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‘A politician’


 

Talking to the Star, Olivia Chow apparently responds to criticism of the politics involved in Jack Layton’s passing.

A message of hope, the letter was also a savvy political document espousing NDP positions by the man who just led the party to an historic breakthrough as the official Opposition.

“Duh, well yeah!” said Chow, referring to a Toronto columnist who wrote about Layton’s deathbed politicking. “A politician. I would expect nothing less,” she added, laughing.

It’s possible I’m imagining it, but I seem to recall someone wondering if Mr. Layton’s passing, or perhaps the public response to that passing, might help get us past the idea that politics is not be to discussed in polite company. (Update: It was Greg Fingas.) If I’m imagining that it’s possibly because I think that might be a good idea.

Jack Layton was thoroughly, perhaps entirely, a politician, so that his passing and his funeral would embrace his politics seems, to me, to be more or less fitting. Even if he didn’t stand out for how little distinction there was between his personal life and his political life, it probably shouldn’t seem somehow odd for a politician’s passing to be marked with prominent reference to his or her politics. But, for some number of people, it might.

Now, for sure, some of those who objected to what Mr. Layton wrote in his final letter and what Stephen Lewis said at the state funeral probably have specific problems with the particular strain of politics that was being championed. More generally though, there might’ve been those who felt a certain level of discomfort with the general tone—ie. that there is a time and place for politics and that this was neither. That it was unseemly or manipulative or unfair. That it was, well, political.

Therein, for me, lies the problem. Try a (possibly over-simplified) thought experiment. Would we object if scientist’s passing became a celebration of science? Would we object if a teacher’s passing became a celebration of education? Would we object if a heart surgeon’s passing became a celebration of heart surgery?

Broaden this to those who championed specific and largely unimpeachable causes. What if a prominent advocate for civil rights or women’s rights or gay rights had written a letter calling for their supporters to carry on the work? Wouldn’t we expect their funerals to be, at least in part, celebrations of those causes?

Politics, of course, is regarded differently. In the first place, it’s considered a selfish pursuit: power and glorification pursued by those of monstrous ego. For that and various other reasons, it is a profession held in disrepute. But even beyond all that, it’s not something you’re supposed to discuss around the dinner table. It’s the sort of thing that leads to arguments. It’s impolite to ask someone who they voted for in the last election.

Of all the things raised by Jack Layton and his passing that strikes me as possibly the most important: the schism that we are supposed to enforce between the personal and the political and what that means, generally, for our politics.

All of which reminds me of something Charles P. Pierce recently wrote about something Aristotle once said.

We are political animals. It is a truth as old as Aristotle, who attributed our political nature to the fact that, unlike any of the other animals that travel in herds, we are able to speak. We can ignore the politics central to all our various interactions, or we can pretend that actions, good and bad, are apolitical, but politics is there, binding us up, regardless of how fervently we deny it, which we do, and take refuge then in fragmentation rather than confront what we may have in common with other people — strange people, crazy people, violent people — who share with us the politics of our common humanity. And we have chosen fragmentation as our comfortable, counterfeit heritage..


 

‘A politician’

  1. I think it takes colossal nerve to criticize how somebody else runs their own funeral.

    • Uh, it was also a Sate funeral.

      • So?

      • With very few exceptions even the organization of state funerals defer to the wishes of the family on almost all issues.

  2. It’s not up to others to decide how someone’s funeral is run. I just find it sad that those nearest to him thought his politics was all that made the man. Especially since he never had the chance to actually win the big prize.

  3. It’s possible I’m imagining it, but I seem to recall someone wondering
    if Mr. Layton’s passing, or perhaps the public response to that passing,
    might help get us past the idea that politics is not be to discussed in
    polite company. If I’m imagining that it’s possibly because I think
    that might be a good idea.

    I’m not sure if others did the same, but I had mused along those lines in the wake of a couple of articles discussing the political nature of Layton’s final letter. (And I’d fully agree with your sentiment that eliminating the taboo against discussing politics would be a change for the better.)

    • Ah, yes, it was you. It is reassuring to know I’m not inventing memories.

  4. “More generally though, there might’ve been those who felt a certain level of discomfort with the general tone—ie. that there is a time and place for politics and that this was neither. That it was unseemly or manipulative or unfair.”

    People don’t talk about politics, or religion, because it always leads to argy-bargy. 

    Personal is political for left wing types, less so for right wingers. I thought Layton’s funeral was unseemly but others thought it was brilliant. People rarely agree about anything. 

    In all profiles I have read recently of Layton, there are no interviews with friends who have known him since childhood and talked about how Layton was a pol even when he was 9 yrs old and trying to get kids to share toys. 

    No mention of a couple Layton/Chow met on one of their canoe trips 15 years ago and have known each other since after Chow gave them a hard time for not drinking local organic beer. Or whatever. 

    Layton was relentless with politics – there is no personal space. At funeral, it was all minor celebrities, other pols and activists but few if any friends from when Layton was 19 and playing on water polo team. 

    I think it is sad that Layton only thought of himself as a politician and nothing else.

  5. What Olivia said.

  6. The old saying “Whipping a dead horse.” seems to fit fairly well here.

    What is sad is that even after his passing, Jack is still the only hope the NDP have of holding on to their gains.

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