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When People Kind of Laugh

Prime Minister Trudeau says his “peoplekind” clanger was only a dumb joke. The problem for the PM is that no one laughed. And then everyone did. 

3 minute read
When People Kind of Laugh February 8, 2018  |  By Peter Stockland
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Graciousness bids us accept Prime Minister Trudeau’s explanation that his now notorious “peoplekind” howler was, in his words, just a dumb joke.

The problem is that such acceptance doesn’t really help him – or us – at all. It might only make things worse.

Why? Because when the PM publicly interrupted that young woman in Edmonton to correct her use of “mankind” with his gibberish noun “peoplekind,” no one actually knew he was joking. Those who heard it were ready to take his nonsensical intervention at face value ­ – even if it meant accepting he was too dumb to know the word didn’t exist.

In one of the most horrifying sentences in English, the world isn’t now laughing with Prime Minister Trudeau; it’s laughing at him. And “world” isn’t hyperbole here. The story has gone madly global.

The only comparably unflattering assessment of a Canadian PM’s intelligence must surely be the ignominy inflicted on former Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark. As a proud, party-neutral Canadian, I say without a tittle of partisan delight that this week, like Joe Clark, Canada’s prime minister is now a laughing stock.

Elsewhere in life, such humiliation is agonizing. In politics, it takes a miracle for it to avoid becoming terminal.

In Joe Clark’s case, it was lethal. He lasted barely nine months in office. Things he touched politically afterward were pre-ordained as dumb, dumber and doomed.

Things are not quite so gloomy for the current PM. Only a fool would bet the house on him losing the next election. There’s life in the Liberals yet. More, electoral success always depends heavily on how competently others in political peoplekind compete.

That said, “peoplekind” will wear like an ugly neck tattoo throughout Justin Trudeau’s political life. He will be marked less by its unsightly embarrassment than by public eagerness to see it as his indelible essence. It will forever be said to show his true colours.

This matters because it is the dark matter dimension of the image Trudeau has so carefully crafted. Shrewdly, since entering federal politics, he has turned his shyness about showing intellectual acumen into a strength. He has made it the chief characteristic distinguishing him from his hyper-cerebral father.

Yes, he has the Trudeau name. No, he doesn’t have the Trudeau brain. But he has been decent, affable, underdoggish. He’s showed skill playing down his privileged rich kid reality, and playing up his “just folks” selling proposition. Up to a point, it has worked like a charm, including the charm of simultaneously exploiting and spoofing his eye-candyness.

The point recently arrived, though, when it began to wear thin. Politics is, above all, the process of scrambling to put success back together as it falls apart. Enduring politicians sense when looming failure requires a different formula for success.

What the “peoplekind” kerfuffle seems to reveal is that with Prime Minister Trudeau, there is but one formula. It is a single-minded formula no more complicated than one times zero. In a positive light, that amounts to what we see being what we get. Negatively, it means there’s nothing more to see than what we have.

Unfortunately, what we have today are waves of national and international laughter suggesting Canada’s leader doesn’t add up to much of any significance at all. Unfair? Perhaps. But it’s an outcome of fatigue with the habits peculiar to Justin Trudeau’s chosen image: the fad-olescent lectures in political virtue, the fetishistic affectations of silly socks and Selfies, the remarkably, tin-eared treatment of opposing views etc.

It’s fitting the “peoplekind” gaffe arose from the stunningly maladroit handling of the Canada Summer Jobs program. It was (though this has not been too widely noted) a question about the Summer Jobs fiasco that prompted Trudeau’s “dumb joke” response. Had the prime minister given proper attention to the groups incensed at the Summer Jobs program’s ideological “attestation” provision, there would have been no question about it in Edmonton, therefore no joke, and so no dumb harm done, this week at least.

Instead, everyone appalled at the politicization of a summer work program for students now finds common cause for laughter to supplement their indignation. They have, to boot, a global Greek chorus of hoots and thigh slapping to amplify their derision.

The international mockery is most concerning. It touches Justin Trudeau as an individual and as a politician, but most profoundly as the occupant of the office of the prime minister of Canada. How that occupant behaves speaks volumes about how we – not just he or she are regarded globally.

This week, it’s not looking good.

Graciousness and prudence prohibit delight in the prime minister’s plight. Schadenfreude is not our friend right now. Like our American cousins with their President Trump, we have a leader laughed at as a nullity.

We are a kind people, and so it is only right to say God help him. And us, too, of course.

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