Everything is Fine: Rob Ford and Existential Exhaustion

By Mark McConaghy

I will start by stating an obvious but important fact: the irony of doing political or creative work is that, above all else, one must have the time to engage in it. If you want to go out and raise awareness about an issue, either online or through old fashioned door knocking, one must first have the time to actually go out to do so. If you want to write that great novel kicking around inside your head, or that next blog posting readers are clamoring for, you must first ensure you have enough leisure to actually sit and write the thing.

For most people, thrust as they are in the searing humdrum of working life, in which the next deadline always looms, in which the morning commute means an early bedtime and an even earlier wake up, there is simply no time to feel political concern for others or to put your thoughts in creative order on paper. A kind of comfortable numbness takes hold as we move through our days- we are not so much physically exhausted, though there is much of that, as much as we are existentially so. Just trying to make it to lunch break; just trying to look forward to that 4 pm trip to Starbucks; just waiting for the journey back home to prepare dinner, eat, clean up the interminable mess, and get ready to do it all again tomorrow.

Experts wonder why there is so little engagement in concrete policy debate amongst the public or so little appetite for complex academic works. I would submit: people don’t have the ontological capacity to be bothered with them in this age of late-capitalist anxiety. We are too tired. The forces of political reaction may win the battle for our culture not by coercive force but through the gradual dissipation of our will-power for collective and creative action in the future, as we are worked day after day by the companies we stand in fear of (lest they fire us and we are cast down into the embarrassing pit of the unemployed).

Think of it as victory not by force of arms or even ideological coercion but rather by existential exhaustion, where we don’t even have the dissipated energy to voice our apathy anymore.

And there is little doubt that the popular rise of easily consumed media such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, the polemics of talk radio, and the news panel shows that reduce human affairs to an entertainment sideshow are all linked to our collective condition of existential exhaustion. They are the soothing, ever addictive flow of digital nonsense that take the edge off the stressful socket-grind that is working life, be it on the assembly line, on the trading floor, or in the impersonal corridors of the state machine itself.

All of which is a long-winded way of apologizing for the tardiness by which we have posted articles on this site over the last two weeks. We fight against the anonymity of the internet- we hope someone out there is reading us- and we fight also against the marketplace itself, which grinds us into exhausted pulp in our day jobs so we have nothing left to put on the page at night.

Much has happened since we last wrote and many a friend has asked me: when are you going to post something on Rob Ford?

And you know what my first reaction is?

I haven’t posted on Rob Ford because I am interested in problems of life and death, problems of existential meaning, problems of collective engagement and social transformation, the question of how to live a good and decent and honorable life, like a flame that burns brightly to light the way for others in this our most darkest of nights…I don’t have much to say about parochialism, immaturity, and cynicism, three traits I would say fairly sums up Rob Ford in his public persona.

The whole damn thing has been a silly sideshow that has brought out the worst in our media, in our mayor, and in ourselves, as we clamor to know detail after scintillating detail of what may have transpired amongst our muddle-headed executive leader, transfixed as we are by an administration whose breathtaking disregard for both the tenets of transparent government and simple truth is fairly shocking.

I have found myself over the last couple of weeks checking the Toronto Star page daily for the next round of the media vs. the mayor, downright savoring those hilarious stills of Ford looking like a deer in the headlights as he wonders what to do next. One does truly love those photos, Ford’s face a rivulet of anxiety, disbelief, and slight bemusement at the surreal place he now finds himself in.

A Deer in Headlights
A Deer in Headlights

At times, he resorts to an almost childlike look of wonder, as if he is at an utter loss to explain the person he has become. With staff members resigning left and right, his control of council and city hall pretty much obliterated, his name the laughing stock of North America, and his one slice of pure joy in life (coaching football) having been revoked, Ford is no doubt a man in existential pain right now.

Yet you will find no sympathy for Ford here. Though you will find no rush to denounce him as a crack cocaine abuser either. Let me be clear: moral character matters in life and particularly so if you want to hold public office. I am not one of those intellectuals who claim a politician’s personal life is of no relevance to how he conducts himself in office or how he represents the populace. If a politician swears to uphold anti-discrimination laws during the day and goes to a bar and makes fun of gay people with his buddies on his off time, I think the public has a right to know about such duplicity. Sure, said politician was not acting as a public official at the bar, but his own personal views on questions of gender, ethics, and human dignity are within the realm of public interest.

Civic leaders should expect a heightened examination of all aspects of their lives and for good reason- they should be inspirations for all of us to be better people and to sacrifice ourselves for the good of society understood as a complex whole. If someone is a bigot, a racist, or a drug abuser on their spare time we have a right to know because it may affect how they approach policy or how they manage key ethical decisions they will encounter.

Now, there are limits to the public‘s right to inquire- everyone is human and makes mistakes at certain times. A failed relationship, a fraught marriage, even a tendency to find respite in friendly drinking are no major sins. Humanity has a tremendous capacity to err, and someone can be a great policy mind and an able leader and still be going through a troubled relationship with their partner or a too friendly relationship with their bottle of choice.

The public does not have the right to pry incessantly and maliciously. There is what I would call a “human standard” which we can apply to public leaders: it is not that they can never make mistakes (nobody is perfect); we should be accepting when they go through difficult moments; we should find in their failures the maturity of forgiveness. And yet they cannot err so egregiously as to not only debilitate them from doing their job but, more importantly, lose the moral confidence of the people they are supposed to represent.

In a city like Toronto, which has battled youth gang-related crime for many years, and which is actively trying to encourage its young people to stay away from hard drugs which obliterate one’s health and provide a market for criminal organizations to make profits from, you cannot have a mayor who smokes crack. Not even recreationally, as if one could use the drug in that capacity and not risk affecting the quality of your work.

For me, smoking crack as a public official is over the line. It simply fails the “human standard” test that is the common sensical measure of indiscretion in judging these cases.

We should not go around being moral arbiters when humanity is as frail as it is. Yet there are certain behaviors that public officials cannot partake in, for in doing them they lose the fundamental integrity that a servant of the public, no less a mayor, needs to have. And crack use is problematic in this regard.

    Our Mayor Should be a Symbol of Hope for Us Rather than Embarrassment
Our Mayor Should be a Symbol of Hope for Us Rather than Embarrassment (painting by Stephanie Kervin, see Stephaniekervin.com)

This is all true- if Rob Ford did it.

And here’s the next major problem with this entire debacle: we still don’t have any concrete evidence that this actually occurred. As scintillating as all the drama has been, it amounts to nothing more than the Toronto Star’s word vs. Rob Ford’s until there is actual proof. I may have my personal estimation of Rob Ford’s guilt, but we still live in a democracy protected by the rule of law and due process. Ford deserves the assumption of innocence until proven guilty.

And here is the problem from the Toronto Star’s perspective. While it was potentially brave and groundbreaking for them to run with this story, the decision not to buy the video when they had the chance may eventually come back to haunt them. For to report something as incendiary as this and then not show the video to back it up, to effectively throw up your hands and claim “well, we didn’t want to buy the thing because we refused to betray our journalistic code of integrity”…is this not just slightly irresponsible? Does this not effectively ensure that the city will turn into an absolute circus until the matter is resolved one way or another, which is to say when the damn tape actually does surface?

Don’t get me wrong- I am a reader and an avid defender of the Toronto Star. I don’t think the two reporters behind the story would have put their careers on the line if they weren’t one hundred percent certain that it was Ford in the video. But this entire circus could have been avoided had the Toronto Star bought the video itself, and there are no doubt times in this whole thing when we all wish they had.

And so now we wait. The circus goes on. And yes, in our state of perpetual existential exhaustion we will all be hooked to this ongoing soap opera until it is resolved.

It is, after all, Rob Ford versus the Toronto Media for all the marbles here.

And yet one can’t help but wonder about all the more productive ways that the energy exhibited over the last two weeks in this city could have been used. Could all the media attention, the rabid energy of all those college-educated reporters (who, one suspects, went into journalism to do something slightly more lofty than to chase Rob Ford into Tim Hortons at nine in the morning), all the digital ink-spilled in the blogging community, all the twitter jokes and the nightly newscasts and the call-in hoopla and the water-cooler conversation…could all of this not have been directed into something ultimately more meaningful for our society than rampant speculation about our mayor’s drug use?

If we could harness that collective energy, that burning desire for knowledge exhibited by the media and the public, and turn it towards a shared project to radically end violence, suffering, and unemployment forever…would we then not have truly made an important difference? Would that not be a truly genuine politics worthy of a sacred name?

What Would a Genuine Collective Project Look Like?
What Would a Genuine Collective Project Look Like? (painting by Aejaz Saiyed, see desipainters.com)

It is an odd culture of ours. Millions of Syrians are displaced through the most heinous forms of physical violence one can think of in an intractable civil war. Apple, one of the largest and most culturally important companies in the world, is guilty of massive tax evasion, as their propaganda machine drums on about their desire for human progress and communicative freedom as they rob the states they operate in of untold billions of dollars (which no doubt could have been used to help offset the violent austerity cuts that polities of all stripes are living through). And in Ottawa, our executive branch has interceded in an ongoing Senate investigation over stolen public funds through the under-handed writing of a ninety thousand dollar cheque to bail out a dishonest senator from facing the full measure of justice his institution demanded.

All of this swirls around us- this corporate greed, governmental corruption, and human violence- and yet we are waiting breathlessly for a video of a fat man smoking a pipe, whom we will mock with unfettered glee if he turns out to be our mayor Rob Ford.

Do we not, dear readers, have more important things to worry about?

And yet I too will check my twitter feed tomorrow along with all of you. I’m too excited by our vapidity not to.

And yet I know that this excitement is nothing but the outward symptom of a deeper, exhausted numbness we are now living through. It is, sad to say, the soul-rending aimlessness of our times.

It is not that we don’t have a collective project to participate in, outside of pernicious celebrity gossip and rampant commercialism. It’s that we can’t even imagine what such a collective project would actually look like.

This failure of imaginative empathy is the shameful burden we must one day overthrow, lest we remain trapped in an existence which, for all it digital sound and commodified fury, ultimately signals nothing at all.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books. At the moment, he his integrating his political interests into a variety of aesthetic projects, spanning from poetry to experimental film.

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