Hope, wrote the great international relations scholar Martin Wight, is not a political virtue. Wight's realism has been wrongly read a great deal over the years, as though by this he meant politics has no hope, or that politics is a place with no ethics or power other than the tired adage "might makes right." But this wasn't what Martin Wight meant. He meant that politics, for all its powers and responsibilities, cannot ultimately yield that one thing without which life upon earth is intolerable and incomprehensible: the salvation of human kind. Politics is too small and modest a craft to absorb the hope eternal of human kind. The New Jerusalem cannot be built by only human hands.
The outpouring of sentiment at the death of Jack Layton has reminded me afresh of the pregnancy of words like hope, and love. Consider his now rightly-famous last 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.
Yesterday we debated as a staff whether these words are not simply tautological. I don't believe this is tautology. These are words of pastoral admonition. It is religion, and religion can seem much like tautology because it repeats complex truths that cannot be logically or positively demonstrated. It seems trite. The Greeks called it foolishness. Yet these last words of Jack Layton were not foolishness. Each word is pregnant with meaning: love, hope, and optimism. Sentimental New Democrats may well rally around these terms and fill them with their secular meaning to mark public campaigns in memory of Jack Layton. They should and they will. The meaning and work of hope and love is, maybe, the most important debate in history. Layton's memory will be part of that debate in Canada now. Canada will be better for it.
In politics, words like hope and love are never out of place. We should never regret their use, even if twisted in a way we no longer recognize them, because they point toward the thing itself. They are shadows that alert us there is light. They are greater virtues than policy wonks and Prime Ministers can legislate into being. And Jack Layton was right that we need to say out loud, more often, words like those. We have had enough realism, enough fear and anger. Love is better than anger and hope is better than fear.
But what love? Hope in whom or in what? Jack Layton's last words are etched in chalk on sidewalks all over Toronto, and all of them beg, plead, with him—with someone—to answer our painful lament. Put another way some time ago, "Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw."
In the National Post, Father Raymond deSouza contrasts the looters of the London riots with the pilgrims of Madrid's World Youth Day. Doesn't the latters' pilgrimage suggest that the tautology implicit in words like hope and love is not the words themselves, but the well we draw them from? These young people remind me that it's not about me, maybe not even about us, our politics, or our culture.
Maybe, like David Brooks wrote recently in the New York Times, and like another man said long before him, in order to save my life, I must lose it. In order to live, I must believe. Hope, said Martin Wight, is not a political virtue.