Political words

Colin Horgan considers Jack Layton’s last words a year after they were written.

Yeah, those ideas, those words. The words from that final letter Layton and his team drafted to the people of Canada to be released shortly after his death, the one about how we ought to be hopeful and loving and optimistic because all of those concepts are nicer than their antitheses. Which is all true, and the letter was a poignant goodbye to Canadians for that reason. Which makes it a shame that those words are now something different entirely – a slogan for Brand NDP, slapped on the collective memory like just about any other partisan catch phrase used in an effort to maximize return on idea investment. The sort of thing that’s discussed in memos and double- and triple-checked before it’s polished and sent out the door, a shiny product of language optimization.

Those words we all took to heart just one year ago are entering the void of nostalgic branding and the nothingness of a PR wasteland. Which all sounds cynical, sure, but their fate is not a mistake. It’s not an error. The fate of these words as rote poli-speak is not the fault of a cynical system, because they were part of the system from day one. It was always going to be this way, because this is politics. This stuff is important. It is about convincing people. It is about a legacy. It is about the future. It is about money. It is about winning a majority government. It is about power.

I’m not sure I agree with Colin that there is any “shame” here.

Jack Layton’s last letter was, in whole or in part, a “political” statement. In the paragraphs preceding those memorable final sentences, the late NDP leader addressed his party members and MPs. He referenced social justice, universal health care, public pensions and “the unfairness of an economy that that excludes so many from our collective wealth.” And he made a final pitch to voters to consider the NDP as a “compelling new alternative.”  In his eulogy, Stephen Lewis called the letter a “manifesto for social democracy.” Even that last paragraph—as I reported last week—carried some “political” intent. And, for what it’s worth, the woman who went down to Nathan Phillips Square and scrawled the last paragraph in chalk on the wall considers those sentences to be the definition of a progressive. (Mr. Layton’s final public apperance was possibly even more explicitly political: “We will replace the Conservative government…”)

This should not be any kind of surprise. We should not expect—in the predictive sense, but also in the good manners sense—any politician’s final words or moments to be apolitical, let alone a politician who so fully and enthusiastically pursued his role. (We should not, for that matter, expect a politician’s funeral to be apolitical either.) If being a politician was a large part of who that person was, it would be dishonest to try to ignore that. It borders on the infantile to suggest we should leave certain things unspoken—that such things aren’t to be talked about at moments like this.

In other words, it is something like the idea that “politicization” is to be avoided at moments of great tragedy. As I wrote last month, there are certain standards of human behaviour and respect that should be considered, but we should not be settling on the idea that there is difference between “politics” and “real life.” Everything is, somehow or another, political. And politics is important to everything.

At the same time, if you took some apolitical meaning from Jack Layton’s last words, if you attach some significance to the sentiments and ideas expressed that are removed from the world of partisan debate, nothing about how those words are used for political means—maybe nothing even about what Jack Layton was thinking when he signed his name to them—should necessarily change that. Love, hope and optimism are generally good things. Believing you can change the world, if you so desire, is a good thing. And if you believe as much while also not entirely agreeing with the NDP platform, you should be able to continue believing in those ideals while also choosing to vote Conservative (or Liberal or Green or…).

The dark art of disciplined messaging is not the most edifying part of professional partisanship. But the unseen hands who craft (and frequently disgrace) the English language should not be allowed to own our words. (Nor should the worst of modern politics be allowed to ruin the very idea of politics.)

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.