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Beware the election campaign hobgoblins

  • 11 April 2019


It's probably inevitable that I should spend quite a lot of time thinking about politics: I live in Greece, after all, where most people live and breathe both theory and practice, having taken politics in with their mothers' milk, so to speak. But during a recent visit to Australia, I also found the matter very much on my mind, since there is a federal election coming up.

I've never been sure why people aspire to enter the political arena. The desire for power? The thought that they might be able to do some good? Self-interest? Perhaps the occupation suits a narcissistic sort of personality? The astute Dr Johnson defined a politician as 'a man of artifice; one of deep contrivance'. One can see his point. My own feeling is that politics resembles beauty contests in that the individuals most qualified to win seldom enter the field.

A friend recently drew my attention to H. L. Mencken, an American writer and cultural critic of strong and sometimes unattractive prejudices whose career developed in the first half of the 20th century. That same friend passed on a discerning comment by Mencken: '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.'

Many cultures enshrine hobgoblins in myth: Greece has the kallikantzaroi, who spring from the bowels of the earth in order to haunt the world during the 12 days of Christmas, while in the Australianised version of the hobyah story, originally Scottish, the hobyahs, exuding threat, emerge from gloomy gullies and move through the grey gum trees, skip, skip, skipping on the ends of their toes. In Greece the kallikantzaroi are defeated by the power of light and love; more mundanely, the hobyahs are defeated by vigilant little dog, Dingo.

When I was a child the Hobgoblin-in-Chief was the Communist Party. I have dim memories of Reds under beds, and a young neighbour returning from the Korean War. My mother was intrigued by a radio series called The Third Man, which was not about Harry Lime, but about the Burgess/Maclean/Philby treason, while all of Australia was consumed by the Petrov affair, which involved the defection of two KGB agents. There were dark stories about ASIO. And later there was the Vietnam War.

Of course there have been many hobgoblins of varying sizes and shapes