I never met Jack Layton, but I was not surprised at the outpouring of grief and affection when the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party died unexpectedly of cancer in August. He had gained the respect of all Canadians. Those who would have never considered voting for him and his party admired his passion and enthusiasm for the ordinary person and for party policies, as well as his courageous battle against prostate cancer – a disease he managed to beat before being felled by a different strain of the disease.
I was also unsurprised at the media commentary following his death, including some rather worshipful television coverage that made it seem that it was the death of God that was being reported, not the death of a politician. Jack Layton had the advantage, if it can be called that, of dying young. He was never in power and would never have to account for his policies, never have to deliver on his promises. In death he can become a figure of myth and legend, which is unlikely to have happened if he had lived to a ripe old age. Politicians may become elder statesmen, but they are frequently polarizing long after they have left office.
Humans seem to have an inbuilt need for heroes. We want to look up to Superman, someone faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings with a single bound. An awareness of our own fallibilities leads us to turn to someone we hope epitomizes the best our race has to offer. Unfortunately all too often those fallibilities mean that we choose to make heroes out of those who are undeserving.
True heroes are rare; perhaps more so with the constant media glare of the 21st century. We know too much about sports stars, actors and politicians to ever look upon them as heroes. But in the absence of something or someone better we make do. The nature of hero and the nature of celebrity changes as people become famous for being famous. Not for any achievements. A Paris Hilton or a Kim Kardashian provides an empty celebrity that feeds the entertainment demands of the masses, but as a hero they are a donut – a sugary exterior with a hollow middle.
Celebrities, once exalted are now just like you and me. And we can all aspire to celebrity; we can all star in a reality television show. Andy Warhol was wrong when he predicted that in the future we would all have 15 minutes of fame. Or maybe I should say he was half right. Our social media have reached the point where indeed every one of us can be famous – but our attention span is such that for most the proverbial 15 minutes will be reduced to five minutes or less as the appetite for the novel causes eyes and ears to wander to the next “in” thing.
Our heroes are not larger than life so we grow tired of them quickly, and need to invent new ones, which unfortunately are just as flawed as the ones we have discarded. We are stuck in a rut and don’t know what to do.
In death Jack Layton becomes a symbol, a sign of hope for a hurting world. “Saint Jack” will be an inspiration to members of his party (and possibly many others) in the next election. He becomes a figure more of myth and legend than reality, and perhaps that is a good thing. We all need heroes.