Reading Scandal: On Rob Ford

By Mark McConaghy

Here in Toronto, as the city moves on with its daily business amidst the aftermath of the Rob Ford scandal, many of us are still trying to take our bearings and figure out just what it all meant. Many people have asked me- why haven’t I written about it yet? Given the international attention it is has focused on the city of Toronto and Canada as whole, I’ve been asked repeatedly- what are your thoughts on the unprecedented media frenzy that came to Toronto at the height of the scandal? As someone with a deep and profound love for this city- believing as I do that it is one of the world’s truly great urban centers- how am I supposed to feel in the wake of all this chaos?

In an utterly brilliant satire of the entire Ford circus, Grantland’s Brian Phillips has captured the surreal heights which this story has reached:

There’s something almost eerie about Ford’s streak at this point, right? It’s supernatural. When was the last time he did anything without just cosmically wrecking the attempt? Any moron can attack a heckler; Rob Ford accidentally attacks a sexagenarian bureaucrat before he even gets to the heckler. Rob Ford drives past a Wendy’s and a Belgian orphanage explodes. I’m just saying, this is special. He’s pitching a perfect imperfect game, and we’re right at the moment when nobody better talk to him in the dugout. I hope he brings it home. Also, heads up, because Rob Ford is about to cause the apocalypse….

…Where will the sports wing of the Rob Ford scandal-cluster take us next? Apart from the obvious prediction — fucking space — it’s impossible to say. It’s not even possible to chart all the places it’s taken us already. What map could give us the location of Ford’s photo op with hockey broadcaster and noted pink floral jacket enthusiast Don Cherry?5 What atlas has the coordinates for Ford’s confab with the Argos’ mascot, who is clearly his secret twin? What continent has room for the Official Mayor Rob Ford Bobblehead? No place of this earth, my friends. There is a Canada of the mind, and we are all its Torontonians.

All I know is this: These are exciting times to be alive and politically disengaged and a hollow-eyed consumer of junk news websites. Maybe the most exciting. Whatever happens, I can’t wait to read the next chapter in this saga. You only live once, after all, and sometimes not even that often.

Phillips’ faux-authentic praise for the Ford scandal speaks to a truth that we all have to admit: as embarrassing as this entire story has been to Toronto, it’s also been oddly invigorating, energizing a city into a populist discussion about who we are and what kind of image we want to project to the world. Although we are outraged by the story, there’s also a kind of amazed glee at just how low Ford will go, what new depths of buffoonery and bad-taste he will stoop to. Just when we think the man can’t get any more foolish, he does something even more idiotic (like comparing his situation to that of Kuwait before Saddam)…he just can’t seem to get out of his own way, turning his every move into a moment of unbridled hijinx.

Even his apologies have become wonderful pantomimes of authenticity- I can’t wait for the next one coming up, where he will no doubt remind us that he is truly very sorry and that there will be no more bad behavior to come.

It seemed that last month we entered vortex Ford and, try as we might, simply could not get out of it. A short time ago stories about relief efforts in the wake of the devastating hurricane in the Philippines took a back seat to live-shots of Toronto city council as they debated a motion to strip Rob Ford of his mayoral powers. The problem of widespread human suffering amidst ecological catastrophe just couldn’t hold a fraction of interest for people. All we wanted to see was more of Toronto’s bumbling Mayor, whose crude loutishness had an endearing honesty to it- no matter how much he lied to his constituents.

When it comes to Ford, have we all become those “hollow-eyed” consumers of junk websites and trashy message boards, waiting lasciviously for the next coke-filled rant or council floor body-check? How can we get out of this Fordian-vortex of bad taste and sleaze, in which our inner gossip hounds force us to egg on the bedraggled mayor into ever lower forms of public behavior?

How do we get out of the Fordian vortex?
How do we get out of the Fordian vortex?

There is great humor, and more than just a little irony, that for a city as sensitive about its self-image as Toronto, one that is constantly obsessing about its place in the global cultural order, Rob Ford has come to stand in as a symbol for our metropolis. It was not TIFF, or urban redevelopment projects, or abounding creative economies that placed Toronto on the lips of every newsmaker in the world: it was the overweight dumbo from Etobicoke.

The Ford scandal has so much delicious irony, so much rank hypocrisy, so much underlying cultural encodement, it is impossible to have just one reaction to it. Indeed, perhaps the most honest thing we can do is admit to the full range of emotion that the episode has produced within us. After all, the media-phenomenon has reached such dazzling heights of performative meta-ness that it would be impossible not to claim it as a profound moment in Toronto’s cultural history: there is a Canada of the mind, and we are all its Torontonians.

So without further ado, here is a list of our myriad reactions to the Ford scandal:

Old-Fashioned Ethical Outrage: Our public leaders should not and cannot use powerful, mood altering, highly addictive, and illegal drugs while in office! They should not get publicly intoxicated at city events and scream out obscenities! They should be responsible leaders of public trust, buttoned-down role models for our youth, who will look up to them for guidance as they negotiate the rigors of adolescent life.

Libertarian, Relativist Understanding: Okay, so Rob Ford likes to drink and has had some issues with narcotics use- has that affected his attendance record at council, which is not much worse than his predecessor David Miller? Does it prevent him from returning every phone call that is made to his office? Look, life is profoundly disappointing and painful. From losing the people we loved dearly to the grinding bleakness of professional failure to the sadness of lost social opportunities, it takes an ocean not to break in this world. We all need some substantive crutches to help keep us going, whether that be our morning coffee or our escapist video games or joyful nights spent in pubs with our friends. Ford is just like us- who hasn’t gotten inebriated as a way of dealing with those jolting sources of deep pain inside of us?

The man is human and should be treated with the same empathy with which we treat ourselves. And if you placed a camera on us while we were at our lowest, then released that video to the world, do you think we’d be proud of the person we saw there? Ford may take this to unfortunate excess, but he should still be treated as one of us, not denounced from a place of false innocence.

And don’t proffer that American puritanist rhetoric about role models in public office. All public servants are self-interested and egotistical. They wouldn’t want to get into public office if they didn’t have some fundamental desire for mastery over socio-political space. The idea that these anointed ones should be thought of as role models for our kids is laughable. And at least Ford has been-in the end- honest about his vices. If we scrounged around in the private-lives of any one of us, would we like what we find there?

Post-Modern Apathetic Glee: While Rob Ford is a hypocrite, a liar, and a professionally irresponsible civil servant, you got to hand it to him: he has just completed the greatest piece of performance art Canadian society has ever seen. The man’s false populism tricked enough people into convincing them that he actually gave a damn about public policy, while he did just enough to hide his drunkenness, bigotry, homophobia, and general lack of public decorum to convince the electorate that he would be worth voting for. He has certainly lost the moral authority to lead the city forward, but we can’t say this hasn’t been a shockingly fun ride. From flop-sweat fueled media scrums to coke-induced rants (the Birds!) to police surveillance footage of the mayor in clandestine meetings in far off woods, the whole affair has reached such surreal heights of catastrophic entertainment that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But watch you will…because mayors are not supposed to act this way…and if they do, they are not supposed to hang around…and if they do, they should not be this so damn compelling. This just doesn’t happen. Not here. Not in Canada. But it has…and we’ve all been witness to it, even though we are still struggling to define what it means for our city.

Exhausted Sadness: Sure, we can make all the jokes we want about Rob Ford, we can embrace the crazy energy that has fed the entire scandal. But in the end, when we turn off our laptops, shut down our smart phones, and step back for a moment…is this really something we should have taken so much pleasure in? One of the most poignant moments of the entire affair was when federal finance minister Jim Flaherty, a longtime friend of the Ford family, was asked about the matter and began to tear up in front of cameras. It was an uncharacteristic show of emotion from a Conservative politician in Canada, and its sudden tenderness underscored the grim reality that Ford’s comic buffoonery has masked: this is a human tragedy.

No matter how loudly Ford proclaims otherwise, it’s clear he has deep substance abuse issues. You can’t just will those away by doing enough media interviews. They’ll be back, and so will the sad and difficult episodes of personal unrest, public disorder, and embarrassing behavior that comes with them. And we haven’t even seen the original video yet…will Ford seem so funny when he is truly high on crack mouthing off homophobic slurs?

No matter how endearing he can be, is this craven slob the best Canada can do? How many times does he need to insult the integrity of this city before we tell him that, as empathetic a people as we are, you can’t be so selfish and so dishonest in office and expect our continued support. How low will he need to go for us to truly cut ties with him once and for all?

The Multiplicity of Ford
The Multiplicity of Ford

An honest observer of the entire Ford debacle will bravely admit that our responses to this scandal have ping-ponged between each of the positions enunciated above. Certainly at times I’ve felt sadness, empathy, outrage, anger, and even an unhinged kind of joy.

People, in the end, are deeply multiple beings, with a host of conflicting impulses and desires inside of them. If Ford has taught us anything, it’s that human experience is impossible to summarize in easy ethical maxims. The complexity of our responses to Ford should, at the very least, allow us to appreciate the dogged intricacy of human decision making in this fractured and deeply unequal age. We are all strong and weak, magnanimous and selfish, calm and turbulent, and often all these things at the same time.

It was Shakespeare who told us, in Hamlet, “this above all- to thine own self be true.” He wrote those words at the turn of the 17th century. We know that in this day and age they are totally and utterly false. For we do not possess one self to be true to, but many selves, each one in constant formation and deformation. It would be impossible to be true to so much multiplicity even if we tried. What we find inside of us is not an authentic core that will sustain us throughout our lives, but a raging cacophony of impulses and desires, a palimpsest with a series of rhythms, an entire momentum, all its own, which pushes us in multiple directions all the time.

We live in the age of ultimate and irrefutable in-authenticity. If there is a truth to be loyal to, it is not that of the self, but that of the many-in-the-one, which the ideology of bourgeois authenticity only serves to mask.

Rob Ford is a dug abuser. He is the mayor of the largest city in this country. He is a loving father and husband. He is an intelligent populist. He is a pig-headed ignoramus. He is a man of the community. He is the sliver-spooned son of a wealthy industrialist.

Rob Ford is all these things. He is multiple being. As we all are. If there is any truth in the Ford scandal that we need to grapple with, it should be that one.

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.

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