Hijacked: The Posthumous Reinscription of a Socialist in Canadian Consciousness
Photo by: Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Media pundits are already scrambling to de-politicize Jack Layton’s life and legacy.
by Noah Gataveckas
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.
This depends on the ideology of liberal humanism—i.e. ‘we’re all human at the end of the day’, ‘we can all relate’, ‘an enemy is just a friend you don’t understand’, etc. It hinges on the distinction between a person’s ‘politics’ and ‘personality’. Consider the following argument: “Sure, I may not agree with his politics, but you have to recognize the man’s genuine belief and unswaying determination to do good for others using a method many adamantly disagree with. I applaud the man, not his politics.” The problem with this argument is that it would work for Hitler (“Sure, I may not agree with the tenets of national socialism, but you have to recognize Hitler’s genuine belief and unswaying determination to do good for others using a method many adamantly disagree with. I applaud the man, not his politics”). This displays the ethical bankruptcy of such a stance. Instead, we should suggest that the politics make the man (that is to say, his deeds, and not his mere words, are his effective truth), as opposed to the retroactive attempts to ‘humanize’ or ‘personalize’ him apart from how he acts over the course of his life.
Here we are following Slavoj Zizek when he writes:
Our most elementary experience of subjectivity is that of “the richness of my inner life”: this is what I “really am,” in contrast to the symbolic determinations and mandates I assume in public life (father, professor, philosopher). The first lesson of psychoanalysis here is that this “richness of our inner life” is fundamentally a fake: a false distance, whose function is, as it were, to save my appearance, to render palpable (accessible to my imaginary narcissism) my true social-symbolic identity. One of the ways to practice the critique of ideology is therefore to invent strategies to unmask this hypocrisy of “inner life” and its “sincere” emotions… (In Defense of Lost Causes, p. 12)
The only important thing to add here is that Layton does not manifest this “false distance” himself (unless, like Blatchford, you count his final letter as “vainglorious” and “full of such sophistry as… ‘love is better than anger’”), but has it thrust upon him by his former detractors. This way, his appearance on the Canadian political scene as a (left-of-liberal) Leftist can be “rendered palpable” for the (imaginary) narcissistic satisfaction of the bourgeois classes, for whom ‘socialism’ is a dirty word and the belief prevails that no one is un(der)represented in our society; that all is well under the conditions of global free-market capitalism. But if the stakes were as high (capitalism vs. socialism; freedom vs. ‘big government’; life vs. death) as Harper and his media cheerleaders would have us believe, then shouldn’t they/we be dancing on his grave, as Allies danced over Hitler’s bunker or dissidents danced at the death of Stalin? This flip-flop betrays the inconsistency of the hegemonic ideological position in a capitalist society, which is all too eager to reappropriate historical figures into the ‘canon of cultural heroes’, under the condition that they are (mis)represented to support the current political order or, at least, pacified so that they no longer constitute a threat.
Consider what happened to Martin Luther King Jr. Once he was assassinated, this increasingly radical Leftist was spun into an apolitical saint of ‘moral’ virtue, so that the very people who opposed desegregation and did not support the emancipatory Cause could claim him as one of their own. He became just another icon in our cultural fabric, in the same way that Gandhi was used to sell computers and Che Guevera to sell soft drinks.
Above: Che Cola, photo from flickr by -ko-ko-
But while “Most whites want King to be a warm civic memory, an example of the triumph of good over evil,” this flies in the face of what he died fighting for: “The economic movement was why he was killed, frankly” says Martin Luther King III, referring to his father’s campaign to “force major economic reforms—starting with guaranteed incomes for all.” In the same way that King has been stripped of his socialist leanings, Layton is liable to be recast in the same apolitical mould.
All the gushing praise that is currently being given of Jack from Conservatives, Liberals, and apolitical observers threatens to obscure us from the real Jack: the fact that he was neither a Liberal or Conservative, nor an apathetic. He was a Socialist. We must preserve this distinction (between his politics vs. those of the Liberals and Conservatives) if we truly wish to honour Layton’s legacy. In other words, if you really want to heed Layton’s last wishes, and live up to his call for “greater equality, justice, and opportunity,” then you will recognize that this entails more than wearing a prop moustache. It entails confronting the politics of the Left, of socialism, in Canada and abroad, and living up to “our proud history of social justice, universal health care, public pensions and making sure no one is left behind.”
Without this vital reality to supplement the spectacle of pathos that is congealing in the popular Canadian consciousness around Layton’s premature passing, all the ado—including the upcoming state funeral—is meaningless, even an affront to a man who, as Chris Selley of the National Post is even forced to admit, “could no more set aside politics than a farmer could set aside his crops.” This being so, we honour the memory of Layton by insisting on his politics at a time when his legacy is in danger of being depoliticized. Anything less would be an affront and disrespect to the recently departed.
Originally posted on Civilized Discontent