Words and politics

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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