Justin Trudeau might be the “wokest” politician of all mankind. Sorry, make that “peoplekind.”
The Canadian prime minister interrupted a woman at a town hall last week to issue a correction, cutting her off when she mentioned “mankind.” “We’d like to say ‘peoplekind,’ not necessarily mankind, because it’s more inclusive,” Trudeau said.
Many in the audience applauded or laughed, including the question-asker. Many right-wingers on social media did not. Trudeau was cruel to chastise a constituent, they said. He cares too much about political correctness and too little about common decency.
In Trudeau’s defense, he was teasing. The woman he corrected had been rambling about “God the Mother” and “maternal love,” which she said was scientifically known as mitochondria, or Midi-chlorians, or something. He has since called the mishap a “dumb joke.” On the other hand, it should be “personkind” if it should be anything, and Trudeau was mansplaining.
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But enough groaning over grammar, and enough scrutinizing Trudeau’s semantics.
This is more than a case of performative allyship falling flat. It’s a lesson in a broader trend of performative progressivism obscuring illiberal policymaking. The same day Trudeau held forth on our hopelessly gendered vocabulary, it surfaced that his government had brokered a $233 million deal to sell 16 combat helicopters to the Philippines.
Philippine dictator Rodrigo Duterte will likely use these weapons to kill citizens he deems undesirable even more expeditiously than he has already managed — or, as the Philippine military chief of plans said, for “internal security operations.” All this comes months after Trudeau decried the Asian country’s deplorable human-rights record.
“Peoplekind,” though. That’s the real news.
Trudeau’s forays onto the social-justice battlefield have distracted us before. Trudeau has earned accolades for penning an essay for Marie Claire about how “our sons” can change sexism, shouting out #MeToo at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and assembling a half-female cabinet. He won hearts when he apologized to victims of Canada’s so-called “gay purge,” offering them $85 million in compensation, and when he welcomed to his country those immigrants President Donald Trump swore to keep out.
Also, he’s really, really handsome. Much of this swooning comes not from his constituents, but from Americans, who hail the Canadian prime minister as a hunky liberal hero.
Trudeau has his charms, but even his victories come with caveats. On the gender front, Trudeau has promised legislation closing Canada’s pay gap time and time again, but none has materialized. And he has backtracked on his open invitation to the refugees of the world. Still, far too many here in the United States are content to cheer Trudeau on for his sometimes surface-level commitment to liberal causes — and look how cute he is with these baby pandas — while ignoring the ways he isn’t liberal at all.
First there are the helicopters, which look less surprising to anyone who remembers Trudeau’s insistence on carrying through a $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The Middle Eastern monarchy may have used the Canadian equipment not just to wage war in Yemen, but also to crack down on its own civilians. And though Trudeau has served up some stern talk on Chinese repression, it hasn’t stopped him from cozying up to the country as he tries to open trade talks.
Then there’s climate change. Trudeau, as usual, says all the right things about the threat of a warming Earth. But he also loves oil, and he wants oil executives to love him. “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there,” he told a group of moguls in Texas last year. He touts a plan to pivot toward clean energy, and he’s imposing a carbon tax, but when it comes to constructing pipelines, it’s “Drill, woman whom I respect deeply, drill.”
Trudeau has also noted the ways Canada has failed its First Nations people — and then, at least as far as their representatives are concerned, continued failing them.
American progressives can’t seem to get enough of Trudeau, but they also don’t bother to learn enough about him. He’s not Trump, after all, and he has adorable dimples. It’s the same way with other world leaders, from Emmanuel Macron to Angela Merkel.
These politicians are miles better than the far-right alternatives. They’re miles better than Trump. But that doesn’t place them beyond reproach. Americans who call themselves progressives should hold politicians accountable to the code they keep so close, even from thousands of miles away. At the least, they shouldn’t blindly celebrate leaders who miss the mark.
Think these are really liberal heroes? Come on, man — or women, or people.
Molly Roberts works in The Post's opinion section.
The Washington Post