier and wiser than it was a century ago – despite politicians’ constant efforts to frighten us into submission.

We have endured through a then-unimaginable series of dishonest, insane and intolerable acts by practical politicians all over the world, and we will survive whatever imaginary hobgoblins they whip up for us next, if we have the good sense to prevent them from leading us to “safety.”

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