The soft totalitarian roots of Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberal government are becoming increasingly transparent through its dismissing of the central truth that builds up society: the life of every person must be safeguarded and protected…
Terezín. Auschwitz-Birkenau. Majdanek. Treblinka. These places of suffering, even their very names, signify what Eva Hoffman calls the “abrupt but broken refrains” composing a litany of lamentation that renders all Holocaust remembering and history writing always already elegiac in nature. In the Majdanek State Museum, a dirge memorializing the victims of the Holocaust is played in the video documentary shown to visitors. The song is mainly a drawn-out, atonal Psalmic wailing of the name, “Majdanek,” as though saying it over and over both exorcises the evil it represents and reinforces its lingering traces, calling us to remember all those who suffered so unthinkably. Approaches to remembering the Holocaust are, as we know, fraught with various moral questions and concerns, and, in particular, its status as a ‘lesson’ to humanity about our potential for good and evil is understandably a contentious topic in Holocaust scholarship. As early as 1951, Levi Strauss commented that people tend to appropriate the Holocaust, Nazifying anyone they disagree with, by employing a reductio ad Hitlerum rhetoric—a mode of persuasion often based on sweeping, hyperbolic generalizations that are frequently irrelevant to the actual argument being put forward. Moreover, Godwin’s acerbic ‘Law of Nazi Analogies’ suggests that hijacking the specific historical and moral atrocity of the Holocaust for other purposes can do a great disservice to its victims and to all of us who are called, in good conscience, to be ethical curators of the past and our present time. However, there are times when comparisons between aspects of the National Socialist Regime and contemporary ideological movements or trends are valid and drive home the urgency of our moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable (before it is too late).
In fact, the late Elie Wiesel insisted that there is a responsibility to remember the Holocaust and to do so not only for the sake of the Jewish people already lost but also for future generations. In his Preface to the 2006 translation of Night, Wiesel wrote “there is ‘response’ in responsibility. When we speak of this era of evil and darkness, so close and yet so distant, ‘responsibility’ is the key word.” This responsibility to remember is partly for the preservation of future generations, for “the youth of tomorrow, for the children who will be born tomorrow.” Keeping Strauss, Godwin, and Wiesel in mind, I want to comment on an act of Holocaust memorialization that stirred up strongly mixed reactions for many Canadians: the visit of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Auschwitz-Birkenau, on 10 July 2016, while en route to the Ukraine, following his participation in the NATO summit in Warsaw.
Mr. Trudeau is a few months from entering his second year of his tenure as Prime Minister of Canada, and many Canadians are looking back at what has characterized his leadership so far. To my mind, his visit to Auschwitz has been one of the most touching moments of his time as Prime Minister but also one of the most deeply troubling. The message Mr. Trudeau left in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum guest book is both moving and apt. Part of it reads: “[t]oday we bear witness to humanity’s capacity for deliberate cruelty and evil. May we ever remember this painful truth about ourselves, and may it strengthen our commitment to never allow such darkness to prevail.” Not only Mr. Trudeau’s official message but also his great compassion and sorrow over the atrocities done during the Nazi Regime were touching, and many Canadians have hailed this visit as one of Mr. Trudeau’s most memorable moments in 2016. As someone who has done graduate work in Holocaust Studies and participated in field study research at (and extensively visited) some of the largest concentration and extermination camps throughout Poland and the Czech Republic, I certainly identify with those Canadians who see this act of Mr. Trudeau’s as a very important part of just, Canadian international relations in our present time.
That being said, gratitude for the Prime Minister’s visit is easily overshadowed by concern over the ways he has chosen to exercise his own newly gained power. After winning a majority of seats in the Canadian House of Commons in the October 2015 Federal Election, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party made the passage of Bill C-14 one of its highest priorities and succeeded in passing it as law in June of 2016. Bill C-14, euphemistically referred to as the “Medical Assistance in Dying Bill” (the phrase “assisted suicide” having been deemed overly divisive), allows—a more apt word would be coerces—medical professionals to euthanize, as the Toronto Star put it, “patients suffering from incurable illness whose natural death is ‘reasonably foreseeable.’” The wording of Bill C-14 itself states, among other things, that its purpose is to “create exemptions from the offences of culpable homicide, of aiding suicide and of administrating a noxious thing, in order to permit medical practitioners and nurse practitioners to provide medical assistance in dying and to permit pharmacists and other persons to assist in the process.” I am troubled by Mr. Trudeau’s ability to both mourn the violation of the dignity of human life that occurred in the Holocaust and to support legislation that puts the most vulnerable Canadian populations—the sick, suffering, mentally ill, the elderly, the depressed and lonely—in danger. This danger is, as many of us already know, compounded by the fact that this legislation is currently and increasingly being interpreted by various provincial governments throughout Canada, such as in Ontario, to mean that the conscientious objection rights of medical professionals should no longer be protected.
Seen in light of Bill C-14 and of the dark history of the 20th century (which sprang from eugenic and utilitarian ideologies), Mr. Trudeau’s visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is clearly symptomatic of Canada’s current wide-spread cognitive dissonance. Mr. Trudeau’s lack of moral imaginative ability to read the ideological correlation between the eugenicist principles that propelled the National Socialist’s own use of euthanasia on the one hand and the utilitarian, problematic ‘tenderness’ that underlies his government’s expressed belief that assisted suicide is both a right and a form of health care, on the other, is a grave and dangerous moral oversight. Mr. Trudeau often frames his motivations for policies and legislation around a pathos-based rhetoric of caring, empathy, and tenderness. But tenderness separated from objective morality tends to be one of the most striking features of what Aldous Huxley, Michael O’Brien, and others have termed “soft totalitarian” regimes—which are characterized by their attempts to rewrite the human condition on their own terms by seeking to change our moral sensibilities, often, as Mr. O’Brien puts it, through the “imposition of new laws that strike deeply into the moral autonomy of churches and individuals.”
The soft totalitarian roots of Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal government are becoming increasingly transparent through its seeking to try and repair the suffering and broken human condition on its own terms, dismissing, along the way, the central truth that reinforces, but also builds up, society: the life of every person must be safeguarded and protected. It seems to me that Mr. Trudeau’s view of Bill C-14 comes from a misguided, though nevertheless sincere, concept of compassion, even of tenderness, for those who are suffering greatly. But if we come to see some lives as being more worth living than others (for whatever reason) then we are already well on our way to instantiating an eugenicist mentality in our culture (and we all know where that ends).
Flannery O’Connor said, in her discussion of suffering in her Introduction to A Memoir of Mary Anne, that when the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the moral meaning it imparts to our understanding of suffering, is rejected, we inevitably set up various idols, various forms of totalitarianism. Some lesser ‘good’ becomes the ‘key’ to life and political and societal ordering: “[i]n the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness. And tenderness leads to the gas chamber.” Tenderness, in and of itself, is a beautiful aspect of charity but if separated from the moral order it tends to become an enticing way of justifying moral relativism.
The fact that Mr. Trudeau has transvaluated all moral values by dressing up assisted suicide as an act of mercy renders his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, of all places, tragically ironic: once we embrace the utilitarian and pleasured-based idea that life is only good when it is productive, useful, attractive, pain-free, enjoyable, respectable, etc., the difference between our world-view and National Socialism is only a matter of degree, not of kind. The radical conclusion of any eugenicist ideology ends in the gas chamber or, as in the beginning of the Third Reich, in the euthanizing of undesirables—like the elderly citizen or a child with Down’s-syndrome who are both seen as little more than social burdens.
As a Canadian citizen bracing myself for the consequences Bill C-14 has, and will have, on Canada’s view of who is or isn’t worthy of attention in a health-care system already over-burdened and negligent of those needing palliative care, I have to confess that Mr. Trudeau’s visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau disturbed me even more than it inspired me. I am far from alone. One 81-year-old Canadian, Christine Nigel, from Calgary, expressed her fear of the impending consequences of Bill C-14 by having the order “Don’t Euthanize Me” tattooed onto her left shoulder.
As of yet, the Trudeau Liberal government has not discerned the truth that Auschwitz-Birkenau tells us about what happens when certain lives are deemed disposable. As Andrew Coyne noted in the National Post, the “unmistakable message” Bill C-14 sends is that “some lives are not worth living.” It is very unfortunate to feel morally bound to not only honour Prime Minister Trudeau’s trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau but to also call attention to signs of Canadian moral schizophrenia. This appears the only moral option available, however, as we should all be rightly haunted by the original 1956 Yiddish title of Wiesel’s Night: Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World Remained Silent). My Canadian wish, and prayer, is that Mr. Trudeau’s deeply moving sorrow over the unthinkable atrocities of the Holocaust will come to inspire in him an authentic, moral care for the most vulnerable citizens in Canada.
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