Photographs last forever. Friendships don’t. Standards change. Those are the three interlinked reasons why Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, didn’t get away with blacking-up in his youth. He rightly describes it as “dumb”.
Meaning that, at the time of the impersonation, he wasn’t cognisant that pretending to be black might offend black people. Yet, even over here, by the time Trudeau was about six years of age, the Black and White Minstrel Show had been taken off the air by the BBC and the Lyons Tea minstrels were into the brown phase that came before they were handed what might be called their “Tea45s”.
So for a socially connected Trudeau to go to a party done up as Aladdin wasn’t the brightest act of a guy with political ambitions. On the other hand, it’s difficult to portray it as actively racist, since Trudeau was mimicking a pantomime rendition of a magical figure. You could see why, invited to a themed party, he would doll himself up as a fairytale hero.
Before the recession in 2008, a Dublin celebrity threw a birthday or anniversary celebration themed around the French Revolution, with the guests, famous people, turning up as aristocrats, right down to the powdered hair, and being photographed.
Just as Trudeau mightn’t have anticipated today’s heightened sensitivities around blackface, our own celebs never expected Ireland to go belly-up in a way that turned their photographs toxic.
Themed parties and fancy dress contests should now come with health warnings, because everybody has, in their back pocket, a means of recording the event for posterity, and when friends fall out, uploading a stinker photograph is a swiftly satisfying punishment.
But in 2001, when Justin tied his little turban on, it was odd, and Trudeau seems to have done it more than once. There have now been reports of three incidents. Either he had something of a fixation or he had a dearth of the kind of friend who would tell him to get a grip. Or both. Neither, however, is reason for him now to lose his job.
The old saw suggests the unexamined life is not worth living. Just as valid is the suggestion that the undeveloped life is not worth living. To down a politician based on something they did several decades earlier is to ignore the possibility of change, of growth, of development. Humanity always responds to a love story, but it also responds to a story of redemption.
As long as the offender puts their hands up, admits they did it, that what they did was wrong, that they’re sorry for it, and have provably changed in the ensuing years, we’re usually good with that. One of the great redemption movies, The Shawshank Redemption, features Morgan Freeman as a murderer who has served more than forty years of a life sentence and who is, yet again, facing a parole board that, like its predecessors, is unlikely to set him free.
Seated in front of five respectable members of society, he’s asked by the chairman if he thinks he has been rehabilitated. The convict mocks what he calls “a bullshit word”, saying he understands the question to mean: is he sorry for what he did?
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t feel regret — and not because I’m here [in prison] and not because you think I should,” he says. “I look back on the way I was — a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime — and I want to talk to him. I want to talk some sense into that kid, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone. This old man is all that remains…”
Even though he has quietly mocked them, the parole board give him his (controlled) freedom. It’s a heart stopping moment of cinema, with wider relevance. Nobody has the capacity to retrospectively influence what they did as young people. All they can do is regret the worst of it.
In addition, the Freeman speech refers indirectly to the Theseus ship thought experiment, which has been part of human philosophy for more than two millennia. Plato worried at it, as did Heraclitus. The intellectual task of the proposition is to imagine a ship built for Theseus, which, once he no longer needs it, is parked up in a safe harbour.
However, in the nature of things, bits of the ship rot, over time. Because the structure has an importance larger than itself, those taking care of it make sure to replace each section as it rots. Eventually, the ship in the harbour has had each and every one of its component parts switched out for a replacement, creating the question:
In similar vein, it can be argued that the convict played by Morgan Freeman — because his physical and mental component parts have been changed by the passage of time and the influence of context — is not the same man who murdered someone 40 years earlier.
While Justin Trudeau might, like the convict, want to go back and tell his younger self not to be such a fool, he can’t. Because that younger self no longer exists. All that’s left is a middle-aged politician embarrassed by his past. Except that to pick up the negative phraseology of the movie — “all that’s left” — is to deny the possibility not just of redemption, but of development.
IT would be astonishing, and unlikely, if Trudeau were the same person today he was a quarter-of-a-century ago. Most honest Irish people would acknowledge that much of what they believed and did a quarter of a century ago has been discarded by them in the interim as inessential or downright inappropriate.
None of us is the person we once were, and if we believe in life-long learning, we can hope to be better people as time goes on. Better, if wearier: the ultimate summing-up of the process has to be Bob Seger’s lyric, “I wish I didn’t know now, what I didn’t know then…”
The former friend of the Canadian prime minister who released the photograph of him grinning away as a surprisingly coal-black Aladdin must be happy to have got into the public domain a visual indicator of just how “dumb” (in his own words) Trudeau was back then.
Of rather more importance, however, is how different Trudeau is now. A bigger concern than what he did 25 years ago would be if he were the same person he was back then. He clearly isn’t. Nobody should be judged or defined, or have their future constrained, by idiocies committed when they were in their teens or twenties, nor by photographs released by people who are nol onger friends.