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Trudeau Transformed

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In advance of the awarding of the annual $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, this Wednesday at the Politics and the Pen Gala in Ottawa, Huffington Post Canada will be running excerpts from the five finalists. This is from authors Max and Monique Nemni's Trudeau Transformed, which promises to cause readers "to re-think much of what we thought we knew about the intellectual development of Canada's legendary Prime Minister between the pro-fascist sympathies of his youth to his entry into federal politics."

IN THE YEARS to come, Trudeau would develop and refine his thoughts on the notion of good government. Early in 1958, Jacques Hébert, publisher of the weekly Vrai, asked his friend Trudeau for a series of articles on political topics of his choice. Hébert was delighted when Trudeau agreed to provide 20 articles at the rate of one per week, in a special section entitled "Approaches to Politics." [...]

"Approaches to Politics" is one of Trudeau's notable works on political thought. Even the political scientist Léon Dion, who refused to grant Trudeau the title of "political thinker," recognized that these articles in Vrai are his "meagre contribution to genuine political thought." Some, like James Tully, an internationally renowned Canadian political scientist and philosopher, took a far more favourable view. In 2008, Tully included "the civic ethos of Pierre Elliott Trudeau" in a list of important thinkers, such as Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Charles Taylor, who had influenced him.

The articles in Vrai do illustrate Trudeau's civic ethos. They also show his ability to start with the real life situation of his fellow citizens, then move on to address wider and more fundamental social and political issues. [...]

His reflection revolved around the relationship between obedience and authority. "This is indeed the essence of politics," he wrote. In social life, man is free, yet he must obey. But obey whom? And in what circumstances? Could he, should he, sometimes disobey? Under what circumstances? How could anarchy be avoided? Where does authority come from? These questions, he said, which have preoccupied philosophers for over 1,000 years, have not yet been answered satisfactorily.

Some people say, simplistically, that we must obey, because "authority comes from God." However, he countered, they "omit to explain why God conferred authority on a Stalin or a Hitler; or why, in our democracies, God would choose to express himself through the intermediary of electoral thugs and big campaign contributors." Others argue, "authority is ordained by nature." So how is it that "in certain societies it is the grandfather who rules, in others it is the mother, in still others the queen's eldest son?" Unsatisfied with these answers, Trudeau carried his analysis further.

He examined another misconception based on obvious facts: Man lives in society, and "life in society cannot be pictured without subjection to an established order -- that is, a government." This leads some to argue that "because God has created man with a nature that compels him to live in society ... political authority comes from God in the same sense as the queen's authority in the beehive comes from God." The problem with this mode of reasoning, Trudeau retorted, is that "we are not bees, nor are we ants, and that is why this answer by itself is not enough... Human society, then, differs from the beehives in that men are always free to decide what form of authority they will adopt, and who will exercise it (and not God, Providence or Nature)."

The notion that obedience is ordained by God is used by people in positions of authority, none as masterfully as Duplessis: "Mr. Duplessis constantly teaches us that we must not criticize the authority that he exercises: firstly because this authority comes from God, and secondly because he rules in the name of the Province and the 'race', values that none but a perverse spirit could assail."

Why, Trudeau asked, not question the very idea that we must obey? A common answer would be: "Because the majority seek only their own comfort and pleasure ... Few men are aroused by an injustice when they are sure of not being its victims themselves." They are misguided, he said, because "when authority in any form bullies a man unfairly, all other men are guilty," since by their silence they condone these abuses. "If they withdrew their consent, authority would collapse." He thus concluded: "In the last analysis any given political authority exists only because men consent to obey it. In this sense what exists is not so much authority as obedience."

And why wouldn't the citizen selfishly serve his own interests, while ignoring the fate of others? Because in the long run this attitude would backfire: "To remain free, then, citizens must seek their welfare in a social order that is just to the greatest number; indeed only great masses have the power to make and unmake governments. It follows that men can lead a free and peaceful life only if their society is just." For Trudeau, like his mentor Laski, the notions of individual freedom and social justice would always be inseparable.