Monday, August 22, 2011

Soft Focus

Death has a way of sanctifying the dead.

I look at the life of Princess Diana, how the mass media followed her about, nitpicking at her weight gain (and loss), deriding her for her bulimia and other problems, peering over backyard fences and scandalizing the world with nude photos. Then she died. Suddenly, her bulimia was a tragedy - it had been a cry for help that had gone long ignored; suddenly her relationship with Dodi Fayed was a long-awaited, peaceful love, thwarted by tragedy, and maybe even conspiracy. The world remembered that, behind that laughable effigy the media had made of her, there was a trailblazing princess who was unafraid of shaking the hands of lepers and AIDS victims. She was the princess in the flak jacket, walking in a mine field.

When she died, the paparazzi was blamed. After all, she'd been on the run from them all her public life - even at the point of her own death.

But the paparazzi lives on today, bigger and better than ever.

I look at Michael Jackson. If ever there was a walking punchline, it was Michael Jackson. Scandals galore. Myriad jokes of a man who changed from Black man to White Something-Or-Other. Reports of plastic surgery and heart failure. Photos madman holding a child out over the balcony of his hotel suite. Sham marriages. Impulse buying, bankruptcy. Insinuations of pedophilia.

Then he died, and everybody remembered a time when they liked him. His music was the stuff of legends. He even tried to Heal the World. His skin blanching was given a medical term (vitiligo); his frequent plastic surgery was diagnosed (body dysmorphic disorder); abuse and loneliness were the root cause of so many of his other troubles. His problems had names now, and he moved from "weird" to "victim".

Again, fame was to blame.

The examples go on.

Anna Nicole Smith. Gold digger, addict, centerfold, butt of many jokes. Victim of post-mortem compassion. Forget the scandals; she was a mother and inside seven months, she had given birth, lost a 20-year old son, and died after an acute illness.

"She was trying her hardest," (lawyer Ronald) Rale said in a packed news conference at his law office in Los Angeles. "I grieve for Anna Nicole that she had to endure what she had to endure..." Abby Goodnough, The New York Times.

Amy Winehouse. Addict, subject of much ridicule. Beloved after the fact.

"Her rich, soulful and unique voice reflected her honest songwriting and earned her a devoted fan following, critical acclaim, and the genuine respect and admiration of her musical peers," said its president Neil Portnow. Mike Collett-White and Tim Castle, Reuters.

It could be a case of
De mortuis nihil nisi bonum ("nothing but good concerning the dead", or "speak well of the dead"), but it still bothers me. If people were this good in life, why didn't we extol their virtues when they were still alive?

In life, we scrutinize, accuse, berate and gossip about our political figures; but in death, we extol virtues we'd forgotten (or never knew) they had.

Wouldn't it be more helpful if we encouraged our politicians to be good, instead of beating them about the head when they've done something dumb?

After the passing of Jack Layton, I see us doing it again.

There is a letter going about; it's Jack Layton's final legacy to Canada, politically and socially. But read the way the media is speaking of him.

In the interest of time and space, I've only quoted from the Globe and Mail, but search any online media outlet, and you'll see the same general sentiment and memories.

Jane Taber from the Globe and Mail calls him a "consummate politician to the very end," who "always practiced civility in politics". Similarly, a Globe and Mail editorial beatifies his memory:

"Jack Layton was a politician in the best sense, but that was not the only reason there was palpable sadness all across this country when he died on Monday. Why did he touch Canadians so deeply? Because the spirit that animated him throughout his three decades in politics was suddenly manifest, humbly, without egotism, yet in a way that was clear to all, as he fought cancer and a fractured hip while leading his political party to the most stunning success in its history."

Don't get me wrong. I especially like this editorial. I like the example Layton gave us, and I do wish more politicians were like him. At sixteen, he advocated a youth centre in Hudson, a suburb of Montreal - which makes my respect for him a little more personal. He was a champion of the environment and the poor. And he unseated the Bloc Quebecois, for goodness sake.

And call me a socialist if you want, but I believe in doing more than leaving a legacy for your own children; I believe in leaving a legacy for everybody's children. Jack Layton believed the same.

But the point I'm trying to make is this: we shouldn't be saving up our sympathy and respect for when somebody's dead.

You know, if you cut out the scandals and the back-biting, I'd be interested in politics. If politicians focused on achieving the aims of their constituents, I would be interested in politicians.

But I confess and regret: I learned more about Jack Layton tonight than I'd ever known before. Like many, I'd got caught up in the sham and dazzle that is election season, and even though I paid far more attention to party platforms than in years past, I glossed over Layton's personal history and political style. I really wish I had paid more attention to him when he was alive.

His passing makes me want to believe in someone again.

So, two quick questions for you - and be honest.

Question 1) What do you think the media will say about Harper when he dies? Will it depend on the political ties of any given media outlet? Or will his obituary be shot in soft focus?

Question 2) How many of you had completely forgotten about Anna Nicole Smith before I mentioned her?

My fear is not that the NDP will crumble without Jack Layton, or that politics will run amok without him acting as foil against Harper's Conservatives.

My fear is that our fickle memories will fade too soon. Though now, in the wake of his passing, we solemnly avow that we must emulate this optimistic and energetic politician, I'm afraid we'll forget him all too soon, and that we will do nothing when politics do run amok.

If we are going to make good on our promise of making something of Jack Layton's memory, we need to remember that politics happen more often than when an election is called, and that change happens outside of Parliament.

UPDATE: for a great and funny tribute, watch this hommage - a funny bit, for a politician with a sense of humour and a ready smile.


  1. And here's the sad answer to your first question, what will the media say when Harper dies? I don't know. Because I know so little about the man who's bungling, sorry, running our country. But my guess is, all those that lash out at him now will become his greatest supporters at his death, singing his praises.

    As for Anna Nicole, no I hadn't completely forgotten her.

    I wish I could forget Michael Jackson. It's funny, I posted something derogatory (but not nasty or mean) about him on a website a few months back (this is a website that regularly sees artists vilified and the f-bomb dropped with casual regularity) and you know what happened? They deleted my comment.

    Five years ago, people would have joined in.

    What makes me made is how his death completely overshadowed Farrah Fawcett's death the same day.

    Finally, I like the sentiment of this blog. Don't sing someone's praises after they're gone. Tell them while they're still here.

    I hope I do that with you, Pat. And with everyone else I admire, respect and love.

  2. You absolutely do, Tobin, and I've never seen you do *anything* insincerely. More importantly, I see and hear you praise others, at work, in writing, and in your family (with the obvious exception of a few, who don't even deserve the back of your hand across the face). I feel it's my job to inspire others to do likewise. :)

    And funny enough, I'd forgotten about Farrah Fawcett until you mentioned her just now.

  3. And then there are bile-infested people like this:

    I'm not sure which one disgusts me more: that she cannot see anything positive about the spontaneous outpouring of affection and sympathy from ordinary Canadians over Jack's passing (not to mention the "evident regard" from Harper and others, jaded politicians all) or her laser-like focus against the CBC (and Evan Solomon in particular).

    As I've said elsewhere, I didn't agree with the man's politics, but I admired his everyman (and everywoman) appeal, and the unmistakable sincerity and vigour that seemed to emanate from him. Not unlike a younger Obama campaigning for the US presidency, not so long ago....