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When the joke’s on the woke


TAKING joy in the discomfort of others is not an attractive quality. So I shouldn’t have laughed when I read that Canadian premier Justin Trudeau is in trouble for sins against wokeness. But I’m weak-willed and he deserved it.

It’s emerged that Mr Trudeau, formerly a paragon of political correctness, has a history of ‘blacking-up’. Time magazine has published a picture of him with his face painted deep brown, part of his ‘look’ for an ‘Arabian Nights’ fancy dress party in 2001. 

It’s also been revealed that Mr Trudeau once blacked-up to impersonate the African-American singer Harry Belafonte. And at time of writing, it seems details of a third episode are coming out.

I don’t find blacking-up funny. I don’t like racism and have no nostalgic yearning from my 1970s childhood to watch shows like the Black and White Minstrels again.

Although I think blacking-up is highly unpleasant, I wouldn’t hang someone for it; but in the code of political correctness Mr Trudeau seems to subscribe to, it’s probably on a level with child murder or stealing from the blind.

He shouldn’t expect much mercy. Those who preach wokeness tend to be unforgiving. I doubt the length of time since his crass behaviour took place will count for much in his defence, though perhaps some of his previous demonstrations of orthodoxy will mitigate his guilt.

Such as his public correction of a journalist for using the term ‘mankind’ when, according to his achingly correct standards, the right word would be ‘peoplekind’.

Or his official apology to Canada’s LGBTQ community for the historic oppression they suffered, in a speech that was both oleaginous and daft. I share his dislike of oppressing anyone, but this was an Olympic standard masterpiece of virtue signalling. He told us that ‘Canada will stand tall on the international stage as we proudly advocate for equal rights for LGBTQ2 communities around the world’. (The number 2 tagged on to the end apparently represents ‘two-spirit’ people, or aboriginal Canadians who identify as being a third gender).

Mr Trudeau’s worst offence, though, was his famous ‘gender-balanced’ cabinet. The idea was that exactly fifty per cent of cabinet members would be women, a hideous failure of his responsibility to find the best available people for the rather essential work of running the country. As Jordan Peterson points out here, cabinets should be appointed on ability, not genitals.

Less seriously, he caused much unintended mirth on a visit to India by appearing everywhere dressed in what he considered appropriate Indian clothing. Many of his Indian political and business hosts met him in western suits. 

Perhaps it was simply a clumsy attempt at good manners, but it might be more reasonable to suspect that a message of some sort of anti-western piety was intended.

Now that he’s been caught out, Mr Trudeau has apologised. Though in the interviews I’ve seen, he’s careful to talk euphemistically about ‘wearing make-up’ rather than the more explosive term ‘black-face’ his critics use.

Many people (certainly me) have done deeply crass or unpleasant things in their earlier lives which they would like forgotten. With some exceptions, if people are genuinely regretful, past behaviour should not condemn them for ever. There is no reason why we can’t make the same allowances for political leaders. But although Mr Trudeau has condemned his past behaviour, it does raise the question of whether his whole public image of glowing righteousness is sincere. Or was it a clever pose to let him ride the woke zeitgeist?

Mr Trudeau has proved that virtue, including political virtue, is very fragile. Who is safe from their past behaviour or speech? You might not have blacked up, but have you never said something thoughtless something that could be taken as cruel and offensive? Something you wouldn’t care to have repeated in public? Who can claim purity by the standards of bien-pensant modern liberalism?

Of course, you might not want to. I don’t either. My dislike of racism or of bad behaviour towards those who are simply different from me is equalled by my dislike of people who exploit differences to batter down our society, who inflate grievances and set impossible backdated standards on language and behaviour. People who have built a destructive ideology that is dangerous, stupid and sometimes counter-productive in its efforts to enforce perfection and uniformity of opinion.

It’s not for me to accept or refuse Mr Trudeau’s apology; it wasn’t made to me, but I would be inclined to take it. His past behaviour was deeply unpleasant, but unless there is more to be revealed, it was a long time ago. We should move on. But I’ll still find it funny when anyone preaching purity gets out found out as less than pure.

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Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright is an ex-Labour Party man with a life long interest in politics and history.

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