In my child’s memory, the front yard of my paternal grandparents is huge. But it was foreign territory because my grandmother would admonish her grandchildren to stay out of it because “the boogeyman” would get us if we ventured there. Her warning worked, and whenever we were at her house we played in the house or the back yard, far away from that dreadful creature out front.
As a child visiting the rambling house on Independence Square with its forbidden front yard, whatever else “the boogeyman” may have been, he was real in our child minds. Never told particulars about him, our grandmother’s tone was enough to convince us to fear him. As children, we believed. Now, as an adult I understand but do not excuse my grandmother’s method of child care. As an adult I no longer fear “the boogeyman” in any yard or anywhere else for that matter, but realize that my grandmother, like many of her era, used fear to help discipline the troop of grandchildren running through her house. It was the only way she knew, or was it?
On the surface my grandmother Alice’s mode for child discipline appears full of ignorance. After all, who would believe in a boogeyman in such modern times? He belonged in a fairy tale with other monsters like a wicked witch. But Maw Maw Alice knew what she was doing, and she never described the fearful monster that lurked in her front yard; she just expressed a deep understanding of his presence and his danger to a child who wandered off into that forbidden realm. Hers was a classic example of understatement that struck mortal fear in the hearts of this grandchild. While this front yard boogeyman did no long-lasting harm to me, he kept me in her range of view when I was not in her house, and that was her method of child discipline. She could see me and any other children if we were in her back yard. Thus, she had some control over our play, our arguments, and our misbehavior. The boogeyman was her control.
Maw Maw Alice and her front yard boogeyman came to mind recently when I read an H.L. Mencken quotation in Evan Osnos’ fine book on America’s rage, Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury. The Baltimore sage writes in In Defense of Women, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
There it is: A fine explanation that crystalizes the reason for the so-called “Culture Wars.” The politician, like Maw Maw Alice, does not need to describe or explain the boogeyman but just give him a name or identity and tell how he is a threat. To use hobgoblin, as did Mencken, we can have any number of dangers to our safety. We are like children playing in the back yard, at peace and full of joy, but that atmosphere does not cause fear and fear is, as Maw Maw Alice knew, a motivator; and the politician needs voters full of fear so that he/she can appear worthy of votes because he/she led them to safety.
So many boogeymen have been used during my lifetime to alarm and cause fear in the populace: Communism; Integration; Socialism; Black Panthers; Weapons of Mass Destruction; BLM; and CRT to mention a few of the many.
Osnos tells the story of Pastor Ed Horstmann, of Round Hill Community Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. When he first arrived in the wealthy town, he was often told that people were interested in charity and “there was a deep human desire to meet the need. But people were less comfortable talking about justice….When a pastor starts talking about justice, it can make people a little uneasy, because all of a sudden it’s not about the need—but about changing the system that created that need. You can tell that in people’s minds, they’re asking: Are we going to start marching? Are we going to have to take sides.” [his italics]
The next time an elected official begins warning you of a boogeyman in your front yard, ask him to tell you about the system that created that monster. Then, you will discover the flaw of Maw Maw Alice and all like her: They are too lazy, too inept, or both to do the job they are faced with. So, they create an “endless series of hobgoblins” instead of identifying the real danger. Our insecurities.