Shibboleths And Scare Talk

     Political talk is mostly hot air, of course. Among other influences, politicians almost unanimously regard their own voices as the sweetest sound in the universe. They’ll fill whatever space is provided to them with as much blather as they can get away with – and it won’t necessarily mean anything in particular.

     So in attempting to decode what a politician has said, the first task is to remove the deadweight verbiage so we can clearly see the important bits…if any. It’s vital to be ruthless about this. Many political statements are 100% deadweight: semantically null. One of my favorite passages in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation involves an incident of that sort:

     “As you see, gentlemen, something like ninety percent of the treaty boiled right out of the analysis as being meaningless, and what we end up with can be described in the following interesting manner:
     “Obligations of Anacreon to the Empire: None!
     “Powers of the Empire over Anacreon: None!
     Again the five followed the reasoning anxiously, checking carefully back to the treaty, and when they were finished, Pirenne said in a worried fashion, “That seems to be correct.”
     “You admit, then, that the treaty is nothing but a declaration of total independence on the part of Anacreon and a recognition of that status by the Empire?”
     “It seems so.”
     “And do you suppose that Anacreon doesn’t realize that, and is not anxious to emphasize the position of independence – so that it would naturally tend to resent any appearance of threats from the Empire? Particularly when it is evident that the Empire is powerless to fulfill any such threats, or it would never have allowed independence.”
     “But then,” interposed Sutt, “how would Mayor Hardin account for Lord Dorwin’s assurances of Empire support? They seemed –” He shrugged. “Well, they seemed satisfactory.”
     Hardin threw himself back in the chair. “You know, that’s the most interesting part of the whole business. I’ll admit I had thought his Lordship a most consummate donkey when I first met him – but it turned out that he was actually an accomplished diplomat and a most clever man. I took the liberty of recording all his statements.”
     There was a flurry, and Pirenne opened his mouth in horror.
     “What of it?” demanded Hardin. “I realize it was a gross breach of hospitality and a thing no so-called gentleman would do. Also, that if his lordship had caught on, things might have been unpleasant; but he didn’t, and I have the record, and that’s that. I took that record, had it copied out and sent that to Holk for analysis, also.”
     Lundin Crast said, “And where is the analysis?”
     “That,” replied Hardin, “is the interesting thing. The analysis was the most difficult of the three by all odds. When Holk, after two days of steady work, succeeded in eliminating meaningless statements, vague gibberish, useless qualifications – in short, all the goo and dribble – he found he had nothing left. Everything canceled out.”
     “Lord Dorwin, gentlemen, in five days of discussion didn’t say one damned thing, and said it so you never noticed. There are the assurances you had from your precious Empire.”

     This is the pinnacle of the art of political speech: saying absolutely nothing yet persuading your interlocutor that you sincerely intend to fulfill his wildest dreams. There are no more accomplished practitioners than the members of our political class. Yet even they are occasionally compelled to speak plainly, or called to account for insufficiently guarded statements. Their fear of being caught out is one of the chief reasons for the emergence and evolution of the political shibboleth.


     Originally, shibboleth was used by the ancient Hebrews as password. It was a clever choice, for the proper pronunciation of the word was all but impossible for anyone not brought up in the Hebrews’ language of the time. Thus, they need not worry that their password might be discovered.

     Today, a shibboleth is a word or phrase favored by a political party or interest group. He who uses it correctly indicates his allegiance with that party or group. There are plenty of them, most notably on the Left. I’m sure you have your own list.

     Some of the Left’s most frequently used shibboleths today are terms intended to induce fear. “Climate change,” “reproductive rights,” “voting rights,” “threat to democracy,” and others are getting very thick on the rhetorical ground. Scare talk is one of the Left’s favorite devices, though it’s seldom the case that the thing of which we’re supposed to be scared has any objective basis. Indeed, often the thing being promoted as scary is really cover for another, less palatable element of the Left’s agenda.

     This article provides a snapshot of Leftist scare talk in a currently relevant context:

     Some liberal media commentators predicted Sunday that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s vote against President Biden’s Build Back Better plan could very well spell the end of democracy….

     MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan tweeted out “What’s worse – that Manchin is killing the Biden legislative agenda, and perhaps the future of American democracy too, or that he wasted most of this year dragging this whole thing out to do it *and* wasted half of the time that Dems control Congress and the White House.”

     In a largely mocked tweet, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin wrote “If Manchin is no on both BBB and voting, Biden is done. Democracy is hanging by a thread. Hard to think of anyone more destructive.”

     In an appearance on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” journalist Carl Bernstein also implied that Manchin’s vote could drastically affect American democracy in his refusal to eliminate the filibuster rule in the Senate.

     “And this also goes into the question of voting rights because unless there’s something that can be done about the filibuster rule in the Senate which Manchin again has indicated he will not change, there is not going to be an effective legislative means of doing what needs to be done to guarantee American democracy through the right to vote for all Americans without being suppressed as we’re seeing now,” Bernstein said.

     [All emphases added by FWP.]

     Boy, that “democracy” stuff must really be important – and really threatened, too. Look at all those high-profile blatherers jumping on Manchin’s back for his refusal to vote the way they want! Never mind that not one of them could say exactly what he means by his castigation. Democracy is endangered! Mobilize the troops! Man the barricades! Break out the emergency supplies of Oreo Double-Stufs®!

     This is the sort of thing that’s turning Americans off to politics in steadily increasing numbers. I’d bet the mortgage money that if non-voters were surveyed for their reasons for not going to the polls, a great many – perhaps even a majority – would cite political rhetoric and its essential emptiness as a contributing factor. If “they” won’t say exactly what they mean, how can you hold “them” to their commitments?

     Yes, yes, yes: to a politician, actual commitment to a principle or a course of action is a horror that belongs in the depths of Hell. But you already knew that.


     A constructive project for the coming New Year would be the development of software like what Salvor Hardin referred to in the snippet from Foundation in the first segment. If such software existed, and if it were widely available, common private-citizen Americans could use it to seine the statements of politicians and their hangers-on for actual content. I think we’d find very little, after the shibboleths, circumlocutions, and qualifications had been eliminated. And that just might militate toward a rather complete reassessment of politicians in general — all politicians, Left, Right, Up, Down, Strange, or Charmed.

     If memory serves, it was the late Walter Williams who said, as regards regularly removing incumbent officeholders, that “Every toilet needs a flushing now and then.” This is indisputable. As a contemporary meme puts it, politicians and diapers both need to be changed frequently…and for the same reason. While H. L. Mencken’s observation retains its sour force:

     At each election we vote in a new set of politicians, insanely assuming that they are better than the set turned out. And at each election we are, as they say in Motherland, done in.

     …perhaps, with frequently enough repeated flushings, we’d have a chance to install a set that aren’t unanimously and completely full of shit.


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    • George Mckay on December 20, 2021 at 8:20 AM

    Frankly, I applaud Joe Manchin for actually having a spine and using it!  The rest of the dim politic are spineless simpletons with no brain of their own.

    I love Bernie Sanders rhetoric.  Anything ol Bern’ says consists of manure, shoveled deep and stinky and then seeded with commie pills and seeds of discontent.  Sanders is following Rahm Emmanuel’s dictate – never let a crisis go to waste.  THAT IS ALL THEY GOT!!!!  Lies, half-truths and pure bull$#!#.

    Indeed, we live in interesting times and I do pray for sanity to return to DC.  Unfortunately, I believe that ship has sailed.  DC must be flushed and all the poop must be not only castigated, it must be destroyed.  We can no longer spout platitudes and well wishes while Rome burns.  Let US be the firefighters who save the day.


    • Dan Fowler on December 20, 2021 at 12:39 PM

    Term limits may be the solution to the problem of our permanently backed up Congress, although I am sure there would be unforeseen complications. I like the idea of serving 12 years and gone; two Senate terms and three in the House. Ideally with the possibility of the true public servant elected for the majority of Congress; immune to the trappings of power, fame, and fortune and motivated by the good of the country. Naive? Yeah. But I am willing to take the chance because the system now in place is hopelessly corrupted. I do not believe term limits would result it a Congress worse than the evil clown circus now in place and, again, it might possibly be better.

    1. Unlike religion, your current belief has verification. Utopian California has had term limits since November 1990.

        • Dan Fowler on December 20, 2021 at 4:11 PM

        Although I thought it was obvious, my comment was not about the State of California, it was about the Federal Congress. The Senators and Representatives in Congress are usually elected and re-elected until they pass away.

    • Toastrider on December 22, 2021 at 9:17 AM

    “They say a politician is a person who can talk for hours and never actually say anything. If that’s true, Hideo Kojima could run for government and be emperor of the universe by midafternoon.” –Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw

    (In all honesty Kojima would make a better statesman than most of the current crop. He’d definitely be more interesting.)

    The Dems are completely at their (limited) wits’ end with Manchin. The scuttlebutt is that they tried to pressure him, then they literally did the whole devil-tempts-Jesus bit, offering him all manner of things. If the latter is true, I may have to begrudgingly admit there’s at least one Democrat I must respect.

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