Hijacked: The Posthumous Reinscription of a Socialist in Canadian Consciousness, an Essay on Slavoj Zizek, Martin Luther King and Jack Layton
The ascendant, cheerful, dapper Canadian leftist politician Jack Layton died at 61 Monday morning. He died just months after taking his party, the New Democratic Party of Canada, to amazing heights in the last federal election. The New Democrats—always the bridesmaid, never the bride—thrashed the separatist Parti Quebecois in Quebec, left the once powerful Liberal Party a rump in the rest of the country, and earned the right to form what we call the Official Opposition to Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. Now he is being eulogized (mostly) in the press, a state funeral is in order, and, in many ways, his memory is already being co-opted by people who once dismissed him, derided him or even hated him.
Here’s a link to a smart little essay by Noah Gataveckas (published in the online magazine The Mass Ornament) that seeks to insert some logic and realism into the tangle of emotion and pop journalistic burbling and political re-remembering that is, yes, not just a characteristic of Canadian politics.
It is important to remember the past, compare today to yesterday, if one wishes to gain an understanding into any (historical-material) situation. This holds true for the Canadian political landscape.
Various newspapers and ideologues are now posthumously celebrating noble Jack Layton as a hero of humanity, who “More than anything else, stood for Canada”. Yesterday, these same papers otherwise portrayed him as a socialist traitor who had “an almost pathological hostility to the corporate sector [that] would quickly turn Canada into a North American Zimbabwe”. Or: a “champion of elite privilege”. Or: a “Shameless Socialist Opportunist”.
Now that his legacy is up for grabs, Layton is being spun into some kind of watered-down New Liberal. While in the past he was portrayed as the Leftist Enemy (under the spooky banner of ‘socialism’), now he is being sold as a ‘good guy’ with “always a twinkle in his eyes”. The message here is: forget about who he was, what he did, and his politics, celebrate the mere ‘person’ of Jack once he has been abstracted from all the (real, living) political content that made him who he actually was (i.e. what he fought for, what “he gave his life for”). In other words, we are encouraged to celebrate a fiction of Jack Layton instead of his truth.
I have found public reaction in the days since Jack Layton’s death strange and puzzling. Yes, it’s possible and probably correct to attribute some of it to a certain kind of media sentimentality, but the hundreds of messages written in chalk in Nathan Phillips Square seem like something else, though I’m not sure what that is. Part of the reaction is surely a response to the dramatic workings of fate – the astonishing replacement of the Bloc Québecois by the NDP in Quebec, the Liberal Party catastrophe, the achievement of the status of Official Oppposition, then the sudden onset of a lethal cancer. Who would dare to invent such a plot? Who could be unmoved by it?
But it strikes me that the greatest beneficiary of the events is likely to be Stephen Harper, and his gift of a state funeral with all the trappings, alongside his profession of affection for Layton, will play well for him in the months and years of confusion that lie ahead. None of this is surprising. Observers of the last few years in Canadian politics must have been aware that Jack Layton in the last two elections ran primarily not against harper, but against the Liberal party, those generally closest to him in ideology. He was a nice guy, everyone says. Maybe. But one of the most shocking things I`ve ever seen on television was the moment near the end of the leaders’ debate when Layton put a knife into Michael Ignatieff on the issue of regular attendance in the House of Commons. It was probably legitimate enough, but it was very painful to watch, a savage welterweight taking down a clumsy light-heavyweight.
Odd that the people interviewed on the streets see Layton as an appealing figure, ‘un bon Jack’, not like other politicians, though he spent a lifetime in politics, most of it on the Toronto city council. His left credentials were unquestioned, but he surely wasn`t at the socialist edge of his party. Probably he was a decent man, but was he more so than, say, David Lewis?
It’s very strange, all of it. Perhaps in part people are moved, however they explain it, by the fact that we are (willy-nilly) observing the most dramatic moment in Canadian politics since Pierre Trudeau was elected to parliament.
It’s difficult enough to assess the life of a person you know let alone one you know only through journalistic “narratives.” I feel my self getting caught up (snagged as in walking through a briar patch—recent experience) by catch phrases and story lines: un bon Jack, the jaunty fighter with a cane. Some of the themes that snag me are negative: the life-long politician, the smiling photo-op guy, the political in-fighter you mention in regard to the debate (although I imagine every good politician keeps a knife handy and knows where to put it). The last few months, after his cancer diagnosis, seemed to lend his life a new substance, as did the surprise Orange electoral wave in Quebec. You mention David Lewis, but also Ed Broadbent was a stirling NDP politician. Tommy Douglas. History has a firmer handle on those men than it does on Layton. But even history doesn’t have a steady hand. Some of the strangeness you and I feel about this come from the almost ritualistic shrilling of essences we didn’t see a month ago or a year ago. It makes you scratch your head. Me anyway. There is also something a little Housman-ish about these last months.
THE time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
And now, yes, he is lying in state in his town, carried there in a flag-draped coffin. But though I once admired that poem, it makes me scratch my head, too, nowadays.
Bizarre, but within the last few days I found myself reciting in my head the line “Townsman of a stiller town” as i walked about, though I’m not sure it was Layton’s death that prompted it. I suppose it must have been.
I’d guess that even those who knew Layton are scratching their heads.