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and now the bad news...

i have to admit, the depth and breadth of the national sadness over the death of jack layton kind of caught me by surprise. in an era when the the death of a politician is generally seen as a synonym for "good riddance", it's shocking to see people, supporters and non-supporters, so inconsolable over the loss of someone most knew only through his [frequent] appearances on their television sets. obviously, there was something about layton with which people felt a connection. in a profession that is normally viewed as the antithesis of honesty and integrity, layton apparently came off as having both.

i am not particularly surprised that national post writer christie blatchford was quick to jump in and deride the sentiments expressed as mawkish and overwrought- a "public spectacle" [although she sadly doesn't explain how one can express any emotion in public without making a spectacle]- and to dismiss the letter he wrote two days before he died as "sophistry". desperate to reassure canadians that 'there's nothing to see here', her argument is that because layton, less than 48 hours from death, dared to have others close to him help him write his last missive, that this is a hallmark of insincerity and clear evidence that he was possessed to the end by an all-powerful ambition. [i have to say that his words don't give me any clue as to what exactly he was ambitious for in what he clearly knew were his final hours, but i suppose that blatchford and her ilk would deem that this makes me part of the naive masses, perpetually in need of their leadership.]

i say i'm not surprised because, as distasteful as it might seem to heap insult on a man before his body is cool and on those who openly admit that the loss means something to them, i could not foresee a circumstance in which media outlets like the national post [or the globe and mail, or any of canada's corporate-annointed media elite] could bring themselves to say anything positive about layton. after all, to them he's like the socially inferior ex who still managed to make a fool of them.

even those who have had positive things to say about layton, like interim liberal leader bob rae [who has no business leveling accusations of glibness or insincerity at anybody], are quick to point out that, from the moment he was elected leader of the ndp, layton was a camera hog. he'd stop in front of a pack of tourists if it looked like they were filming. the thing that many in the media don't want to admit is that his technique worked. yes, he would talk to anyone with a camera, but that meant that he became exceptionally good at getting time on air to communicate his message. and, yes, it did often seem like he was speaking in sound bites. which would then end up getting on the news, which lives on sound bites after all.

rather than treating the press as powerful, he treated them as a conduit, a method to get his message out- as a medium. and, as we witnessed this past spring, over time, it worked. more people heard his message and started to pay attention. while the national media insisted that his poll numbers were a bubble that would explode come election day, the results proved their most highly qualified pundits wrong and all those superior folk at the globe and the national post had to face the awful truth: jack layton had used them. he'd taken advantage of their microphones, their cameras, their broadcast and print power and used them to get people to pay attention to what he was saying. i'll bet that stung like a hive of angry bees.

so, no, it doesn't surprise me that the likes of christie blatchford are queuing to dance on his grave, but i'd like to point out that they still haven't managed to stamp out the public reaction to his death, nor erase the impression made by that infuriating letter- at once so uplifting and statesmanlike.

although i'm generally not moved to any sort of display of public emotion myself [fear of spectacle], i do have to admit that i actually felt choked up when i read jack layton's last public words:

"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."

most people wouldn't say something like that, because it seems almost hopelessly naive. in fact, when he first emerged on the national scene, some of layton's own party members did think he was hopelessly naive. which is an odd contrast to the slick, ambitious, canny political animal the media would convince us he was.

ultimately, it seems like layton was a combination of those things- someone with ideals who knew how to make things happen on the ground- and i think that part of the grief at his loss is that, secretly, that's kind of what we want our politicians to be; strong enough in their ideals that we know where they stand, but not so rigid that we're forever stuck standing still.

there will be many, many people in years to come to dissect the strengths and weaknesses of jack layton as a person and a politician, but i do hope that they will always conclude with his own conclusion: it is better to be loving than angry, it is better to be hopeful than to live in fear and it is most certainly better to be optimistic than to despair. those are things that are important to remember, never more so than when an optimistic voice is silenced and the vultures of anger and fear swoop in to write their obituaries.

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