The Woke Will Always Break Your Heart

Justin Trudeau
RYAN REMIORZ / THE CANADIAN PRESS VIA AP
Updated at 8:30 p.m. ET on October 6, 2019.

The 2019 election is a test for Canadian progressives: style or substance. The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau is the most successful progressive government in the world. It

  • instituted a carbon tax and
  • legalized marijuana. Last year, for the first time, Canada
  • settled more refugees than any other country.
  • Because of higher government benefits, child poverty is at its lowest level in history.
  • Economic growth this year reached 3 percent.

That is what Trudeau has done. He also appeared in brownface at an Aladdin-themed costume party in 2001 at the age of 29.

Canadian progressives, like progressives all over the world, must decide whether they care more about the pursuit of social and cultural change, through the eradication of racist and sexist imagery, or the pursuit of transformative policies. In 2015, Trudeau promised both. He was the shining ideal of maximum wokeness, imposing a gender-equal cabinet and offering as the explanation, “Because it’s 2015.” Well, it’s 2019 now.

How racist Trudeau’s appearance in brownface was, and therefore how forgivable, is subject to debate. People of color in Canada—by no means a contiguous body or voting bloc—have differences of opinion about the gravity of Trudeau’s browning up. Sunny Khurana, a Sikh man who appears in one of Trudeau’s photos from the “Arabian Nights” theme party at West Point Grey Academy, did not find his appearance there racist in the slightest. “He wasn’t trying to demean anybody who was a person of color, and from what I can recall from that function, it never came across as that, not at all,” he said recently. “I mean, I didn’t even think twice of it. It was a good party. We had fun.”

Others read the costume as symptomatic of Canada’s racist history generally, and in particular its history with minstrel shows, which is more extensive than you might think. (The composer of Canada’s national anthem performed in blackface.) Others, such as the society gossip columnist Shinan Govani, have acknowledged personal conflicts: “It is the season of moral gymnastics, here in Canada,” he wrote in theDaily Beast.

Needless to say, dispassionate debate about the significance of Trudeau’s costume—parsing his intentions and the context—is not possible, given that we’re in the middle of an election. The picture went viral; that’s what counts. Liberal Party candidates have been struggling. “It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now,” Harjit Sajjan, the defense minister, told the CBC. “But I’m also here to talk about the person I know, in terms of how much he is standing up for people.”

Whatever Canadians may think about the photograph itself, it closes off a major line of attack for Trudeau. Live by the sword of political correctness, die by the sword of political correctness. You can’t argue that your opponents are a bunch of embarrassing antiquities living in the political past—by, say, replaying the Conservative leader’s 2005 speech opposing gay marriage, which the Liberals were doing right up until this story broke—when the internet is rife with your face in brown makeup.

The Trudeau scandal points to a larger problem: The woke will always break your heart. It’s not just that nobody’s perfect, and it’s not just that times change, and it’s not even that the instinct to punish that defines so much of the left is inherently self-defeating. If people want to sell you morality, of any kind, they always have something to hide.

The main criticism from Trudeau’s opponents on the right has usually been that he’s a spoiled brat—a son of privilege—not up to running the country. A faker. The brownface debacle has now become, on the left, a symbol of his lack of real commitment to progressive values. But the cross-party consensus that Trudeau is slight and phony doesn’t survive even a cursory examination of his record. An independent assessment by two dozen Canadian academics found that Trudeau has kept 92 percent of his campaign promises, fully or partially, the most by any Canadian government in 35 years. He is measurably, demonstrably the most sincere and effective prime minister in living memory. He is the rare case of a man whose virtue-signaling has distracted from his real virtues.

Only the left struggles with these standards of style. Right-wing political opponents in Canada and elsewhere have a completely different understanding of acceptable behavior. In the United States, President Donald Trump’s supporters take his brand of nastiness, his aggressive rejection of even the most basic social norms, as a sign of authenticity. Meanwhile, Senator Elizabeth Warren is still apologizing for her Cherokee-ancestry claim.

This imbalance matters, because the left’s aesthetic vulnerability comes at a moment of real threat for progressives. Multiculturalism as a project is dying globally, and not because of a sudden outbreak of brownface performances. The “Howdy Modi” event in Houston revealed how the world is turning: populism, xenophobia, the bragging stupidity of ethnic pride. During the last election, Trudeau’s main opponent, the Conservatives, promised “barbaric cultural practices” hotlines and “Canadian values tests” alongside a two-tiered citizenship system under which dual citizens and immigrants could have their citizenship revoked while natural-born Canadians could not. If voters who believe in multiculturalism cannot forgive face paint, the multicultural project as policy may not survive.

In this context, it’s unclear whether the extreme blandness of Trudeau’s main opponent, Andrew Scheer, helps or hurts the prime minister’s chances for reelection. Scheer does not bother with costumes. He’s not photogenic enough. He, too, is embroiled in a scandal, however—about whether he was properly accredited to claim he worked as an insurance broker for a few months. This may be not just the most boring scandal in this election, and or in Canadian history, but the most boring scandal imaginable. I cannot imagine a duller one. Nobody thinks about Scheer much. But perhaps Canadians want a prime minister they don’t have to think about much.

“The fact of the matter is that I’ve always—and you’ll know this—been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate,” Trudeau acknowledged in the first of a seemingly endless series of apologies. Progressives loved Trudeau’s best costume: Captain Woke. We’ll find out in October whether they were with him for his policies or his poses. They can’t have both. But they can have neither.

Acceptable Bigotries

But the glib and fashionable double standard against traditionalists and orthodox Christians isn’t what I have in mind. It’s the far more widespread and fashionable bigotry against the past.

If a visitor from Sudan comes to your house for dinner, it’s simply good manners to make allowances for the cultural differences. If you go to a foreign country, it’s understood by most decent people that you should be making the lion’s share of adjustments to how people do things. The quintessential ugly American refuses to bend to — or even respect — the norms of foreign cultures, norms that can sometimes be ugly, nasty, or backward by a lot of Western standards.

The arguments in favor of deferring to foreign cultures ranges from Emily Post bromides about etiquette to swirling torrents of words about colonial this, patriarchal that, and imperial the other thing. Fine.

The Rise of Woke Capital

In the other story, corporate America just performed another bait and switch at the common good’s expense — making a show of paying bonuses and raising wages after the passage of the corporate-friendly Republican tax bill, but actually reserving most of the tax savings for big stock buybacks

.. Corporate activism on social issues isn’t in tension with corporate self-interest on tax policy and corporate stinginess in paychecks. Rather, the activism increasingly exists to protect the self-interest and the stinginess — to justify the ways of C.E.O.s to cultural power brokers, so that those same power brokers will leave them alone

.. In every era and every political dispensation, businessmen ask themselves: What am I required to do to make money unmolested by the government? 

.. But there are other ways to compromise besides on wages

.. a certain kind of virtue-signaling on progressive social causes, a certain degree of performative wokeness, is offered to liberalism and the activist left pre-emptively, in the hopes that having corporate America take their side in the culture wars will blunt efforts to tax or regulate our new monopolies too heavily.

..  It’s worth noting, for instance, how Tim Cook’s willingness to play the social justice warrior when the target is a few random Indiana restaurants that might not want to host hypothetical same-sex weddings does not extend to reconsidering Apple’s relationship with the many countries around the world where human rights are rather more in jeopardy than they are in the American Midwest.

.. the Peace of Palo Alto won’t be fully tested until the next time the Democrats hold real power

.. “As much as we fear corporations gone wild,” Poulos concludes, “we love corporations that love us.” And in a rich society people may prefer that their #brands prove this love by identifying with favored social causes rather than through the old-fashioned expedient of paying their workers a little bit more money.

.. For others, though, the Peace of Palo Alto has rather less to offer. It confirms the blue-collar suspicion that liberalism is no longer organized around working-class economic interests, and it encourages cultural conservatives in their feeling of general besiegement

.. the Republican Party even as it lurches deeper into demagogy and paranoia — by making a vote for the G.O.P. the only way to protest a corporate-backed liberal politics that seems indifferent to the working man and an ascendant cultural liberalism

..  Their wokeness buys them cover when liberalism is in power, and any backlash only helps prop up a G.O.P. that has their back when it comes time to write our tax laws.

The win-win scenario for woke capitalism can’t last forever. But it might be quite the racket while it lasts.

Let’s Ban Porn

The sex education programs in my mostly liberal schools featured a touching faith from the adults in charge that they were engaged in a great work of enlightenment, that with the right curricula they could roll back the forces of repression and make sexuality a place of egalitarian pleasure and safety for us all.

Compared to those idealists, the people teaching “porn literacy” have accepted a sweeping pedagogical defeat. They take for granted that the most important sex education may take place on Pornhub, that the purpose of their work is essentially remedial, and that there is no escape from the world that porn has made.

.. And such a reassessment will be incomplete if it never reconsiders our surrender to the idea that many teenagers, most young men especially, will get their sex education from online smut.

.. This surrender was not inevitable. It was only a generation ago that the unlikely (or was it?) alliance of feminists and religious conservatives made the regulation of pornography a live political debate. But between the individualistic drift of society, the invention of the internet, and the failure of the Dworkin-Falwell alliance’s predictions that porn would lead to rising rates of rape, the anti-porn case was marginalized — with religious conservatism’s surrender to Donald Trump’s playboy candidacy a seeming coup de grace.

.. Trump’s grotesqueries have stirred up a feminist reaction that’s more moralistic and less gamely sex-positive than the Clinton-justifying variety, and there’s no necessary reason why its moralistic gaze can’t extend to our porn addiction

.. I think the part of the #MeToo movement that’s interested in discussing sexual unhappiness and not just sexual harassment clearly wants to talk about pornography, even if it doesn’t quite realize that yet.

..  the controversial first-person account of being not-raped by Aziz Ansari (jointly described by one Twitter jester as an “ethnography of the degree to which millennial sex is a joyless mimetic spamming of half-remembered porn tropes”)

.. you see a kind of female revulsion, not against Harvey Weinstein-style apex predators, but against the very different sort of male personality that a pornographic education seems to produce: a breed at once entitled and resentful, angry and undermotivated, “woke” and caddish, shaped by unprecedented possibilities for sexual gratification and frustrated that real women are less available and more complicated than the version on their screen.

.. So if you want better men by any standard, there is every reason to regard ubiquitous pornography as an obstacle

.. and while you can find anything somewhere on the internet, making hard-core porn something to be quested after in dark corners would dramatically reduce its pedagogical role, its cultural normalcy, its power over libidos everywhere.