The headlines have it: “Rob Ford,” they say, “Toronto’s Crack-Smoking Mayor”.
In the month of November our Crack-Smoking Mayor has denied smoking crack, admitted to smoking crack (possibly during one of his “drunken stupors”), lost his radio show (hosted with his doppelganger brother), gained and lost a television show (also hosted with his brother and cancelled after one rant-soaked episode), admitted to drinking and driving, got himself uninvited to Toronto’s annual Christmas parade, and knocked over a fellow councilmember during a meeting when he thought he saw his brother under attack during a near-mêlée they incited on the council floor (by insulting and video taping and otherwise intimating public spectators), and in which he mocked another councilor, who was caught drinking and driving by police, by miming (that councilor?) drinking and driving and crashing his car.
There are allegations of prostitution at City Hall. Allegations of sexual harassment. Allegations of public intoxication. A video of a crazed and babbling Ford making apparent death threats toward an invisible enemy.
There is a photo of public urination.
Referring allegations made in a police document that he made lewd comments to a former staff member (yes, he’s being investigated by police), Ford said during a press conference that:
“It says I wanted to eat her pussy and I have never said that in my life to her. I would never do that. I’m happily married and I’ve got more than enough to eat at home.”
That’s a quote. Emphasis added.
The investigation, by the way, is on-going.
He lost his most of his powers as Mayor during that meeting. He also referred to himself as “Kuwait”.
Rob Ford is still a political force, is still popular, is still (reduced powers notwithstanding) the mayor (crack smoking notwithstanding) of the Great City of Toronto.
The Great City that is Toronto.
Theories abound as to the question, almost heartbreaking, of why.
Why, why, why?
Rick Mercer – Canada’s answer, after a fashion, to America’s John Stewart and, to an even lesser fashion, America’s Stephen Colbert – is right to the point: forget about Rob Ford and look at the politics.
Rob Ford’s politics are very real, the fact being that the people who voted for Rob Ford are saying “we would rather have a guy on crack than a mayor who will raise our taxes.”
Mercer, ever astute, exorcizes Rob Ford, the man – Rob Ford, the mayor even – for the distraction that he is.
But Rob Ford, I believe, is a symptom – our collective blurred vision, a shared dizziness, an engorged cyst – of something else, and not just pragmatism born of increasing frustration with existing political systems.
Something in the ether that is not about unfulfilled dreams or about broken promises, but about a kind evolving political consciousness.
That Thing we call Democracy.
What the hell?
The rule of the many over the few? 50% + 1? The words freedom and justice and opportunity come up again and again.
On these, David Foster Wallace makes a compelling argument when speaking about John McCain’s simple promise during the 2008 primaries not to lie to voters:
“Well, it’s obvious why. When McCain says it, the people are cheering for him not so much as for how good it feels to believe him. They’re cheering the loosening of a wired sort of knot in the electoral tummy. McCain’s resume and candor, in other words, promise not empathy with voters’ pain but relief from it. Because we’ve been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to. It’s ultimately just about that complicated: it hurts. We learn this at like age four… And we keep learning for years, from hard experience, that getting lied to sucks – that it diminishes you, denies you respect for yourself, for the liar, for the world” (2006: 188 – 189).
Then there’s the shame, social and acceptable. Trendy.
“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
“GET OUT THE VOTE.”
“Vote or die.”
If only you cared.
If only you were informed.
If only you wanted to participate.
If only you would just participate.
If only you would be good.
I am paraphrasing.
Russell Brand has shaken people recently with his own democratic convictions:
“I have never voted. Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites… I don’t vote because to me it seems like a tacit act of compliance; I know, I know my grandparents fought in two world wars (and one World Cup) so that I’d have the right to vote. Well, they were conned. As far as I’m concerned there is nothing to vote for.”
In a political system that above all else must bend to the will of the people, can it be said that choosing whether to vote or not vote is in itself an expression of the will of the people?
And if not voting is a political choice – in the sense that choosing not to act is in itself a choice – and if more and more people (the majority?) are not voting, isn’t that, in a word, democratic?
And if it hurts to engage in a failed and alienating and bloated and increasingly hostile political system, what does “getting out the vote” amount to, really, and for whom?
This is what a guy at work said about Rob Ford, the day on November 18th, 2013, when Toronto’s city council stripped Mayor Rob Ford of (most) his powers.
“Yo, say what you want about Ford. But those other politicians sounded so high and mighty when they were talking about him. They were talking down to him! At least he doesn’t sound like that when he’s talking back. He sounds normal.”
Rob Ford: the man of the people. He drops the “g” in words like “fighting”, “working”, “looking” (as in “out for the little guy”).
He refers to voters both as “the taxpayer” and “the little guy”.
In her thinking of her hometown – Youngstown, Ohio – Eileen Kane writes of another “champion of the little man” (2010: 232), James Traficant, Youngstown sheriff from 1980 – 1984 who gained local admiration for refusing to serve the eviction notices that followed the closing of the Youngstown’s mills, which put thousands of residents out of work and left them unable to pay their mortgages.
In 1983, Traficant was charged (and acquitted) of taking Mafia bribes, after confessing to taking Mafia bribes. In 1984, Traficant (a Democrat) was elected into the House of Representatives, and managed to keep this seat through eight subsequent elections in which he won an overwhelming majority (almost 70%) of the vote.
Traficant was loud, abrasive, angry, openly mocked for his cheap suits and dreadful toupee; his behavior was so abhorrent and bizarre that “[h]is own local Democratic chairman once tries (and fails) to have him declared legally insane” (Kane 2010: 232).
Here is a quote from James Traficant (August 3, 1998, Congressional Record 105th Congress, 1997 – 1998):
“Mr. Speaker, a new report says only 7 percent of scientists believe in God. That is right. And the reason they gave was that the scientists are `super smart.’ Unbelievable. Most of these absent-minded professors cannot find the toilet. Mr. Speaker, I have one question for these wise guys to constipate over: How can some thing come from no thing? And while they digest that, Mr. Speaker, let us tell it like it is. Put these super-cerebral master debaters in some foxhole with bombs bursting all around them, and I guarantee they will not be praying to Frankenstein. Beam me up here. My colleagues, all the education in the world is worthless without God and a little bit of common sense. And I yield back whatever we have left.”
Traficant served another nine terms in the House before being “convicted in 2002 of racketeering, taking bribes from the Mafia, obstruction of justice, tax evasion, and such assorted mischief as using on-the-clock public employees as farm hands on his horse ranch” (Kane 2010: 232 – 233).
Everything, it seems, but smoking crack.
Rob Ford has been accused of using on-the-clock public employees to help him coach football and to get his liquor and dry-cleaning.
He has confessed to smoking crack.
But Rob Ford also de-railed Toronto’s so-called “gravy train”, the excessive and indulgent spending many residents saw plaguing City Hall. He purged Toronto of the hated vehicle registration tax, and promised absolutely not to raise taxes…or at the absolute most and only as an absolute last resort, to raise taxes by very, very, very little. He pays for his own trips, even though they are for city business. He personally returns phone calls (from supporters) and, along with his entourage, visits constituents in their own homes and neighborhoods. He appears to have brought (though not “built” as he has claimed on American TV) subways, finally, to the suburbs.
As for Traficant, he supported increasing the minimum wage at a time when everyone was losing or had lost their jobs. He voted against illegal immigration and free trade and – most important of all for Youngstown – he held an open distain for the feds and large corporations, the very institutions that many Youngstown residents believed had abandoned them.
According to Kane, the people who supported Traficant “believed one thing: Traficant was on their side. And the forces they hate were out to get him” (Kane 2010: 233).
Hard to ask for much more that that.
Be honest. Rob Ford cannot claim to be an original, and neither can James Traficant. The name Marion Barry comes to mind.
The name George W. Bush comes to mind.
So that when figures like James Traficant or Marion Barry or Rob Ford come into power, this has not all that much to do with them as persons.
Should it come as any surprise that “the people”, who been a means to the ends of someone else’s career, someone else’s ambitions, someone else’s benefit, someone else’s goddamn photo op, have decided (perhaps finally) that it should be the other way around?
It is really so incredible that the people who voted overwhelmingly to send Rob Ford into office are, as a recent article in The Atlantic points out, the non-white, educated, working poor? The very people who tend to get hurt a lot in all areas concerning “democracy”. The very people who, vote or not vote, have not that much to gain.
Put another way:
It helps that Rob Ford comes off as a regular guy who is his words, is “not perfect”, who is “only human”. But it is not necessary.
It helps that people want to believe him when he says “I’m the best mayor Toronto’s has ever had,” or even “I’m the best father around,” but it is not necessary.
It helps that he promises not to lie, but it is not necessary.
It would be nice if he didn’t bully people or be an asshole, but it is not necessary.
He hurts himself, and others sometimes, but he is on side.
When somebody hurts you, you hurt them back. You use whatever’s available.
It’s not perfect.
It’s only human.
It’s democracy in action.
A recent poll finds that approximately 42% of Torontonians surveyed still support Rob Ford as mayor.
Of those surveyed, about 60% believe that Rob Ford should resign as mayor of Toronto.
The Great City of Toronto.
What are we to make of that?
Foster, David Wallace. (2006). “Up, Simba,” in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Little, Brown and Company: New York.
Kane, Eileen. (2010). Trickster: An Anthropological Memoir. University of Toronto Press: North York, Ontario.