The ultimate conformist

As the federal Liberals search for the next Trudeau, an embarrassing revelation has emerged about the last one: He was not deep but silly. Many adults of mature years have been startled by the revelation in Max and Monique Nemni’s new book, Trudeau, fils du Québec, père du Canada, that Mr. Trudeau toyed with conservative Catholic separatism in his teens. Not me. Lots of us hold dumb ideas in our youth. I’m not even particularly upset that, in his 20s, he flirted with the hard left: I’ve always thought his strong reaction to the FLQ crisis was driven in part by unsavoury first-hand experiences with that sort of radicalism.

What has always bothered me, and recently startled the smart set, is the stifling conventionality of his mind. Listen to Lysiane Gagnon’s wounded reaction in the Globe and Mail: “I knew that, like many of his contemporaries, Mr. Trudeau had been appallingly indifferent to the horrors of the Nazi regime … the reality is much worse than I thought … as late as 1944 (he was 25), he admired the writings of notorious French anti-Semite Charles Maurras.” But the worst was his failure to “escape the dominant ideology … far from being the free-minded spirit he appeared to be later on, he was a conformist.”

Indeed. Then, as always, he drifted with the intellectual tide. Ultramontane Catholic in 1930s Quebec; anti-British pacifist in early 1940s Quebec; radical semi-Communist in the late 1940s; Quiet Revolutionary in the 1950s; hippie in the 1960s; multiculturalist economic nationalist Castro fan in the 1970s; peacenik in the early 1980s. Talk about a walk on the tame side.

It wasn’t all discreditable, of course. When the Zeitgeist was right, so was he — on the environment, for instance; and in turning from extreme radicalism to democratic progressivism in the late Stalin years. But face it: Progressive conformism explains his enduring appeal to those who want the psychic rewards of dissent without the financial or social risks.

Here’s a telltale sign: Despite his allegedly being a philosopher king, there are no ideas we definitively associate with Mr. Trudeau. His most famous statement is: “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” But let’s-all-party-naked was hardly an original idea 15 years after Hugh Hefner founded Playboy. In 1968, it was dead-centre trendy. Hence the CBC’s online archive headline “Pierre Elliott Trudeau: Swinger, Philosopher, Prime Minister.” Shagadelic!

Even his attire followed the trends. Remember his Mandrake the Magician getup for the 1970 Grey Cup? David Warren once observed that in any recent photo, Queen Elizabeth’s outfit looks slightly stuffy and everyone else’s seems normal, but look again a few decades later and she’s normal while everyone else just escaped the set of Yellow Submarine. In Trudeau’s case, sandals (and obscenities) in the Commons were just more signs of the times, man. And so was he.

Pierre Trudeau was profoundly shallow. He was witty and quick, and he rarely said a foolish thing. But most of the time, he seemed to have no real idea what he was saying. His crack about bedrooms came just as the state was invading our private lives in force through a variety of social engineering schemes. Meanwhile, his major legacy, the 1982 Constitution, was a hideous hybrid of parliamentary and constitutional sovereignty that threatens both self-government and the individual liberties he professed to cherish.

Worse, the project was rammed through with little intellectual support. It had behind it no Federalist Papers, no sustained argument that it wouldn’t produce the bad effects it duly did. Such things were beyond Trudeau.

He was a big fish in a small pond, and liked it that way. His misfortune was to grow up in an intellectually stifling environment where his considerable gifts let him shine without effort; it left him a glittering mediocrity with enduring appeal to same. Just look at Michael Ignatieff’s difficulties in the Liberal leadership race, despite being sent from Central Casting as the Next Trudeau. Why? Because his views on the Iraq war really are outside the Canadian box instead of just being mislabelled as such.

Many Liberals think they are Trudeau’s heirs. The problem isn’t that they might be wrong. It’s that they might be right, and lead us into another era of bold conformity and deep silliness. At least spare us the pirouettes.

[First published in the National Post]

ColumnsJohn Robson