I hadn’t planned to write anything about the ongoing Rob Ford debacle. It doesn’t really fall under the scope of this blog, for one thing, but I also didn’t really feel I had anything to say that wouldn’t just add to the noise. It has been fun to take shots on Facebook and laugh at the savaging he’s been receiving on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, but I didn’t really think it was worthwhile to add to the growing chorus of concern and condemnation, even as a native Torontonian who has been absolutely appalled by the tragicomedy. Schadenfreude (or “schadenford,” as the new term goes) can be fun, but there are limits. I keep thinking of Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes: after a while, the gag becomes vaguely uncomfortable, even as you’re fascinated by the prospect of just how much longer this can go on.
Every day, it seems Rob Ford steps on a new rake. To say he’s become a sideshow isn’t entirely accurate, as it suggests he hasn’t always been a sideshow—something to which I suspect anyone familiar with his antics as a councillor would attest. At this point he is train-wreck theatre, with his brother Doug in the dual role of stage manager and co-star. It mesmerizes the audience and provides fat Stewart/Colbert bait as everyone wonders what he’ll do or say next, what will be revealed next, and just how long he’ll soldier on. Ford himself is a sideshow in something resembling the literal sense of the word, but one so fascinating that we mistake him for the main stage. When all is said and done he will be a textbook case of delusion and dishonesty as inextricable elements of addiction, and little more.
What worries me, and what made me sit down to write this, is the possibility (or probability) that Rob Ford the man will distract from the more vital questions arising from Rob Ford the phenomenon. First and foremost is the steadfast support he continues to enjoy in the face of his myriad transgressions. As the allegations mount and the full, shocking scope of his illegal behaviour and associations becomes know, one starts to wonder exactly what it would take for his base to turn on him. It has happened among many of his erstwhile supporters, from his former allies on Council to conservative columnists like Margaret Wente—but these are people who fall a little too neatly into the category of “elites,” whom the brothers Ford have defined themselves against.
More and more I am coming to believe that political entities of a certain size reach a tipping point at which they become unwieldy, increasingly prone to dysfunction, and ultimately unmanageable. I started pondering this question while watching U.S. politics: wondering whether the sheer size of that country obviates federal solutions when the social, cultural, economic, and ideological faultlines run so deeply. When you have a not-insignificant minority and their elected representatives irrevocably convinced that government is the source of all their ills, it should surprise no one that those elected representatives are going to do everything in their power to sabotage the workings of government. Whatever the validity of their beliefs, when a critical mass of anti-government activists get into government, and do whatever is in their power to gum up the works, the assertion that government is incompetent becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The current crisis in Toronto, though on a much smaller scale, proceeds from much the same problem. Rob Ford would fit in well with the Tea Party, at least in terms of their anti-tax fundamentalism (some of the social conservatives might take issue with drug use and the acknowledgment of the existence of cunnilingus). Certainly, when reading the words written by those in support of Ford, the most common theme is “I don’t care what he does, so long as he keeps my taxes low.” While I can certainly sympathize with taxation frustration, this particular expression of it strikes me as a pernicious form of NIMBYism, given that Ford is no longer simply an anti-tax crusader, but is actively damaging Toronto. He has made the city a laughing-stock and deeply hurt its reputation, and his stubborn refusal to step down or even temporarily step away is a huge monkey wrench in the Council’s ability to actually govern the city.
What is even more troubling, however, Is the increasing certainty of Ford’s connection to the world of drug crime. Back in May when the crack video was still just an allegation, I commented to a friend of mine that, ultimately, substance abuse was the least problem in the firmament of Rob Ford’s shortcomings. My friend vehemently disagreed, saying he would be less bothered if crack use was all there was to it, but that if the allegations about the video were true—as we now know they were—then in hanging out with the dealers, Ford proved himself unfit to be mayor. The picture of him standing with drug dealers is a picture of him standing with the enemies of the city. Doing drugs while proclaiming oneself a paragon of law and order is egregiously hypocritical, to be certain—but then, addiction follows its own twisted logic and we should be sympathetic to anyone so afflicted. But as that picture showed, and as more evidence that has surfaced shows, Ford is more than an affluent drug user shielded from the origins of his illicit substances by money and privilege. He is, rather, entirely imbricated with the very criminal element for whom he declares to have “zero tolerance.”
It is this crucial element that makes the lower-taxes-at-all-costs constituency so patently selfish. Never mind the fact that Ford’s claims about just how much money he has saved the city are dubious at best; surely, even if he was the relentless cost-and-tax-cutter he portrays himself as, the spectacle of a mayor actively involved with the drug underworld must give everyone pause.
Except apparently not. Which brings me back to my question of size and tipping points: if nothing else good comes of this ongoing fiasco, hopefully it will inspire a certain amount of measured thought and consideration about how we arrived at this impasse, and how, precisely, Rob Ford could ever have been elected. As Emmett McFarlane recently observed in a Globe and Mail op-ed, the current situation highlights the flaws in Toronto’s policies and procedures (not least of which being the absence of an impeachment option). But it also has served to highlight the deep divides at work in a city that became much too large about twenty years ago.
I find it eminently appropriate to blame Ford’s election on that other great Ontario conservative blowhard, Mike Harris. The amalgamation of Toronto with its neighbouring municipalities is what made Mayor Ford possible. The creation of the “megacity” also proceeded from the kind of deep antipathy to Toronto that animates Rob Ford. Aside from the simple logistical fact that amalgamation meant an Etobicoke councillor could run for mayor of Toronto, it also provided the constituency that elected him and which continues to be vocal in its support.
One of the most pernicious aspects of amalgamation is the degree to which it facilitates precisely the NIMBYism of Ford’s base, insofar as it makes the city large enough to establish literal and figurative distance between the suburbs and Toronto proper. “Toronto” as an identifier is a catch-all, but in truth people from Scarborough or Etobicoke often identify more closely to those former municipal entities. Certainly, Rob Ford’s tenure so far has served to highlight this division, as his entire mayoralty (and indeed his entire tenure as a city councillor before that) has been about ginning up resentment against the “elites” of downtown, who get depicted as latte-drinking intellectuals and bohemians who think themselves entitled to use your tax dollars howsoever they please. That he succeeded in getting elected and continues to enjoy a significant amount of (very vocal) support speaks to the success of this strategy, which in turn speaks to the very real resentments (how much these resentments are justified is beyond my expertise to comment upon) fracturing the GTA’s civic psyche.
I really have to wonder: if amalgamation had never happened, and Rob Ford had become mayor of Etobicoke, would his constituents be quite so sanguine about his behaviour? If it actually was happening in their backyards, would they still be so steadfast in their support? Of course, much of what has happened was quite literally happening in their backyards, but that is what I mean about figurative distance: Ford might be the champion of suburbia, but as Mayor of Toronto, all of the symbolic fallout from his transgressions is associated with Toronto. He has become the physical embodiment of his political rhetoric, a thumb in the eye of smug downtown Toronto. In a perverse way, the damage he has done and continues to do to the city is perfectly of a piece with his entire political philosophy, which has been driven by hatred for the very city of which he has become mayor.