As someone who unapologetically wears brownface every day, I find the hysterical front-page revelation of Justin Trudeau’s 2001 experiment with brownface pretty underwhelming. I also find the reaction to it on the part of various brown-faced Canadian politicians to be a transparent instance (so to speak) of grandstanding. If ever there was a case where policy ought to trump a supposed matter of character in politics, this is it–not so much because policy always trumps character in political matters, but because the supposed matter of character involved here is so morally inconsequential that just about anything trumps it.
As is typical of contemporary political discourse, charges of “racism” have been made and even confessed to without anyone’s really explaining what was so “racist” about what Trudeau did. Whatever it was, I don’t see it. As an illustration of the general cluelessness that prevails on this issue, I heard the Time reporter who broke the story say on NPR this morning that Trudeau had been in brownface at a party where other “appropriative” costumes had been worn. Presumably, “appropriative” costumes contrast with the non-appropriative kind, whatever that’s supposed to mean.
Just a little FYI: a costume is a form of apparel distinctive to a specific time, place, character, or demographic. It’s inherent in the very idea of a costume that wearing one involves appropriation, at least in the fustian sense of “appropriation” that now prevails in contemporary moral discourse (which, oddly enough, involves an appropriation of the word “appropriation”). So the objection to “appropriative costumes” is ultimately just an objection to costumes—not just to blackface and brownface, or to kids dressing up as IDF soldiers, but to Halloween, cosplay, and all the rest. Is that where our moral martinets really want to go?
The irony is that the Aladdin controversy obscures both Trudeau’s successes and his failings when it comes to actual, living, breathing brown people. On the plus side, Trudeau’s refugee policy has been exemplary—good enough, you’d think, to constitute a credit that wipes out the Aladdin charge. On the minus side, his government’s adoption of the IHRA’s so-called “working definition” of “anti-Semitism” turns principled criticism of Israel and principled support of the Palestinians into a hate crime–an act of complicity in Israel’s decades-long project to expropriate the Palestinians in the fully literal sense of that word.
The real questions about Trudeau have nothing to do with his playing Aladdin eighteen years ago, but about the character issues that drive his pro-Israel policies, and the pro-Israel policies that express his character today. The Aladdin story is front and center this morning on the home page of The New York Times and elsewhere, and threatens to stay there for awhile. Leave it to little minds to make a big story of something so trivial. If only we had the sense to see how little this story matters, and how pitifully it compares to the things that do.