Justin Trudeau's Speech for the Ages

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's NYU commencement address, delivered on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium, is likely to endure as one of the more significant expressions of his confused political doctrine. As J.J. McCullough noted in his scathing critique of the speech in the Washington Post, Trudeau has no business advising NYU grads to "let yourself be vulnerable to another point of view." From Bill C-16 to the summer-job values test and beyond, fumes McCullough, "there's almost nothing about Trudeau’s political career that suggests he’s ever had even slightest interest in 'discovering that someone you vehemently disagree with might have a point,' as he extolled NYU’s grads to do." British conservative James Delingpole was apoplectic about Trudeau's mingling of female genital mutilation and climate-change skepticism as equivalent moral transgressions (at 19:57 in the clip above). McCullough dismisses Trudeau's NYU speech as "appallingly dishonest," while Delingpole calls it "grotesquely hypocritical." Both appear to believe that Trudeau understands the contradictions inherent in his über-progressive world view, and therefore castigate him as the worst sort of cynic.

Another interpretation is, however, possible—namely that, like many progressives, Trudeau has no coherent political philosophy and is thus incapable of navigating the contradictions of his own gut instincts. If so, he is the antithesis of his father, the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who ascended to the office of prime minister only after theorizing a political-constitutional program for Canada that elevated "reason over passion"—tough medicine requiring that even he leave his deeply held pieties at the door.

When Justin told the NYU grads mid-way through his speech that we must all "fight our tribal mindset," he sounded very much like his father. But a moment later he departed wholesale from Pierre's signature idea that tolerance alone guarantees citizens' rights in free and diverse societies:

I think we can aim a little higher than mere tolerance. Think about it: Saying "I tolerate you" actually means something like, "Okay, I grudgingly admit that you have a right to exist, just don’t get in my face about it, and oh, don’t date my sister." There’s not a religion in the world that asks you to "tolerate thy neighbor." So let's try for something a little more like acceptance, respect, friendship, and yes, even love.

There are sentiments in this statement Pierre Trudeau would likely have applauded, but "aiming higher than mere tolerance" would not have been among them. The reason is fairly obvious to anyone who has thought about the practical application of liberal values within diverse societies: we can disagree with, disdain, or even deplore something and still tolerate it. But we cannot love it. The pacifist can tolerate the use of her tax dollars to fund the military, but she cannot love it. The environmentalist can tolerate the building of a pipeline, but she cannot love it. The religious conservative can tolerate the extension of abortion rights, but she cannot love it. "Tolerance is never sufficient," Justin Trudeau wrote in 2016 after touring Auschwitz. "Humanity must learn to love our differences." His father, by contrast, knew that perfection is the enemy of the good, and that loving our differences is not only an unattainable ideal in politics but a dangerous one. At the very least it inculcates political correctness, or what Michael Ignatieff has called a "coercive culture of ritualized, insincere approval." At its worst, it is authoritarian.

What the NYU speech appears to demonstrate is that Justin Trudeau has imbibed just enough of his father's classic liberalism to confound his own progressive impulses. "To let yourself be vulnerable to another point of view—that’s what takes true courage," Trudeau told the NYU grads. When he said this, he appeared to believe it. And when he added just moments later, "Let me be very clear: this is not an endorsement of moral relativism or a declaration that all points of view are valid," he appeared to believe that too.

The liberal in Justin Trudeau wants desperately to be tolerant, but the progressive in him cannot help but dictate the limits of that toleration.