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‘Grope-gate’ and #MeToo’s Crisis of Legitimacy

In both Canada and the United States, groping scandals have opened a window into the hypocrisies that infect national politics. American Christian voters may claim to support politicians who embody family values. But in 2016, more than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for a man who stood accused of groping women “like an octopus,” and who was caught on tape bragging about doing so. In Canada, on the other hand, the more-feminist-than-thou prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has spent the first days of summer issuing contradictory explanations of a recently publicized encounter he had with a female journalist at an August 2000 music festival in British Columbia.

The journalist called what happened “groping.” Though no one has any idea what body part was touched, or in what way, Trudeau reportedly felt the need to apologize to the woman at the time. But in recent days, the Prime Minister has changed his story. He now claims either not to remember the details of the encounter, or to suggest that the truth of the matter is unknowable because, as in a scene from Rashomon, “the same interactions can be experienced very differently from one person to the next.”

The story has been front-page news in Canada for the last week—though seemingly not because anyone particularly cares about the R-rated details. As Robyn Urback of the CBC writes:

This is about hypocrisy—not about what did or did not happen at a music festival 18 years ago. It is about ‘believing women,’ until it happens to you; about taking all allegations of sexual misconduct seriously, except if they happen to pass some arbitrary expiration date. It is about employing an unwavering zero-tolerance policy, which, in practice, ends up showing some tolerance for the man at the top.

In some ways, Grope-gate (as some of Trudeau’s critics are calling it) has parallels with the scandal that brought down U.S. Senator Al Franken—who, like Trudeau, presented himself as a strong feminist. But the sheer fervency of Trudeau’s outwardly expressed commitment to the feminist cause is unique among world leaders. Since taking power in late 2015, Trudeau and his close advisors have consistently blurred the line between mainstream politics and outright activism. Which explains why Trudeau’s sudden retreat into lawyerly he-said/she-said relativism in regard to his own case strikes observers as cynical.

Some of Trudeau’s first moves as Liberal party leader, and then Prime Minister, were to purge his caucus of pro-life sentiment, and commit himself to full gender parity in cabinet. In 2014, Trudeau chose to summarily disgrace his own MP, Massimo Pacetti, after he had a one-night stand with a female MP from another party. Trudeau also has infused fiscal policy with feminist themes: His latest budget contains no fewer than 358 instances of the word “gender.” The Trudeau government is demanding that conservative religious groups benefiting from summer-employment subsidies formally attest to their support for abortion rights. And under new legislation tabled earlier this year, environmental impact assessments in Canada will require that proponents consider “the intersection of sex and gender with other identity factors.”

Of course, boilerplate about “the intersection of sex and gender” is now part of the linguistic ether inhaled daily by modern scholars and activists. But Justin Trudeau isn’t a scholar or activist. He’s the prime minister of a G7 country. And it has been strange to see him govern Canada as if he were the chair of a gender studies department. The sight of him now suddenly backing off from MeToo puritanism just in time to defend his own reputation serves to indict not so much Trudeau’s behaviour way back in 2000 (which, for all we know, was perfectly blameless), but rather the unsustainably doctrinaire nature of the larger ideological movement.

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Let us give Trudeau his due. Unlike Donald Trump, Canada’s prime minister gives every appearance of being a dedicated family man. During my editorial collaboration with Trudeau on his published memoirs, I visited his home and observed what seemed to be a genuinely dedicated father and husband with his own sincerely held progressive values. Trudeau and I both attended McGill University in Montreal in the early 1990s, and I can attest that he was an active and enthusiastic participant in the then-nascent effort to reduce sexual violence on campus. It is also important to note that even the woman who claimed she was groped by Trudeau in 2000 (long before he was engaged to his wife Sophie Grégoire) does not classify the event as “assault,” and has asked everyone to move on—which, in ordinary times, I think we’d all be inclined to do.

But these aren’t ordinary times: Grope-gate has emerged at a time when the #MeToo movement is suffering a crisis of moral legitimacy in Canada. While no reasonable person disputes the idea that the fight against sexual violence and harassment is a real and urgent project, a spate of high-profile accusations against apparently innocent men show that a policy of believing all victims—which Trudeau himself once embraced—is a recipe for witch hunts.

As Quillette writer Brad Cran described last month, Steven Galloway, one of Canada’s finest novelists, was fired in disgrace from his job at the University of British Columbia amid allegations of rape that were later shown to be unsubstantiated. The episode cries out for a thorough investigation of the university and its bungled, star-chamber treatment of Galloway. Yet neither Trudeau nor anyone in his party have called for this. In Toronto, a man named Mustafa Ururyar was exonerated after being dragged through hell by false accusations launched by Mandi Gray, one of Canada’s foremost anti-sexual-assault activists. Yet Marvin Zuker, the trial-court judge whose bizarre judgment against Ururyar was scathingly rebuked on appeal, continues to sit on the public payroll as an educator at a public university. And Gray herself continues to be treated as an expert on sexual abuse. Steve Paikin, perhaps Canada’s single most respected public broadcaster, also was cast into reputational purdah when he was accused by an eccentric Toronto figure of demanding sex for airwaves access. He, too, was cleared—but the months-long formal investigation left him under a cloud, despite the plainly implausible nature of the accusations.

Throughout all this, it’s been hard to find a single influential Canadian public figure willing to loudly and consistently stand up for due process. Just the opposite: Politicians are leading the inquisition, and not just Liberals. Earlier this year, the opposition NDP party expelled a socially awkward MP named Erin Weir because—I am not making this up—“Mr. Weir failed to read non-verbal cues in social settings.” The accusations against Weir originated with a fellow NDP MP named Christine Moore, the same woman whose complaint to Trudeau about her above-mentioned one-night stand ended her sex partner’s career. In a stunning epilogue, Moore herself was suspended from the NDP caucus in May after allegations emerged that she had sexually harassed a military veteran who’d appeared before her Parliamentary committee.

Even the media, with few exceptions, has been pressured to adopt a MeToo approach to unproven allegations. In June, the Globe & Mail, traditionally described as Canada’s newspaper of record, published an article entitled “After Galloway: We must value a woman’s pain above a man’s reputation,” effectively arguing the now-fashionable idea that due process itself is a sort of outmoded vestige of patriarchal thinking. Meanwhile, Canada’s best-known self-styled “media critic” has made it his personal mission to discredit coverage of the internal university investigation that cleared Galloway of rape. The nation’s columnists have also cheered on the circulation of an anonymous media blacklist of men who have supposedly been accused of sexual misdemeanors. In the case of at least one target, poet and editor Jeramy Dodds, this has led to a Kafkaesque ordeal that continues to this day.

Trudeau is perfectly entitled to defend himself vigorously against claims that he groped a woman 18 years ago. But as our prime minister, he should also be supporting the right to due process, and the presumption of innocence, for all Canadians—not just himself. Pacetti, Paikin, Dodds, Weir, Galloway, and Ururyar might fairly ask: Where was their prime minister’s voice—including his mantras about life imitating the art of Akira Kurosawa—when they were twisting in the wind?

Activists are within their rights to say that we must always “believe the victim.” This is the activist’s traditional role—to state a maximalist position on behalf of a cause. But political leaders, judges, and legislators have a different role: to create order and fairness out of such competing (and, at the margins, unreconcilable) activist demands, especially when those demands impinge on hallowed rights and civil liberties.

This balancing project becomes utterly impossible when a prime minister comes out of the starting gate declaring himself the country’s MeToo activist-in-chief. That’s not a role any national leader should play. Nor, as Grope-gate shows, is it a role that Trudeau himself should want to play—since few among us are perfectly pure, and so it is only a matter of time until a puritan is unmasked as a hypocrite.

If Trudeau would only acknowledge this reality, instead of tying himself up in rhetorical knots, he’d do his country, and his reputation, a great service. It would also allow him to begin leading us in an honest conversation about the proper way to reconcile MeToo with the need to ensure due process—including for all those accused men who don’t happen to be the Canadian prime minister.

 

Jonathan Kay is the Canadian Editor of Quillette. You can follow him on Twitter @jonkay

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