As is common among sheltered men of extreme privilege, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attempts to share relatable thoughts on modern life, his words tend to expose a speaker who has no actual familiarity with social trends but has clearly been briefed to their existence. The commencement speech he delivered Wednesday at New York University is a classic study of an obliviously cloistered poseur trying desperately to feign compliance with current fashions. A belabored reference to Pokémon Go was the least of it.
Trudeau — or whatever team of speechwriters and handlers who do the heavy thinking on his behalf — seems broadly aware that North America is mired in a state of intense sociopolitical polarization, and that amid all this shouting and anger, it is the role of great minds to reassert the case for virtues of free speech and intellectual diversity.
Such was the tone Trudeau’s NYU speech correspondingly struck, with tender protestations to “let yourself be vulnerable to another point of view” accompanied by rote denunciations of accompanying sins. One must not “cocoon ourselves in an ideological, social or intellectual bubble,” he implored, or “engage only with people with whom we already agree,” but instead “fight our tribal mind-set” and the dreaded “identity politics.”
To be sure, these are good sentiments. Unfortunately, there is no evidence whatsoever that Trudeau takes them seriously in the context where his opinions most matter: his performance as Canada’s ruler.
In his political capacity, a consistent hallmark of Trudeau’s partisan rhetoric has been the portrayal of absolutely all dissent toward his party, administration and agenda as frivolous and darkly motivated. His 2014 memoir was striking in how deeply incurious it seemed about conservative philosophy, defining the motives of his opponents with one-dimensional slanders about “dividing Canadians” and seeking “power for its own sake.” More recently, he declared before a crowd of partisan supporters that the agenda of the Conservative Party could be summarized in its entirety as “the politics of fear and division.”
“If anything,” he added, “they’ve been emboldened by successful campaigns elsewhere in the world to divide people against one another,” an allusion to global populism that’s hardly brimming with intellectual charity.
There’s almost nothing about Trudeau’s political career, in fact, that suggests he’s ever had even slightest interest in “discovering that someone you vehemently disagree with might have a point,” as he extolled NYU’s grads to do.
Indeed, Trudeau’s speech comes at a particularly ironic time, given he has spent much of the spring embroiled in scandal surrounding his government’s so-called values test for summer job grant applicants, a policy quite explicitly cooked up to cripple the philosophical effectiveness of Canada’s anti-abortion movement.
For years, Canadian pro-life youth groups have made use of Ottawa’s summer jobs fund to finance their activism — activism, it should be noted, that exists for no other purpose than to start conversations and change minds. Yet because Trudeau has insisted Canada’s abortion debate is closed, it was announced that there was to be no further subsidizing of such dialogue on his watch. A checkbox was added to grant forms asking if applicants agreed with “reproductive rights” — such as, as the grant overview says, “the right to access safe and legal abortions” — and if not ticked, there would be no funding.
This wide net ended up catching all manner of faith-based organizations, and rejected applications have soared in the aftermath. But it was the logical consequence of a prime minister who constantly insists there exists no conceivable motive for opposing abortion beyond “restricting women’s rights,” even citing the logic as rationale for an across-the-board ban on pro-life candidates in his party. In his NYU speech, the prime minister happily cited the “pro-choice” community as an example of a close-minded tribe without any apparent irony.
No less hypocritical was his government’s infamous Bill C-16, the legislation that helped make Jordan Peterson into a global celebrity. Though framed as merely extending legal protections to the transgender community, the effort strengthened the most regressive anti-free-speech sections of the Canadian Criminal Code that make it a crime to communicate public “statements” or create “any writing, sign or visible representation” that, in Ottawa’s eyes, “promotes hatred against any identifiable group.”
The debate over transgender accommodation and acceptance is incredibly live at the moment, featuring people of good faith arguing a variety of perspectives. It is perhaps our most pressing modern example of a situation in which “reaching out to people whose beliefs and values differ from your own” will help “find that common ground,” as Trudeau cajoled NYU students. Faced with that reality in his professional capacity, the prime minister elected to use his control of the Canadian state to help preemptively criminalize one side of the conversation.
I do not begrudge Trudeau for building a brand as the world’s “woke boyfriend,” as Anthony L. Fisher at Reason so memorably put it. Empathy and tolerance are traits that come to him naturally, and there is perhaps some use, if only as a calibration point, for a world leader who places these values at the blind forefront of his politics.
But please, please spare us the reign of Trudeau the intellectual scold. Open-mindedness would have to search pretty hard to find a less credible champion.
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