Badface

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has found himself in hot water lately over the discovery of photos where he appears in black- or brownface.

What I find most depressing about all of this is that it looks like it is going to become one of the defining campaign issues — if not the defining campaign issue — of this year’s federal election. Not jobs, health care, the environment, or economic policy, but something this stupid.

I guess you can argue that the photos and the fallout from their release tell us something about Trudeau’s character. Something not very flattering. He is being pilloried, with some justice, for being a hypocrite: his principled stands on issues relating to identity politics being derided as mere virtue signaling.

That expression “virtue signaling” is worth a bit of explanation. Some people object to it, or find nothing wrong with the idea of making public one’s own set of moral values. My own take is that, used pejoratively, the expression should be understood as referring to signaling one’s own virtues in a facile way that costs the signaler nothing. But of course it may involve demanding others make sacrifices.

I think Trudeau has done his share of virtue signaling. What bothers me the most about the current scandal is the general air of dishonesty in Trudeau’s response. In brief: how could he possibly not have known that these photos were out there all this time? They were even published in a school yearbook! Did he think they had just disappeared?

In a later press conference he admitted that he had in fact been aware of them while he was going through the process of being initially vetted by the party, but had found them too “embarrassing” to mention. In other words, he really did think they were dead and buried. Now, being asked if there are any more such photos out there that might surface at some point, he will only reply “I am wary of being definitive.”

Does any of this matter? In a polarized political environment, where people are voting against the other side more than they are supporting their own, maybe not so much. If Donald Trump can shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and get away with it, Justin Trudeau can probably get away with this. Our politics have become a joke.

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