Are You Sure You’re Sure?

Pierre Trudeau, that Canadian bellwether, was front-page news again. It seems that among the archives of this arch-federalist former Prime Minister is evidence that he once believed in Quebec independence. Shocking Revelations! I shouldn’t be sarcastic – there is no way that this could be anything but a big story in Canada.

What interests me, though, is what it tells us about our attitude to leadership. We say that we value open-mindedness. Boards of Education trumpet the value of “life-long learning”. One of our favourite bits of wise-arse wisdom is this: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” And yet, when it comes to our political leaders, we seem to prefer that they never change their minds, no matter where those minds are stuck. We appear stunned by the possibility that Mr. Trudeau might have seen his country differently when he was 20 than when he was 50. (Shouldn’t we hope so?) But in a world where so much is uncertain, there is obviously an appetite for leaders who are bloody consistent, and consistently self-assured. George W. Bush understands this.

Remember how the media scurried to find out what Pope Benedict might have said or done as a student in Nazi Germany? The best ammunition for the 2004 Bush campaign was often evidence that John Kerry had occasionally changed his mind (“wishy-washy!”), whereas Mr. B was impervious to anything other than “staying the course”. I’m not here to slag steadfastness of purpose, of course, but to question our headlong quest for certainty. Putting every public debate or intellectual issue in rigid, either/or terms is a recipe for clumsy and often dangerous thinking: “for us or against us”; “separate but equal”; “are you now or have you ever been…” Most people resist being pigeon-holed, and the wisdom of their own street tells them that things are usually not as simple as they appear. Yet we look for leaders, it would seem, who haven’t had a fresh thought since they were seventeen.

The documentary Why We Fight (sorry, haven’t seen it yet) takes us back to an American icon, General and Republican President Eisenhower. His recognition of the complexities of modern governance – particularly his famous warning about the “military-industrial complex” as he left office – makes him sound, according to one reviewer of the film, as “the sort of guy who would get tarred [these days] as a leader of the ‘Hate America’ crowd…”

We’ll see how the revelations of Mr. Trudeau’s youthful passions play out, but at first glance, it looks like Canadians might be leaning toward intellectual simplicity in their leaders about as much as Americans do. Hey, it’s good to be clear-minded. It’s good to have principles. But we also have to be willing and able to progress, to learn, and this requires a degree of tolerance for ambiguity and subtlety. And it was an American who said it well, the great Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds / Adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines…” (Now that’s a Waldo worth looking for.)

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