Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
What use are words penned in moments of shocked grief? What insight can be found here that eludes us at other times? What useful honesty can I access when both my head and my heart are struggling to connect my friend, Jo Cox, with the story of this young mother and MP who has been brutally and violently murdered, and finding the two utterly incompatible?
I’m chained to the news. There’s a lot that’s on repeat, now. All the facts that we can know so soon have been known for a couple of hours. Nothing new seems imminent. And so the same pictures are being shown on a loop, the presenters are repeating the same basic story. The gallery of people offering tributes and praise is still changing, though, because Jo was an MP, a public figure, and a roundly popular one at that. The Prime Minster has spoken, as has the leader of the Jo’s own Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, as well as countless of her fellow MPS, and politicians from across Europe.
And although I know it is de rigueur to praise the dead, I know, because I knew Jo, that this is not all show and opportunism. She just was, genuinely, one of those people who made her connections on a deeply human, honest level and who related to you as a person first, a political friend or foe long after that. No wonder, then, that people form across the political spectrum are lining up to honour her basic humanity; she probably honoured theirs first.
I can’t claim to speak for Jo, or even to describe her life or politics in fine detail. Although we had times of closeness – when we worked together, at her wedding, when we climbed wet, cold Scottish Munroe’s – we had not been very close in recent years. I moved jobs and countries, she became a mother for the second time, then an MP. Busy lives all round.
What I do know about Jo is really very simple. She was driven by a clean and unambiguous desire to make life better for those battered and beaten and punished by this world. It sounds glib, almost too saccharine for a real person, but I can assure you it’s true. She was a humanitarian, through and through. To her bones. It wasn’t complicated and it didn’t waiver. The Jo I first met working for Oxfam twelve years ago is exactly and entirely consistent with the Jo who went on to lead a global campaign on maternal health, who used her maiden speech in the House of Commons to call for humane treatment of Syrian refugees, and who has been a powerful voice for a humane and compassionate approach to immigration in the year since. In the chaotic and swirling morass of politics, Jo’s values stood firm and unchanging. Simple, predictable, undeniable.
And maybe that’s what Jo’s death can remind us. Can remind me. The final simplicity of our lives. The final simplicity of the hopes that undergird our passions. The final simplicity of love; it’s brilliance all the more striking against the black, chaotic rage that seems to have killed her.
Jo is one of the few people I’ve known in my 44 years of life for whom I can say with absolutely confidence that the appropriate complement to her life would be if her death triggered a surge of support for the politics of empathy, compassion, understanding. For a politics where our common humanity was where we first met each other, and then worked out what to do about our differences.
These are such troubled times. The politics of hate seems to be in the ascendant everywhere. In the UK, the EU referendum has brought out some of the most divisive and ugly campaigning I’ve ever known. In the US, well, I hardly need finish the sentence. It is so easy to feel entrenched, embattled, at war. To have enemies. To descend into a politics that would seem to meet the terrible hate that confronts us with angry passions of our own. But right now, as I sit watching pictures of my murdered friend scrolling across the TV screen; and a part of my heart wants to give up trying, the better part of me, the part that can still be inspired, knows that the only sane response is to reject the hate I can so easily and often feel for those who are scaring me, and instead reach for the love, the hope, the compassion that defined the life of Jo Cox.
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Martin Kirk is Head of Strategy for /The Rules, a global network of activists, organizers, designers, researchers and writers dedicated to changing the rules that create inequality and poverty around the world.
Labour Party MP Jo Cox, who was shot and killed by a lone gunman on Thursday, pictured in her constituency in Yorkshire, England. (Photo: Yorkshire Post/SWNS)