Sunday, August 28, 2011

We have, and need, more Jacks

As we begin to move forward now with Jack Layton's celebration of life behind us, and as we consider what his lasting legacy will be, I think it would be a disservice to his memory to gloss over his imperfections (he's a human being, we're all imperfect) and to pretend his example was a unique one. It was all too rare, but it's not unique, and if we're to honour his example we should recognize that.

As I wrote earlier, Jack was someone who entered politics for the right reasons. He wasn't immune to playing the political games, exploiting the wedge issues, and running the negative ads. That's a part of modern politics, as disquieting as that may be. And everyone faces an internal battle between their demons and their better angels. But in his journey through political life he tried to keep principle and pragmatism as his guide-posts, and be willing to work with anyone with whom he could forge common ground.

And in that, Jack was not unique. There are people like Jack in every party, and in every part of the country. To be sure, there are those that get into politics for the wrong reasons: the pursuit of power, or ego. And there are those that will use the ends to justify any means. These are the people that give politicians a bad name, and cause them to rank down with lawyers and journalists when it comes to public trust and respect. And they're also in all parties.

But there are also those that see public service as a higher calling, a noble sacrifice. They're willing to make the sacrifices inherent in public life – long hours, time away from family, lost earning potential, public scrutiny – because they believe public service is the obligation of a citizen and they want to see this country improved. They're in every party and, while they may disagree on the finer points of how to get there, they share the same noble motivations and the same end goals.

Given the low esteem we hold politicians in the country, the public outpouring of emotion we've seen this week has been impressive. Much of it has to do with Jack's positive and dynamic force of personality, but I think it's larger than that. I think it's the people embracing the idea that Jack has come to represent, in spirit if not always perfectly in practice: a different, more positive, cooperative type of politics. It's the citizenry sending a message that there is a better way.

I think the way forward is multifold. Politicians of all stripes should heed this message, and reconsider their ways. But I think the bigger challenge is for our citizens, and it's two-fold. First, recognize that there are more Jacks out there, and in every party. Seek them out and support them as they try to work in a system designed to stifle them; too many good people give up on public life, but we need them too much. Help them persevere. Second, be the change you want to see. Get involved, up to and including running yourself, in promoting the ideal of public service you would like to see.

It's easy to lament the state of modern political discourse, but it's also a cop-out. We get the kind of politics we demand; if we don't demand change ... if we don't make change, we'll never get it.

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