05/09/2013 12:50 EDT | Updated 07/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Justin Trudeau's Pecs Don't Win My Respect


There is a guy collecting a paycheque (and presumably a pension) from the Government of Canada known as the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. His sole function, near as I can tell, is to wear a frock coat and knock on the door of the House of Commons a couple times a year, as part of the elaborate dog-and-pony show that accompanies each speech from the throne. Salary starts at $96K. Apparently it's a hotly contested job.

There's an awful lot of this sort of thing in the Canadian government. There are florid preambles on every piece of legislation ("Her Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and House of Commons of Canada, enacts as follows...") and weird rituals dictating how we inaugurate a new Speaker of the House (it involves dragging). There are elaborate hierarchies of importance dictating who can and can't sit beside each other at galas, and bossy instruction manuals decreeing which hack gets to use what title (governor generals: "Your Excellency, " mayors: "Your Worship"). I once attended a lecture from some bigshot Ottawa journalist who noted smugly that while American reporters stand up when their president enters the room, we egalitarian Canucks do nothing of the sort for our prime minister. Which is true, but at least women aren't expected to curtsy in Obama's presence, which is less than we can say for Canada's head of state.

The excessive pomp and pageantry decorating Canada's political institutions usually comprise little more than a snobby sideshow, but they're becoming an  increasing embarrassment as our larger political culture grows steadily cruder. Like so much cheap cologne, Canada's is a system where flowery fragrance seeks to vainly mask a deeper grossness.

Justin Trudeau's latest ad, in which the 41-year-old leader of one of the western world's leading political parties appears wearing the sort of outfit a fratboy might toss on to take out the trash, was offensive not for any sartorial prissiness (if you want some of that, by the way, check out this column by my HuffPo colleague Daniel Portoraro), but because it reflected an unsettling lack of dignity for a supposed prime minister-in-waiting. For a man who's already benefited enormously from exploiting sex appeal for electoral benefit, now that he's a parliamentary leader, the least the guy could do is at least pretend he's got more to offer voters than the suggestive outline of his pecs. But then again, the Tories already declared J-Tru's body fair game in ads of their own, didn't they?

Left or right, bad taste flows in both directions. At the moment, the net's most popular anti-Harper website compares the Prime Minister's deeds to human excrement and no one thinks much of it. And look, here's a charming video of Brigette Depape -- the so-called "rebel page" who interrupted the most dignified date of Canada's parliamentary calendar to stupidly brandish a cardboard sign bearing an even stupider message -- in which she drops the s-bomb cheerfully and constantly, happily oblivious to any notion that political activists should possibly hold themselves to a higher standard.

But then again, why? Karen McCrimmon said the word during her speech to last month's Liberal convention, Bob Rae's barked it at reporters, and several politicians have yelled it on the floor of the House of Commons (though by Question Period standards that's pretty mild stuff).

Even when politics get positive it's crude. We're probably one of the few democracies on earth, for instance, where the official send-off for a leading national statesmen entails projecting footage of his skinny-dipping bare behind before thousands of onlookers, or where one of the most heart-warming anecdotes of a late local leader involves him telling a truly hideous joke about the defence minister's penis.

But that's the vulgar world of 21st century Canadian politics for you; a place where physical insults, ugly photos, and sexual gossip are the currency of argument, and blue humor, profanity, and lust the indicators of passion. Polite Canadians indeed.

You don't have to be a prude to find all this unsettling. In a country where politicians long ago mastered the art of compromising their ethics, values, and ideals, it was never much of a stretch to assume they'd eventually find ways to compromise personal dignity too. A nation whose leaders happily reject forbearance in office -- twisting truth as it suits them, refusing to resign when scandal strikes, bending democratic rules for personal gain, and arguing with brazen hypocrisy -- will soon eschew it everywhere else. And the Brigette Depapes of the world shortly after.

I've never liked the excessive English folderol that clutters Canada's parliamentary system, not only because its European roots are so thoroughly foreign to the North American experience (the seats in the House of Commons are said to be stationed "two sword lengths apart." When did Canada ever have swords? For that matter, when did we have "commons?") but also because they impart an unpleasant imperial aftertaste on the governance of a supposedly sovereign nation. If Gentlemen Ushers didn't already exist, we'd never create them -- so why even bother?

These days, however, it all troubles in a different way. There's getting to be something downright creepy about "honorable members" who cling ever-tighter to rituals of virtue when there's so little to be actually found.

Empty trappings of dignity hardly become a system whose actors exercise everything but.

What Is Justin Trudeau Doing?