People in the United States might feel a smidge of schadenfreude at our neighbor’s struggle with a transgression alarmingly common among politicians here at home — if only our own schaden weren’t so tremendous. Still, there’s something about the Trudeau story that makes it especially hard to ignore, and his explanation for his behavior gets right at it.
“I came from a place of privilege . . . but now I have to acknowledge that that comes with a massive blind spot,” Trudeau told reporters in the latest of his multiple apologies for his multiple mistakes. “The fact of the matter is I’ve always — and you’ll know this — been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate,” he told reporters in the first instance.
Trudeau’s critics, of course, have been saying he loves costumes for a long time now. He masks the shallowness of his commitment to the First Nations people with a tattoo based on a Haida design on his sculpted left triceps; he camouflages a retreat from welcoming refugees with a constant flow of lovely language condemning President Trump’s xenophobia.
Yet the trouble with Trudeau’s comment comes not only from casting modern-day minstrelsy as just another “costume,” or even in the coy familiarity Trudeau assumes his audience has with his proclivity for dress-up. No, the trouble comes from the concept that enthusiasm is an excuse — as if Trudeau were a small child who simply could not help himself from dressing up in Jamaican garb and singing the banana boat song, or dressing up as a turbaned character from “Aladdin” for an Arabian Nights party, or dressing up as whatever on earth he’s supposed to look like in the most recently released dark makeup video, because, gosh, it was just so fun!
Trudeau speaks with the bashfulness of a man who expects sympathy from a country that adores him as a father does his little boy. That’s fitting for the scion of a Quebecois dynasty and son of former prime minister, the late Joseph Philippe Pierre Yves Elliott Trudeau. He didn’t do better because he didn’t “know better,” and he didn’t know better because no one ever taught him.
Justin Trudeau sounds a bit like the adult version of the notorious affluenza teen who drunkenly drove a Ford F-350 into more than 14 people and killed four, then had a psychologist testify that his permissive upbringing in a world of wealth had left him ignorant of the ramifications of his actions. You see, your Honor, he was never told “no.”
That Trudeau is a relatively liberal politician living in a relatively liberal country — one that markets itself as a haven of multiculturalism and tolerance and, in many ways, actually is — likely amplified the problem. He never learned a lesson because he was always getting gold stars for doing relatively liberal things.
It’s obvious what’s wrong with treating the thing that caused insensitive behavior as a reason you expect forgiveness for that same insensitive behavior. Ignorance won’t go away if it justifies itself. There’s a catch, though: Trudeau isn’t wrong.
Trudeau says he “didn’t understand how hurtful this is to people who live with discrimination every single day,” because he doesn’t live with discrimination every day. It’s a cop-out on one level, but on another his words underscore a precept of responsible identity politicking: Check your privilege, the exhortation-turned-cliché goes. It means acknowledge your advantages — both how they’ve helped you, and how they limit you when it comes to comprehending others’ less-charmed lives.
The line between checking privilege as a responsible exercise and checking privilege as an irresponsible excuse might depend in part on what exactly “check” means. Does it mean just taking a look at to make sure the privilege is there, and then declaring it as if you were passing through customs? You’ve admitted you have it, so now you’re off the hook? Or does it mean checking it like you check a coat? You leave it behind, and you leave yourself exposed to all those consequences the privilege has so far permitted you to avoid?
What Trudeau teaches us is that there’s a difference between insisting that you didn’t see something and insisting that you couldn’t see something — between blaming your fortunate circumstances for your failure and blaming yourself, then accepting whatever comes your way because you failed.
“I didn’t consider it racist at the time,” Trudeau said, “but now we know better.” There’s the essential question: Do we really?