‘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..

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