Justin Trudeau’s Little Joke About Ukraine

by | March 2, 2014

Not long ago a gaffe was made in Canadian politics. Yes, gentle reader – a gaffe. The dead in their graves cried out to heaven in bitter outrage, and the sun wept tears of fire upon the wretched Earth. The satyrs moped and the nymphs fornicated not, and then the nymphs moped while the satyrs abstained from fornication.

I refer, of course, to Justin Trudeau’s recent comments about the situation in Ukraine. Apparently he made a lame joke:

In his interview last Thursday with “Tout le Monde en Parle,” Trudeau suggested Russia, peeved about being eliminated from the medal round in Olympic hockey, might vent spleen by getting involved in Ukraine.


“It is even more worrisome now,” Trudeau said in the interview, broadcast Sunday night. “Especially since Russia lost in hockey, they will be in a bad mood. We are afraid of a Russian intervention in Ukraine.”

And that’s it! That, in the name of all that would be holy if it weren’t just random body parts dubiously attributed to men and women who apparently merit an “St.” in front of their names because some flagellation-addled hagiographer thought they got themselves devoured by giant weasels in a Roman amphitheatre in the time of Tiberius Caesar, is what people are complaining about.

Trudeau’s little joke elicited some earnest, disapproving commentary, including a particularly risible hatchet job from Mark Steyn. For the record, I like Mark Steyn. I think he’s sharp, eloquent and wonderfully acerbic, and I think many (though hardly all) of his targets are well-chosen. In attacking Trudeau, however, he veers into absurdity. He claims that the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada was “devastating” when he wittered that you “have to be extremely careful when you talk about 82 people who died fighting”, inviting the mild objections that Trudeau’s joke wasn’t actually about those Ukrainian deaths and that it seems unlikely that all of them occurred in battle anyway.

Steyn also intimates that Ronald Reagan’s jokes about the Soviet Union were superior to Trudeau’s one joke about Ukraine, Russia and the Olympics because of their ability to “illuminate”. Here’s a joke of Reagan’s that Steyn quotes approvingly:

Okay, one more: The Commissar for Collective Farms asks the farmer how the harvest is going. “Oh, comrade commissar! If we piled up all the potatoes, they would reach the foot of God!”


The commissar rebukes him sternly. “Comrade farmer, this is the Soviet Union. There is no God.”


“That’s okay,” says the farmer. “There are no potatoes.”

So apparently, joking about deaths that result from a harsh response to a civil unrest is beyond the pale but joking about a potato famine can “illuminate” a situation. My 19th century Irish ancestors knew that potato famines were no laughing matter, although I’ll bet they’d still have found this pretty amusing once they’d been brought up to speed on the 20th century context. Seeing the brutal side of something is no real bar to seeing the funny side, and vice-versa.

Better yet, though, Steyn writes the following in his 2006 book America Alone: The End Of The World As We Know It:

Thirty-five years later, the Palestinian Authority elections were a landslide for Hamas and among the incoming legislators was Miriam Farahat, a mother of three, elected in Gaza. She used to be a mother of six but three of her sons self-detonated on suicide missions against Israel. She’s a household name to Palestinians, known as Umm Nidal – Mother of the Struggle – and, at the rate she’s getting through her kids, the Struggle’s all she’ll be Mother of.

It’s a witty passage, and it makes a fair point about the fanatical and jihadist strain of Islam, but it’s not exactly dripping with pious respect for the value of human life. Mark Steyn is clearly a man who understands and indeed embraces the value of black humour, which makes his complaints about Trudeau’s little Russian joke seem more insipid and transparently partisan than ever.

Steyn the author of America Alone is far better company than Steyn the moralistic complainer. We atheists have learned to be irreverent towards the pieties of religion, and to me it seems natural and entirely healthy for atheists and theists alike to cultivate at least a dash of similar irreverence for the pieties of humanism. Russia’s belligerence towards Ukraine may be deplorable, but refusing to joke about the matter amounts to surrendering the ability to look at it from a vantage point – that of humour – that may be helpful in understanding the situation, in communicating about it, and especially in keeping it in perspective. Humour is the perfect tool for puncturing the overwrought moral fervour that geopolitical conflicts tend to inspire in some commentators, and maintaining a more grounded attitude. Trudeau’s sally hardly rose to the level of sparkling, mordant Churchillian wit, but I applaud him for at least having a go. It’s frankly one of the few good signs I’ve seen from the man.

Meanwhile, Russia has of course pushed ahead with its “intervention” in Ukraine, and the BBC reported (on its “live update” page covering the crisis) a Ukrainian claim that the officer in charge of operations in Crimea is one Aleksandr Galkin. The Russians are presumably hoping that he’ll be a more potent force than his namesake, Mr. Ovechkin, was in Sochi.

12 thoughts on “Justin Trudeau’s Little Joke About Ukraine

  1. Peter E.

    Much ado about scoring weak political points.

    What Trudeau has actually shown is that he is…human.
    It’s rather refreshing after dealing with the droid that goes by the name of Harper.

    And of course leave it to that bastion of good taste and editorial integrity, the Toronto Sun, to put all of this in perspective by calling Trudeau out for his immaturity and insensitivity. Here is their editorial cartoon published a few days BEFORE Trudeau’s gaffe(?) became public.


    1. Corwin Post author

      It’s rather refreshing after dealing with the droid that goes by the name of Harper.

      I agree. The tendency of the media to pounce on “gaffes” encourages droid-like behaviour, but politicians brave enough to shrug off the squalls of contrived outrage might find that humour and spontaneity are helpful in connecting with voters. Much of the outrage is pure hypocrisy anyway, as your Toronto Sun link shows beautifully.

  2. Bubba Kincaid

    It’s interesting how you are fairly apt at circumvolutionary writing, attempting to cover as many bases as you can.

    However it’s a tad bit disappointing that you didn’t manage to somehow address what could be considered the biggest problem people have with inappropriate humour in that it has always also been used as a cudgel to minimize and/or otherwise suppress a target that is being unjustly and possibly violently set upon, as well as a bludgeon against support for that target.

    Your post would have carried slightly more of a reassuring air if you had somehow shown a way to do deal with that aspect, but as it stands, the omission sort of takes away from the piece and makes it feel like there is a large hole of something missing.

    1. Corwin Post author

      Well, one can’t cover all the bases. I take your point that humour can be used nastily, but I would argue that humour of the cudgelling and bludgeoning variety is rare in Canadian public life whereas soul-crushing blandness is all too common. When someone does use humour as a weapon in the unjust way you’re describing, volleys of equally edgy and witty invective fired in the opposite direction are surely a more commendable response than cries of “How dare you joke about that!”

  3. Tim Underwood

    It’s about time someone lent support to Justin’s attempt at droll humor.
    We, the freethinkers, should probably criticize his attempt at resurrecting the illiberal party in service of the universal church.
    If we want a secular party in Canada it will take all the secularist in all of Canada to achieve this.
    Justin is in no way dedicated to this goal.
    All Justin can hope to achieve is a continuance of the modern forms of feudalism that have been passed down to us.

    1. Corwin Post author

      Droll humour is something Canadian politics needs in much greater quantities, so I’m generally prepared to support honourable attempts. Which secular issues do you think the Liberals should be pushing harder? In my view Canada is a pretty secular place already, and isn’t the glaring exception – Catholic schools – more a matter of provincial jurisdiction?

  4. Ryan

    I would have more respect for Trudeau if him and his party weren’t whoring themselves to every local mosque trying to get votes.

    1. Corwin Post author

      Agreed. I’m not really a fan of Justin Trudeau in general – I just think his quip about Ukraine deserved a more positive response than it received, and is the kind of thing that should be encouraged in politicians.

  5. Bubba Kincaid

    I’m not sure if I want funny politicians.

    I wouldn’t mind it so much if they just did their work properly and shut up.

    1. Corwin Post author

      Much of a politician’s work, though, boils down to communication and negotiation. Humour is an asset when engaging in those activities, and I also like to think that people who have a visible sense of humour are likely to be saner and more reasonable decision makers.

      As for thinking that a politician should be “run out of office” for making a joke about the siege of the Yarmouk camp in Syria, that judgement seems misguided to me on two levels. First, I think it’s intemperate and disproportionate to want someone out of office for saying just one awful thing, even if the awfulness is quite palpable and uncontroversial. Second, one could joke about the siege of Yarmouk in a number of ways, including ways that ridiculed the contrast between the humanitarian rhetoric of Western nations and their reluctance to take robust measures to help the situation. Would you really find every possible Yarmouk joke unconscionable?

      1. Bubba Kincaid

        I’m pretty dubious. From what I can tell, the LAST thing we want is our politicians trying to be funny, unless you’re an absolute masochist with no gag reflex to speak of.

        It’s inviting trouble that we already have plenty of, if you ask me.

        In any case, all indications are that the future holds more responsibility by and from the people in their governance, rather than a continuation of the historical embodiment of the intrepid saviour politician. Which means if you don’t like dull beaurocrats….than you might be SOL.


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