Jack Layton, Hope, and Cynicism

Now that the outpouring of public emotion and sympathy towards Jack Layton’s passing has now calmed, I thought I would take the chance to offer some (hopefully non-knee-jerk) reflections on a now notorious op-ed piece written by Christie Blatchford which ostensibly took issue with the “spectacle” surrounding Jack Layton’s death.

I can’t say much about how this piece fits into Blatchford’s corpus and whether or not it is a lapse or typical of Blatchford’s attitudes. Though I try to pay heed to media sources lying across the “left-right” spectrum (lest I be flippantly denounced as an uncritical product of the liberal media) after many attempts, I have found myself unable to take serious the National Post where Blatchford does much of her writing (and where the piece in question appears). Blatchford also writes for the Globe, but since I pretty much exclusively read it online, and to read most of Blatchford’s columns require paying a fee for “Globeplus,” I am again at a loss (though I did get access to a piece in which Blatchford carelessly repeats the tired falsehood that Layton and Chow were living a subsidized community housing was both making MP salaries). In any case, I don’t really think one needs to understand the piece in question with reference to a broader body of work – I simply make this admission as a disclaimer to pre-empt any argument that either Blatchford had an off-day, or that the piece somehow makes sense with reference to a larger set of interrelated ideas expounded elsewhere.

On to the specifics of the article. Blatchford makes several particular arguments, but they all seem to pertain to two general contentions. First, she argues that due to the exaggeration and repetition of certain media outlets, the public response to Layton’s death was manufactured  and faddish, and thus disengenious. Second, his death was turned into a political opportunity for the NDP, exemplified by Layton’s final letter to Canadians.

With regards to his “vainglorious” farewell, she asks, incredulously, “Who seriously writes of himself, ‘All my life I have worked to make things better’?” Well, maybe someone who honestly believes this to be the case. Why is this unbelievable? Should Layton have been more humble? Perhaps. But when read in the context of the letter, one realises that this is not so much a last attempt at self-aggrandizement – Layton’s final opportunity to shape how posterity will remember him –  but is meant rather as words of encouragement. This statement prefaces the section where Layton addresses young Canadians, where Layton impels young people with fledgling social, ethical, and political consciousnesses not to be deterred or become jaded by the pervasive cynicism and despair that they will inevitably encounter as their views of the world expand. Layton is not saying, “I’ve worked to make things better, because I’m great, and you should all remember me for being so great.” He is saying, “I’ve worked to make things better, and so can you. It will be tough; I know, I have the experience. People will stand in your way, tell you your efforts are futile, or that you are naive. But be persistent and don’t let the cynics get you down.”

Of course, Blatchford also asks this question to point out that no one writing their final words would talk in such a way. These aren’t the last words of Jack Layton the person, the letter is a carefully scripted piece (with the help of Brian Topp, Anne McGrath, and his wife) written for political purposes. How shocking that a man who spent his entire career in politics would want his final words to have a political message. And how disingenuous of him to enlist the aid of his close colleagues and wife!

Blatchford also states,

The letter is full of such sophistry as “We can restore our good name in the world,” as though it is a given Canada has somehow lost that, bumper-sticker slogans of the “love is better than anger” ilk and ruthlessly partisan politicking.

I’m not sure that implying that Canada’s global reputation has become less favourable constitutes sophistry. Is this reasoning somehow specious and misleading? Maybe Layton has this view because Canada lost its seat on the UN security council because of what some view as questionable foreign policy. Maybe it’s because international scientists have called for Canada to be suspended from the Commonwealth for its dismal action on climate change. Or maybe it’s because a global poll indicates that Canada’s reputation has worsened.

This is all nitpicking, however. The really important issue here has to do with Blatchford’s flippant dismissal of the underlying feelings and ideas of Layton’s letter as trite and sappy. Blatchford cannot take these words seriously:

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

These are sentimental words. But they do not express a superficial, or empty sentimentality. Millions of Canadians these words were interpreted as the genuine final thoughts of a loving, hopeful, and optimistic person. Those who take these words seriously share Layton’s beliefs. And in this regard Blatchford is so wrong about what the reaction to Layton’s death represented. It wasn’t faddish, or opportunistic, or media-hype. People were affected by Layton’s death because he embodied their ideals. They don’t need to be card-carrying members of the NDP, or close personal friends of Layton to be genuinely saddened by his death. Canada is full of loving, hopeful, and optmistic people. There have been few, if any, Canadians politicians that have been so willing to unabashedly wear these sentiments so openly and proudly as did Jack Layton. His death is a great loss to Canadian politics; he stood firmly opposed to the cynical Realpolitik that is on the rise in our political culture. Blatchford’s cynincal opportunism (the irony of Blatchford’s simultaneous denunciation of the media-hype from outlets like the CBC and her tasteless shock-journalism is excruciating) prevents her from understanding any of this. She seems unable understand or share the love, hope, and optimism of so many Canadians. How sad.

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