Words and politics

by Aaron Wherry

Colin Horgan responds to my response.

Let’s consider what’s followed from the point where we all saw people like Stephen Lewis give blatantly partisan comments, referencing the letter, only days after Layton’s death. Fine for him. But from that point on, Wherry seems to argue, it has technically been up to us as to whether to allow the party spinners to dictate how we use those words. But, quite frankly, this is why people invented propaganda: to make sure words are no longer just words, and to make sure the spin sticks.

Consider, for example, the story Paul Dewar told Wednesday on the Hill — the one I quoted about how Jack Layton was one of those rare politicians who, unlike others, sincerely believed in optimism or hope. Dewar still used the words as if they were still abstract, shared notions, rather than the blatantly partisan terms the party had specifically designed them to be a year before. This is where the sleight of hand happens – and, again, I doubt Aaron would argue with me here. This whole time, the NDP has held up these words as if they were truly non-partisan and apolitical – just wonderful words – but at the same time used them in their intended form, as NDP slogans. So yes, they are sincere, in that they are sincerely tools for the financial and political gain of the party…

Fundamentally, I think Aaron and I agree. But maybe this is the difference: Wherry allows for the possibility that one can believe in love and hope and optimism even if you aren’t an NDP supporter. While I agree in part, I tend to think if that is the case, even if you do, you’re going to use different words to describe these sentiments because the NDP already owns those ones. And as soon as that’s the case, you’re losing, and the propaganda is eating you alive from the inside out. They have you by the balls.

I think if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have included the last paragraph of what I wrote yesterday. I think it muddled my argument. (In the coming days I will be unveiling a seven-point plan that renders that paragraph null and void and will, in future, object to anyone who attempts to reference it.)

Maybe there are two separate discussions here: one about Jack Layton’s letter and its inherent politics and another about how the letter’s words have been used since.

As I tried to say yesterday, Jack Layton’s last letter is, unabashedly I’d say, a political document. He was a politician and he made no attempt to separate himself from his politics. His words were political. They might transcend partisanship—the team sport through which we act our politics—but there is no sense drawing a line, between politics and that-which-is-not-politics, that Jack Layton himself didn’t seem to generally recognize.

Have those words—specifically love, hope and optimism—since become “blatantly partisan terms?” Well, partisans have surely used them in public settings. And not just New Democrats. Bob Rae turned them around to attack Thomas Mulcair. James Moore used them to mock the NDP’s use of attack ads. Does that mean the final paragraph of Jack Layton’s last letter has been corrupted*? Have Paul Dewar, Bob Rae and James Moore ruined whatever we might’ve thought we once had? Let’s consider an extreme hypothetical. Let’s say, three years from now, the NDP entitled its campaign platform, “Love, hope and optimism.” That would be fairly tacky. And arguably cynical. But it wouldn’t necessarily render the letter tacky and cynical.

Of the letter’s words—specifically the memorable last sentences, I presume—Colin writes that “they should [have] never been seen as anything but part of the cynical political system within which we operate.” I would agree with him entirely except for the adjective cynical. They were always part of the political system. They were always political. And while those words might be used for cynical purposes, our politics is not inherently cynical. (Or at least no more inherently cynical than our society is.)  You can decide for yourself whether you believe that letter to have been a cynical exercise. But it needn’t, solely by virtue of being political, be regarded as such.

*In writing about Jack Layton’s last letter I gave some thought to how his famous words have been turned around to attack the NDP. My first reaction was that such stuff was rather unseemly (using the last words of a dead friend and colleague to mock New Democrats). But I’ve lately wondered if even Jack Layton would have found it unseemly. Or if he would’ve simply smiled and shrugged and accepted that that’s politics, that’s life. You say things out loud and people are free to respond to those words however they see fit. For my part, I’ve argued against the idea that we should avoid “politicizing” certain things and so I should probably, in my own case, apply that rule here.




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Words and politics

  1. Admittedly, I don’t normally vote NDP, but I can’t recall anything about Layton’s Last Letter.

    • There wasn’t anything particularly unique about it, just the usual call for socialism with the usual bland and vague “hope, change, love, optimism, etc” adjectives to attempt to qualify positively those socialist objectives (as discussed in the post).

  2. “(In the coming days I will be unveiling a seven-point plan that renders
    that paragraph null and void and will, in future, object to anyone who
    attempts to reference it.)”

    Nice shot! I love it!

  3. (In the coming days I will be unveiling a seven-point plan that renders
    that paragraph null and void and will, in future, object to anyone who
    attempts to reference it.)

    Oh you sly dog AW. By Horgan’s logic you can’t do that anyway as someone else owns it.

    Pretty much agree with CH. Whatever the intention of Jack[ and i don't doubt it was political too, Orwell's dictum being irrefutable IMO] the NDP has made a pig’s breakfast of a very noble moment in the life of a genial politician. I find that truly sad. With each passing day i find it makes Layton’s sentiments seem trite and somewhat tawdry.

    • I agree generally, but there’s also an argument to say that Jack Himself was being a tad tawdry by essentially having a cabal of partisan Dippers asist in drafting his last political “testament”. Essentially his letter was an overtly partisan political act. I see absolutely nothing noble about that.

      • Well you and i weren’t there, so i’m prepared to believe Jack meant what he wrote. Still, can’t say i like where it’s going.

  4. Actually for me the portion that made the most impact was the first paragraph of additional thoughts and is the least political part of the letter.
    “To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and to live
    their lives, I say this: please don’t be discouraged that my own journey
    hasn’t gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope.
    Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this
    disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused
    on the future. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with
    those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this
    summer.”
    He was dying of cancer and he wants to reassure others not to give up hope of fighting the disease. Sure parts of the letter were about carrying on the ‘good fight’ for the NDP, and thus political and partisan. However, to dismiss the letter as cynical indicates a gross misunderstanding of what it means to have someone articulate your fear and hope (in the case of self or a loved one with cancer) and validate it in the public sphere. Thanks Jack.

    • Folk everywhere aught to be informed about “Phoenix Tears” and the myriad testimonies by others than Rick Simpson, the founder who was personally healed by its use (hemp oil), who have been cured of the dastardly, seemingly unbeatable, disease that, sadly, had taken our dear Jack’s life. Wake up …and ‘smell the cure’ people, for everyone’s sake. And pass on the documented videos of cures featured on the YouTube site; for example. Have you visited and witnessed them? It’s in your own best interest whether you’ve already heard about them or now simply being introduced. Be well y’all. Long live “love, hope & optimism!”

  5. “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.”

    Sorry, but the cynic in me couldn’t help but think that this is a fine piece of committee wordsmithing (yes we can!), with parallels to a Nobel Peace Prize winning orator from ’08:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLVN3Trs5VQ

  6. A thoughtful reflection, Aaron, as we expect from you. I got quite a kick this morning from noting that you, the reporter, have become the subject of the news with your work this week, both from Horgan and also from Pugliese. That must frighten you!

  7. “(In the coming days I will be unveiling a seven-point plan that renders
    that paragraph null and void and will, in future, object to anyone who
    attempts to reference it.)”

    It wasn’t the fact you referenced the past that was the issue, it was the part where you labeled an MP “confused” because he himself avoided referencing the past.

    • ‘Avoided referencing the past’ – now there’s some wordsmithing. What he did was refuse to admit the government record.

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