This post hasn’t gotten anything near resembling a coherent opening in the last 25 minutes, so I’m going to skip the introductory waffling I usually indulge in. Backstory: Jack Layton, New Democratic Party leader, passed away on August 22, which at time of writing is five days ago. Canadians coast to coast are affected by this death like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
I’m starting to be tuned in more and more to news, to comments threads, to several newspapers on all sides of the political spectrum, and to social media. I talk to more people than I used to and I listen and read far beyond what I used to. What shocks me about this is how much people seem to be increasingly polarized (I already spoke about this here) and how vitriolic the vocal partisans can be.
The most avid supporters have beatified and canonized Jack in a way I didn’t quite expect. The naysayers (who tend to lie on the political right) have, time and again over the last five days, made it abundantly clear that they don’t want to hear any more about it, that Jack was actually a terrible guy, that his final letter to Canadians was jumped-up political tripe, etc. There have been editorials about why Jack is such a special guy, and why he’s a douchebag, and why people who think he’s a special guy are douchebags, and even (and this blew my mind) why people who think he’s a douchebag are special guys.
Rhetoric over substance. On both sides.
One of the most common single sentiments I’ve seen levied against the people who so admire Jack as to treat him as a sort of demigod is that Jack was just a man. He was just a dude who was a politician and had a wife and ran a campaign and made mistakes. This is the historical truth of the matter, once you’ve stripped away the derision and sarcasm and the references to massage parlours and subsidized housing and ignorant equations of socialism with communism.
But what people who slaveringly beatify Jack are missing is that he was not a perfect person. He was a career politician, he ran campaigns shrewdly, he was, in fact, just a man.
And what the people who respond with vitriol and disparagement are missing is that he is no longer just a man. He’s become something more, and while the history will tell us of campaign funds and lies about hips and (what I expect to be) short-lived surges of the NDP in Quebec, the people will remember something different.
They’ll remember dignity, and conviction, and sparkling eyes. They’ll remember good-natured appearances on campuses, and optimism and love for this country. They’ll remember an alternative to the status quo and the excitement of something new. They’ll remember him in the same breath as Tommy Douglas, as Terry Fox. They’ll remember the Trustache and the Orange Crush, and watching the landscape change colour.
He’s not just a man. He’s become a symbol for political conviction, a repository for youthful optimism, and the kind of Canadian that Canadians want to be. It doesn’t matter one whit if he was that man or not: it’s what he represents.
So when people refer to Jack, they’ll be talking about what he represents. And I can’t think of anything better than the kind of Canadian that Jack has become synonymous with.
Goodbye, Jack. We’ve made you more than a man. We’ve devoted ourselves to an ideal, and you’ve become something else entirely. A legend, Mr. Layton. A legend. And you will be missed.
Paddle your own canoe, guys and gals.