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Grief, love and politics: Jack's last letter calls forth the best in us

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I don't think anyone could have fathomed the scale of the remarkable outpouring of emotion and grieving that has swept across Canada since Monday's announcement of the death of Jack Layton.

What explains this extraordinary week, in which one person's death seems to have become such a significant moment in the life of this country? 

In part, it is Jack's story and the themes it contains with which we are hardwired to connect. The love story with Olivia; the story of a political underdog exceeding all expectations; and, of course, the story of a heroic journey cut short just as the improbable victory came within sight. The astute John Doyle noted the echoes of Terry Fox -- a tale of daring and selfless virtue absorbed by Canadians from childhood -- and his tragic, premature end. 

There are other reasons Jack Layton's death hit so hard and impacted such a breadth of people. One factor was that last letter from Jack, written just two days before he died, which appeared in the inboxes and social media feeds of a country right in the midst of our grief and shock on the day he passed away. Reading Jack's last testament -- simple, yet profound and eloquent -- multiplied the impact on both our hearts and minds.

The letter made a series of very deliberate, political points, wrapped up in a personal and emotional appeal for readers to take action for a better world motivated by hope, optimism and love.

Jack's final message and the reaction to his death rankled some conservatives; unsurprisingly it was Christie Blatchford who spewed bile in the National Post, openly expressing what some others on the Right had the good sense merely to whisper amongst themselves.

Essentially, her objections were that Jack's letter contained political content and purpose; that the media and other public figures were showing respect and expressing fondness for him on the day that he died; and, most of all, that the public response was so big and overwhelming. (Andrew Coyne, the ubiquitous conservative pundit, subtly implied his own, similar critique of the letter on CBC's The National on Monday, later tweeting that he felt Blatchford made some valid points: "@acoyne I don't disagree with a lot of what Christie Blatchford wrote. I'm just not inclined to judge things quite so harshly...")

That Jack's letter was political cannot really be any surprise whatsoever. He lived politics something pretty close to 24/7. Besides, surely just about everyone has the right to the last words of their own choosing -- even jurisdictions that still practice the barbarism of capital punishment routinely offer the damned a choice over their last meal and the freedom to express a final message.

Progressive or radical political leaders, quite naturally, tend to feel the need to rally their forces one last time. After all, almost by definition the committed reformer or revolutionary leaves this life with work still left unfinished. Dying members of the wealthy elite, or political defenders of the status quo, probably feel less urgency to use their last breaths to issue manifestos. (On our side, perhaps the simplest and most famous final injunction came from labour radical Joe Hill -- "Don't mourn, organize!")

Jack's final letter was no call to the barricades, but it did feature more stirring and idealistic language than any widely read Canadian political tract in recent memory. I hope that's part of why it has resonated. That would give reactionaries like Blatchford good cause to be worried. The spread of a politics that calls forth the best in all of us, and that dares to imagine changing the world, would greatly devalue her rhetorical currency of fear and loathing. 

Blatchford's other complaint -- that people were being respectful, or even reverential, on the day of Jack's death -- is laughable. It amounts to lamenting that her fellow humans were acting human when they could have been joining her unseemly grave dance. (It's also utterly contemptible for the sheer hypocrisy, given the endless maudlin "tributes" to fallen Canadian soldiers -- and never Afghan civilians -- Blatchford has written to buttress her pro-war positions.)

Personally, whether it's a family member or a friend or just a prominent public person, I reserve the absolute right to remember and celebrate the best of someone when they pass away (exceptions made for outright moral or political monsters). You know, because life is short, we are all flawed and contradictory, never send to know for whom the bell tolls… and so forth.

That's why these past few days I've been thinking about and sharing my memories of the good political fights that Jack Layton fought and the movements for social justice to which he contributed.

I've disagreed with plenty of things said -- or, as often, not said -- and done by the NDP under Layton's leadership, including serious recent disappointments. This is not the time to dwell on and rehash these matters, though of course in the longer-term full and critical analyses of Layton's tenure as NDP leader should be made and debated.

These criticisms were not so much about an individual and his choices, but rather about a political system stacked in favour of the interests of the rich and powerful. It's a system with tools aplenty to take the edge off of sincere reformers, and in which frank talk of anti-capitalism, Canadian imperialism or genuine systemic change is almost entirely verboten.

The mainstream media acts as a limiter of possibilities in our current political set-up. Witness, for instance, the Globe and Mail editorial on Jack's death. While respectful and even laudatory, the editors take pains to praise his "moderate" approach in recent years as federal NDP leader, supposedly in contrast to his "fairly hard-left" stance while a Toronto city councillor.

Now, I've seen the amazing pictures of the messages chalked outside Toronto's City Hall. And I'm not in Toronto to check each and every one of them, but I'm guessing no one has kneeled down to scrawl in orange, "Thanks for being a political moderate."

Who says we should be moderate in sharing our love, hope and optimism? Who says we should be moderate in fighting oppression, bigotry and injustice? There would be a lot less mourning this week if Jack Layton had been moderate in advocating for AIDS victims, moderate in demanding action on homelessness, or moderate in pushing ahead for gay marriage and equal rights for all.

I dare say that much of the impact of Jack's death is a result of a public perception that he was in fact bordering on immoderate when it came to advocating for social justice, and that despite the political system he worked within he remained an authentic and sincere person.

To take just two more contemporary examples, it makes absolutely no sense to advocate moderation in curtailing the tar sands to fight climate change or in working to stop the wars being fought over control of energy and other resources.

What it will take to tackle these and other dire problems is passion, determination and political courage -- hopefully some of this can manifest within the NDP in the years ahead, but much of it will by necessity be driven by social movement activists outside the fetters of the current electoral set-up.

If we are going to tackle the crises of inequality and environmental destruction caused by global capitalism, I submit that our politics really must be a collective expression of our better selves -- solidarity, infused with heavy doses of hope, optimism and love. 

Across this land, as the tears dry up, Jack's letter and the best of his legacy should help point us to new horizons and inspire new generations of activists to step forward.

For that we can only say: thank you and farewell, Jack.

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