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The power of many

In the wake of Jack Layton’s death, our harmful obsession with individualism and saviours can be our undoing.



In the wake of Jack Layton's death, our harmful obsession with individualism and saviours can be our undoing.

How will the NDP move on from the loss of their charismatic leader?" the pundits ask. "Who will speak for the underdog? The environment?"

I'm not worried. No more than usual.

I'm sad, mind you. I met Layton twice in Toronto when I was a real environmentalist. I was blown away when he remembered my name. He was a city councillor the first time, an MP and federal party leader the second. Years had passed and one of us had moved up in the world. I could barely remember my own name half the time and somehow he knew me. It was a sublime touch.

What's so painful about Layton's death is the Elizabethan tragedy of it. If I was looking for proof of a cruel god or universe I'd look to the timing of Layton's death. Heartbreaking. Maybe it's heartbreak that stirs these despondent questions: How will we go on?

As if Layton was not only leader of the opposition, but perhaps the leader of organized resistance itself, of every Canadian organization committed to social justice or environment. As if he was every employee, volunteer, letter-writing resident or ex-pat, social entrepreneur and designated professional working pro bono.

It's not surprising that these questions would arise from a culture suffering a deep-rooted mythology of The Power of One. It saturates our cultural artifacts and fantasies: Harry Potter, Neo, Peekay, Luke Skywalker, Superman, Jesus.


Our obsession with being saved stems from another cultural phenomenon: the way we value individualism. The "new world" was founded on the belief in the free individual as the cornerstone of a better society; this value lives in our guts.

A fascinating study by anthropologist Geert Hofstede compared the values of IBM employees, in more than 70 countries between 1967 and 1973, and found Americans and Canadians by far the most individualistic---they saw themselves more as self-contained entities than as part of a group or larger unit.

That doesn't mean we don't work together. Our version of teamwork is divvying up tasks and coalescing results, rather than working on each task collaboratively like our Chinese and Romanian counterparts.

As a result, we can cling to the belief that our achievements are our own and that some people do better in life because they are better people. Created equal? Maybe on paper. So when we lose a treasured leader our minds leap to the void and exaggerate it. Who could fill such a Great One's socks? No one.

He was Number One, and all that remain are numbers two through 103.

Leadership matters. No society, no organization can thrive without it. But to think that one man single-handedly took Quebec for the NDP ignores the source of Quebecers' discontent, the strategic Quebec-friendly platform created by the party in 2006, the brilliant work of party PR wonks and the laser-sharp French-language TV spots they created, the years of recruiting viable young Quebecois NDP candidates, and the hundreds of volunteers and campaigners getting NDP sympathizers off their butts to go "vote for change."

To say that one man was the voice of the Canadian underdog discredits the million plus employees of our nonprofits and the millions more volunteering. To imagine that one man spoke for the trees and fish and oxygen molecules--- well, can any human claim that?

One could argue that Layton galvanized the disparate causes of the left. Yet he was often a divisive force---I admired him as a first-class shit disturber. His death seems to have united us more than did his life.

No living Canadian has created or maintained unity among the left.

I am not writing this in an effort to squash hope or drown optimism. I found our collective mourning beautiful, unexpectedly moving. But we need to ditch our saviour fantasy. It's unhealthy.

Heroes, sure. But there are many of them, rather than One. And many more in the seaweed, as a wise poet sang. They do their work there, stepped on, hidden.

It dishonours Layton's memory and the egalitarianism he worked for to wonder how his void will be filled. The work will carry on, conducted by millions longing and working, from Dawson to St. John's, for a fairer, healthier, more sustainable world.

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