The Democracy Shibboleth

By Jasper, William F. | The New American, October 4, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Democracy Shibboleth


Jasper, William F., The New American


The assortment of dictionaries at desk informs me that the Hebrew word shibboleth can be used to refer to a stream, a flood or an ear of corn. But the word comes into notice in Old Testament history purely with respect to its use as a password, a fatal one for the Israelites, as it turned out.

We find the story of the shibboleth in the twelfth chapter of the book of Judges. Here's how it unfolded: Israel's tribe of Ephraim decided to cross the Jordan River and do battle with the pagan tribes of Gilead. But the Gileadites got the upper hand and put the Ephraimites to flight. The Gileadites seized the passes and fords so that the Ephraimites could not escape. None were allowed to pass except those who could pronounce the password: shibboleth. The Gileadites pronounced the word with the strong sh aspirate, but the Ephraimites, being unable to pronounce the sh, said "sibboleth."

This slight linguistic slip-up, says the Bible, cost 42,000 Ephraimites their lives. Thus the poet Milton, in Samson Agonistes, wrote: "Had not his prowess quelled their pride/ In that sore battle when so many died/ Without reprieve, adjudged to death/ For want of well pronouncing Shibboleth."

So it is that shibboleth has come today to mean "catchword or slogan" (Webster's, 1975) or "the criterion, test, or watchword of a party; a party cry or pet phrase" (Webster's, 1913). The passes into both the Democrat and Republican parties were seized, in the last century, by the modern-day equivalent of the Gileadites, who bar entrance to all who will not faithfully pronounce and venerate the party shibboleths, watchwords and pet phrases. Although the Democrat and Republican party leaders pretend to represent very opposite viewpoints, ideologies and constituencies, they are, in substance, virtually indistinguishable, one from the other.

Perhaps nowhere is this similarity more pronounced than in the sustained subversive effort by both major parties to convert our republic into a democracy. If you have been listening to or reading any of the presidential campaign speeches, you have probably noticed that both Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush make liberal use of the democracy shibboleth. In his speech to the Democrat Convention, Kerry declared: "Our purpose now is to reclaim democracy itself." Similar utterances abound in his stump speeches. By my (admittedly unscientific) count, however, President Bush, the titular head of the Republican Party, is the leading shibbolether when it comes to the "d" word.

President Bush's acceptance speech at the Republican Convention was a shibboleth topper.

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