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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Let's find a way to resurrect outrageous behaviour
Both Stockwell Day and Jean Chrétien are claiming
the Trudeau mantle. Only one sounds convincing

Saturday, October 7, 2000

Back in the Seventies, long before being a fag was as trendy as it is today, I (a quite fervent fag, even then) once welcomed Pierre Trudeau to Toronto "on behalf of the city's homosexual community."

It was, in the spirit of those heady days, a very guerrilla exercise -- I had been supplied with an invitation and fake ID (courtesy of the Liberal Party "homintern"), smuggled into the reception area and placed directly in his path as, surrounded by security and television cameras, he made his way through the crowd.

Our handshake and my cheeky welcome froze everyone into deer-in-headlights mode -- except, of course, Mr. Trudeau. He seemed to enjoy that very unscripted moment. There was no turning away, no desperate casting about for security personnel. Instead, there was that famously cool and appraising half-smile, a polite "thank you," a question as to how things were going and yes, of course he would accept my list of demands on his government (which we had been busily elaborating ever since he had so famously taken the state out of our bedrooms).

I gave him the list; he and his entourage moved on. I was quickly surrounded and unceremoniously hustled out of the room. And I was exhilarated.

In the past week, there has been ample opportunity to reflect on why we wouldn't have bothered engineering such a stunt to confront any other politician -- before or since. Even prior to that pirouette behind the Queen, we were convinced by those bannister slides and cheeky quips that outrageousness might legitimately be as much a part of politics as one had always felt it should be of life.

This is not a feeling one can have of late. Our politicians do us the injury of being dull without managing to be edifying (think the Bush/Gore debate) or so calculatingly scripted (think Stockwell Day in his wet, tight little outfits) that we expect production credits to roll once the photo op is over.

There is much in modern cultural life that claims to be outrageous, that smugly revels in its seeming outrageousness, but turns out be merely shocking.

It is, after all, easy to shock. One need only determine what is taboo in the Zeitgeist at any given moment and do or say exactly that. There need not be any ideas behind those thoughts or actions.

There are salutary shocks, of course, but all too often what passes for shocking is merely contentless sensation, a provocation guaranteed to generate an adrenalin rush, and nothing more.

It's a rush we very much seem to need, in the appalling safety of our ordered little lives, and we guarantee it by indulging the antics of what might almost be considered the modern equivalent of medieval court jesters -- shock-talk radio hosts such as Howard Stern, mindlessly libidinous rock stars, television that packages complex issues into titillating little dramas of the week.

Outrageousness is something altogether finer, and we have surrendered it for the safety of shock. Because nothing follows from it, to be shocking, to be shocked, is to be safe, and nothing in modern life seems so desirable to so many people as safety.
There are legitimate times, and legitimate reasons, for wishing to feel safe, but there is never a time or a reason to feel safe from ideas.

Outrageousness might be defined as wit and audacity in the service of belief, and it is perhaps the only responsible way an adult has of being a child. There is often something childlike about outrageous people -- they are so utterly unscripted, so utterly themselves, so utterly unafraid of what they are.

Oscar Wilde, with his deft skewering of Victorian mores, was outrageous (and, appropriately enough, wrote very fine stories for children). So was Jesus Christ. We have heard them so many times that they have lost their bite, but the injunctions to love one's enemies and turn the other cheek strike me as among history's more outrageous moral lessons.

Their contemporaries certainly thought Wilde and Christ were outrageous -- each was crucified one way or another.

If we can't put Mr. Trudeau on quite that level, we still can revel in an audacity so pinned to belief that he could answer a reporter's question about how eager he was to become Liberal leader by saying that he wasn't very eager at all, that anyone eager for power probably shouldn't be trusted with it. Try to imagine any contemporary politician answering that question that way.

If to be shocking is to be safe, it is very often dangerous to be outrageous, to be fully oneself, and it is correspondingly easy to fail.

About five years ago, when my teaching career at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto was brought to an abrupt close because I both worked as a prostitute and had unconventional ideas on the sexuality of children, I was asked whether I had any regrets about the whole affair.

I did. I explained that I had not had the courage, in my classes on how to make a living as a freelance writer, to recommend prostitution as the perfect sideline business for cash-strapped students trying to build a career. I wished I had had the courage to do it. It would have been a very Trudeau moment.

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