In recent years the public, the media, and candidates for office seem to be playing politics in a different key. It has become the rhetorical equivalent of rap music: lots of anger, heavy on the beat, deeply personal, and disdainful of elegance and propriety. Maybe this style comes naturally to some people, but I couldn't help wondering how an ambitious young man or woman of gentler disposition could learn the viciousness and pettiness to excel at today's political game. A background in ice hockey would help, as would staying an extra three years in middle school. But as best I can tell, there is not much in print to give assistance, either on a theoretical or a practical level--no grand philosophical statements and precious few how-to manuals, just lots of self-serving memoirs from insiders and would-be insiders. There is no comparison between talk show host newsletters and the Federalist Papers.
What would be the right kind of political treatise to help prepare the next generation of leaders and talk show hosts to succeed in a post-civility world? The answer is probably "a cartoon strip," but I couldn't draw one. So I went back to the future for a model, to primers--those cheap, simple books our ancestors used to terrify children into learning the alphabet and being pious. They were filled with catchy aphorisms, often in dreadful poetry, and were very modern in their contempt for nuance. The most famous one, first published in the 1690s and in print for over a century, was the New-England Primer. It shaped impressionable minds with such rhymes as the ones for the letters A and Q:
Queen ESTHER sues
And saves the Jews
Bluff and bluster fend off
When we lack knowledge and facts.
Community is a positive
Except when it's that of the boys in the 'hood.
"Ditto," we exclaim,
Our individuality to proclaim.
To the Elderly we owe great
But not support for the rest of their days.
Family we publicly
With a private indiscretion or two.
Government we disdain,
As office we seek to gain.
The Homeless are a nuisance
to be stopped,
With funding for shelters dropped.
Justice is on the side
Of those who the most attorneys provide.
"Lamentable" is how we
Fatal blunders we wish to minimize.
Media we love to bash,
Except the ones that give us cash.
"Obfuscate" (if the meaning
Would describe what we do.
Politicians are swine,
Unless they are me or mine.
Quicksand is where we
When politics deal with the bed.
Rant is how we speak
To intimidate the meek.
To Shred is human and
Better than being caught in lies.
Unindicted, it is plain to
Is the next best thing to honesty.
Veracity is what we
When an opponent makes a good suggestion.
Xerox with care--
The Enquirer will soon be there.
Young people are America's
Except regarding babies and dope.
"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins professor.
Send EMail to Johns Hopkins Magazine
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