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The limits of lettersThe limits of letters

The limits of letters

Not everyone was impressed. A few, including National Post columnist Christie Blatchford, spoke cynically about Mr. Layton's death being turned into "a spectacle." The letter, she said, was "vainglorious" and full of "sophistry." Ms. Blatchford asked: "Who thinks to leave a 1,000-word missive meant for public consumption and released by his family and the party mid-day, happily just as Mr. Solomon and his fellows were in danger of running out of pap? Who seriously writes of himself, 'All my life I have worked to make things better'?"

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Topics: Leadership, Death, Legacy
The limits of letters August 24, 2011  |  By Ray Pennings
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A few hours after his passing, Jack Layton's "letter to Canadians" was released. Many were inspired by the vision it contained. "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." Excerpts were chalked onto the streets and quoted with mantra-like respect.

Not everyone was impressed. A few, including National Post columnist Christie Blatchford, spoke cynically about Mr. Layton's death being turned into "a spectacle." The letter, she said, was "vainglorious" and full of "sophistry." Ms. Blatchford asked: "Who thinks to leave a 1,000-word missive meant for public consumption and released by his family and the party mid-day, happily just as Mr. Solomon and his fellows were in danger of running out of pap? Who seriously writes of himself, 'All my life I have worked to make things better'?"

I am prepared to cut Mr. Layton a bit more slack than does Ms. Blatchford. I wrote my original reflections on Mr. Layton's death while on an airplane, unaware of the existence of this letter. After reading the letter and having followed two days of adulatory media coverage, my respect for Mr. Layton was not diminished, although some of the over-the-top coverage tempts me to Christie-like disdain. I do want to apply the same logic to the N.D.P. as Mr. Layton did to the Conservatives after the last election: on May 2nd, 67.5% of Canadians voted against Jack Layton and his party's policies.

Still, I don't critique Mr. Layton's decision to leave a letter trying to shape his legacy. He understood the N.D.P. gains on May 2nd are precarious and that his departure from the political scene will impact the extent to which they can be sustained. If one of the tasks of leadership is to prepare a viable succession for the ideas and direction you hold dear, writing a letter as Jack Layton did is an entirely rational act. Why not utilize the occasion of your death to advance the things you believe in? Such an act is not selfish, but rather recognizes that the causes you stood for in life are bigger than you are and will continue without you.

I did not share Mr. Layton's politics, and much of what he stood for was in my opinion harmful rather than helpful to the national interest. But politics follows culture. In life, Jack advocated his positions with skill and conviction. By writing his letter on the occasion of his death, he hoped to leverage his influence.

Sorry, Ms. Blatchford: although I applaud your courage in speaking your mind, regardless of how impolite some think it to be, I will defend Jack's letter as a suitable act of leadership in noble pursuit of his cause.

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