By Mike Cronin
I often refer to H.L. Mencken’s “hobgoblins” 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.” We see this every day, often with the enthusiastic pot-stirring of the main stream media.
Take today’s headlines, for example. Rising tensions with Russia over the imbroglio in Syria. Hurricane Matthew. Gold prices. Stock prices. Jobs growth. Giving up control of the internet. Hillary’s scandals. Trump’s crudities. Duterte’s bombast. NFL ratings. Crazy clown sightings.
How is all of that really important? How can we ignore the hobgoblins and glean the “ground truth?”
A few rules of thumb can be useful:
- Always keep Mencken’s quote in mind, together with Thomas Sowell’s observation:
- Get your news from a variety of sources. Journalism has evolved, or more precisely, de-volved, in the face of 24/7 cable news cycles, citizen-chroniclers, and the web. According to the authors of Blur, the old media’s apex occurred at about the time of the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. CNN came online shortly after in 1980, and the 24/7 news cycle was born. The term spin as euphemism for truth-shaping entered the lexicon at about the same time. Consumers have had to contend with an ever more clamorous, ratings-driven media ever since. Every outlet is biased, but some do a better job of admitting what their bias is (my own, for example, is for individualism, reason, and laissez-faire capitalism) and/or mitigating for it (this reporter, for example, does a commendable job on reporting from Washington D.C. without interjecting his ideology). Alternately, check out the US news from a foreign source, such as BBC, Al Jazeera, or Xinhua. They are biased as well, but perhaps not about the same things we are. It can be enlightening.
- Once the main-stream media have added unique theme music to a particular story, it’s not breaking news anymore. They are trying to turn it into a cash-cow and milk it for ratings.
- Most mainstream media operations lean left/liberal/progressive/Democrat, while Drudge, Breitbart, and Fox News (at least until the recent departure of Roger Ailes) tilt right/conservative/Republican – but what if both of those factions are two sides of the same coin? In order to see liberals and conservatives as opposites, you are supposed to accept a left-right political spectrum model with socialism on one end and fascism on the other. To the subjugated souls living under either, there is no practical difference. As the saying goes: All models are wrong, some models are useful. A left-right / liberal-conservative model keeps you scared of the hobgoblins. What if we look through a different lens? What if we put individual liberty on one end, and absolute tyranny on the other? I contend that on such a model, “liberal” and “conservative” establishment politicians are continuously dragging us closer to the tyranny cliff, with only the flavor of tyranny at issue. Using a better model might get us closer to “ground truth.” Who will lead us to liberty or drag us to tyranny?
- One kind of real hobgoblins we must watch for: luminaries with enough wattage to force the public eye to “look away.” Such wattage could come in the form of personal charm or charisma, whereby the figure is judged by their reputation instead of earning a reputation based on considered judgement (e.g. President Obama’s anticipatory Nobel Peace Prize), or via “wagging the dog” (e.g. President Johnson’s incandescent “Gulf of Tonkin” lie).