Thomas Sowell

A RECENT e-mail from a reader said that he could not find the word "shibboleth" in his desk dictionary, even though he had seen this word in my column. That was an unfortunate omission in his dictionary because shibboleths explain a lot about what is said and done in politics today.

Back in Biblical times, the word "shibboleth" was used as a password, because people from one side could say it easily and their enemies couldn't. It identified who you were and which side you were on.

Today, many things that are said and done in our political life serve that same purpose -- and often make no sense otherwise. When people say that they are for "diversity" or gun control or campaign finance reform, they are declaring themselves to be on one side in the political wars. In their own eyes, their position on such issues identify them as one of the good, caring and compassionate people.

What political shibboleths do is transform questions about facts, causation and evidence into questions about personal identity and moral worth. Shibboleths are also a great labor-saving device. You don't need to find out what the actual consequences of affirmative action have been if being for "diversity" serves the purpose of identifying you as one of those good people who care about racial justice and the advancement of the disadvantaged.

You don't have to find out what actually happens when there are more relaxed or more stringent gun control laws, if you only need to show that you are on the side of the angels. How many lives have actually been lost under one policy versus the other is a factual question whose answer you need not bother learning.

Mere facts cannot compete with shibboleths when it comes to making people feel good. Moreover, shibboleths keep off the agenda the painful question of how dangerous it is to have policies which impact millions of human beings without a thorough knowledge of the hard facts

needed to understand just what that impact has actually been. Shibboleths are the life blood of the media. Stories which seem to support the side of the angels are trumpeted from coast to coast, while stories which support the other side are either downplayed or ignored altogether.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate