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


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, all 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, all 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 “all of them imaginary”?


Well, go back and read the first paragraph. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Now: 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, all of which never happen anyway.

Yes, all.

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.

I’m not the first writer to 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 the human race has managed to survive another century – and is even much healthier, wealthier and wiser than it was a century ago.

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 keep them from leading us to “safety.”


4 thoughts on “‘an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary’

  1. “To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be place under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.” Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

    And we aren’t supposed to be angry?


    1. They want you to be alarmed and angry about imaginary hobgoblins so that they can lead you to imaginary safety. My point is not to get angry at the imaginary menace, because it just plays into their hands.


  2. Anger or alarmed about imaginary hobgoblins? Not hardly. The anger is directed toward the “dishonest, insane and intolerable” government and politicians. And again, if you aren’t angry, there is something wrong.


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