Beware the election campaign hobgoblins



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.

17th century oil paining La ronde des Farfadets de Les Farfadets by David Ryckaert shows goblins dancing in a ring.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 since. Feminists were a threat to family life; small l liberals were too permissive and soft-hearted; immigrants, particularly non-white ones, were always suspect (we've had boat people before, remember?) Then came the War on Terror and Islamophobia.

And there are many hobgoblins spreading their dark shadows in almost all parts of the world: even the EU has taken on bogeyman characteristics. Hobgoblins have always been around, of course, but now, thanks to the speed and ease of communication, we know so much more, and (ironically) may be more easily manipulated, despite our knowledge.


"Roosevelt knew about hobgoblins, and famously told the American people that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. We would do well to remember that."


We are easily manipulated because of our fear, which those in power play on. We fear all sorts of things, but particularly whatever can be considered other and unknown. (The bush can be considered both: remember those hobyahs, the gullies, and the grey gum-trees.) We also fear a threat to our standard of living. This is a powerful hobgoblin indeed, and one brought out to menace us regularly: as President Clinton remarked: 'It's the economy, stupid.'

And so it is in this pre-election climate, where some journalism has been plumbing the depths: a piece recently told the public that voting for Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen was a short route to the end of the world as we know it, for these men have a two-way strategy that aims to destroy Australia. Why they would want to do this was not made clear, at least not to me. Australia was also compared, rather oddly and simplistically, with Venezuela.

President Roosevelt, a contemporary of Mencken's, knew about hobgoblins, and famously told the American people that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. We would do well to remember that.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: 17th century oil paining La ronde des Farfadets de Les Farfadets by David Ryckaert.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Election 2019, Bill Shorten, Chris Bowen, Scott Morrison



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Existing comments

Thanks Gillian for such a thought provoking article. I hadn’t linked my Victorian School Reader and the Hobyahs to the elections before, but when you point it out it is easy to do. However I have still used the same concept which I have often said was a pressing belief in ‘bunyips’ to achieve much the same thing. However some bunyips may turn out to be more real than many think, and one of the most frightening to me is climate change, because despite the fact it can be used as a bunyip it also has scientific backing as most of the easier bunyips trotted out this pre-election don’t. While most will disappear on the eve of election this one will remain as a real threat to the planet and future generations. Of course this one may be too real and costly, and possibly too hard for any of the major parties to trot out and deal with, but I believe it will remain, lurking and leering, through the gum trees, well after the elections, and in the end even little dog dingo will not be able to stop it.

John Whitehead | 17 April 2019  

Absolutely correct, John Whitehead. This is a scientifically based real threat that will see immense changes, extinctions and existential threats to our lives and those of our children and yet, we see that threat constantly shouted over by the effect it will have over our purses in the short term. When you look at the costs of the current extreme weather events that are happening even now these are far greater than the small costs to transition to a cleaner economy. However our short term thinking politicians can't connect these dots.

Marie T Belcredi | 17 April 2019  

Thanks Gillian, great thoughts from the geographic origins of democracy and the depths of fear itself. You would almost have to conclude that fear beats love every time. Is it that we humans are basically unsure and the more we can concretize an unwanted feeling the more we feel we are able to manage it or run from it? The more we can concretize shields against fear the better we feel: charms, crystals, vitamin supplements, airbags and other nostrums. Kids like to have scary experiences: Ghost trains, Halloween etc. We almost seem to need these Banshees. Then with groups,propose an enemy which threatens the group and fight flight is there instantly. So the confected fear of boat people requires their cruel treatment in gulags. The irrationality of the inhuman end justifying the means is just part of the 'flight'. As I get older my anxiety in traffic increases. I have to discipline myself to picture, not the possible catastrophes, but the fact that most vehicles will end the day without a crash. So "timeo Dannos et dona ferentes" Fear the politicians especially when bearing fear spouting fear.

Michael D. Breen | 17 April 2019  

A polished essay but the clever quote from HL Mencken was a dubious choice, considering his disdain for democracy. Hobgoblins are inventions of the Left as well as the Right. I recall the English art critic and impresario, Jonathan Miller, referring to Margaret Thatcher's fondness for Rogers & Hammerstein musicals as 'toe-tappingly banal', when she scrapped the grant to Glyndebourne, where he was producing the Ring Cycle. When, later, she basked in the glory of a reputation for winning an exhibition to Lady Margaret Hall, he observed that all it had done was to bestow upon her an "accent like a perfumed fart". All good, if hilariously vulgar, fun. Better to laugh it off, in the interests of saving democracy, by inviting Dame Edna to sing "Hobgoblins are Forever" at the next Liberal Party shindig, although I fear she wouldn't be understood.

Michael Furtado | 17 April 2019  

Stoking fears and dog-whistling - the "them" and "us" divisiveness - alive and well especially at election time. I was heartened yesterday to see in huge painted form on the banks of the River Spree in Berlin yesterday - near the East Berlin Galerie (huge murals along one of the three Berlin War segments purposely left standing) the message: Refugees are Welcome Here. I've seen it on a banner hung at the Uniting Church in Boronia Park - near Sydney's Hunter Hill. My wife and I have been treated with kindness and politeness in Salzburg, Munich and Berlin - and are now in Poland for nearly two weeks - here in Warsaw and soon in Kraków. When leadership is ethical and societies care for the least among its citizens - a kind of contentedness reigns. On the Autobahn from Munich via Bayreuth to Berlin - we saw massive solar installations and on every ridge large wood power installations. One hopes Joe Hockey never visits Germany. We have enjoyed casual conversations with lots of people in our time here - and can confirm the truth of the Japanese maxim that The World is a Mirror - that with an initial smile and a degree of warmth and respect - that is the response, too, which comes back. Aah! If only our politicians could treat the citizens (not just the rich and vested interests - in such a manner. Release the asylum-seekers and compensate them - end the NT Intervention - bring home Julian Assange - protect him from the vengeance of the US upset at its dirty linen getting an airing - reward him for his courage and efforts to bring truth to us all. Do the right thing! There yet remains a month till the big day. There is time to transform our election manner and nation.

Jim KABLE | 18 April 2019  

A very thoughtful analysis as usual and as we in the uk suffer from the hobgoblins of Brexit, division and fear are the inevitable outcomes of ignorance and intolerance. We do our best to fight them if we keep thinking and reflecting.

Maggie | 19 April 2019  

Thank you, Gillian, for once again stirring up memories with a punch line at the end. I think of politicians as people who, in order to get to the top, have had to use the very tactics which make them unsuitable to be there !!

Meriel | 22 April 2019  

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