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The Emperor has no clothes

Ford Nation & the politics of denial

Aaron S. Bayley

Politicians, like members of the media, are both the creators and the creatures of a public distrustful of complexity, nuance, and sophisticated knowledge.

- Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason

There are three side to every story: yours, mine, and the truth.

The popular proverb could not more fittingly describe the public perception of the life and troubled times of the populist Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford. In the latest episode of what has become a media circus, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair announced at a press conference on October 31 that police had recovered a digital video file that was "consistent with what has been described in media reports." Fitting, too, that on a night where children dress up in costumes and play make-believe, the mayor was finally unmasked, his game of charades exposed. But what does Rob Ford's unraveling tell us about his supporters and the loyalist members of Ford Nation? 

First, we need to distinguish between, and deconstruct, Ford supporters and Ford loyalists. A large number of Torontonians who voted for Ford reside in the suburbs, where people tend to be more conservative and less cultured (diversity is often alien to those living in cookie-cutter homes); as opposed to downtown dwellers, who tend to be more liberal and more cultured. When campaigning for the mayoralty in 2010, Ford played the part of the populist and talked about the "hard-working people of Toronto" while promising to save taxpayer's money by derailing the "gravy train" at City Hall. All standard fare designed to appeal to conservatives: cut spending and shrink government. And so when it came time to vote, there were those who filled out a ballot for Ford, lured by the promise of lower taxes and a more responsible government devoid of corruption. These are the Ford supporters: voters who, like my father, make an honest living and find Ford's meat-and-potatoes politics and man-of-the-people pretence appealing.  

Ford loyalists, on the other hand, while attracted to the same populist message and folksy rhetoric, reside to the far right of the political spectrum and adhere to more extreme ideologies. They are more likely to be wooed by Ford's blustery demeanour and brash, unapologetic behaviour; his disdain for bicycles and devotion to that great god of the suburbs--the automobile, and his embrace of big business and shunning of the arts and the gay community. Racial and homophobic slurs? No big deal, as long as he kills the vehicle registration tax. Cuts to social spending that mostly affect the poor and disenfranchised? That's cool, as long as it puts a little more money back into our pockets.  But there is a fine line between the loyalist and the sycophant. People tend to reject new information and belief systems that contradict the ones already established and hardwired into their brains. Like the metaphor of the emperor's new clothes, the loyal denizens of Ford Nation, many of whom are Christian conservatives, continue to deny the truth about the mayor's incompetence even when it is viewable in plain sight, but require less evidence to believe in virgin births and resurrected messiahs. They fail to find any fault with Ford and instead blame his misfortunes on a vast, left-wing agenda or conspiracy, the left-wing media led by the Toronto Star, and the liberal elites.  

elite: a group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status.

The word 'elite' has a negative connotation when used by right-wing conservatives. but let's take a closer look at it. The dictionary definition of elite is "a group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status." The right-wing description of liberal and middlebrow members of society as 'elite,' then, tells only half the truth, since the 1% of society are made up of the corporate elite who unswervingly support the conservative agenda. That said, it is astonishing how Ford is so easily able to tap into what journalist Heather Morgan coined the "blue-collar-lunch-pail-millionaire phenomenon," where wealthy, privileged white male politicians successfully pass themselves off as Joe Average and the champion of ordinary people. But wealth and privilege are not what conservatives refer to when they call liberals "elite." Conservative use of the word "elite" is meant to be derogatory towards the concept of academic, or "ivory tower," elitism espoused by smug, self-proclaimed intellectually superior liberals (think Michael Ignatieff). Academic elites don't tend to see issues as simply black or white; instead, they over-complicate matters with actual research, in-depth analysis, and thoughtful reflection--and that's why Conservatives dislike and distrust them. And distrust of the highly educated is the hallmark of anti-intellectualism, a conservative trademark and the crucial crux of Rob Ford's populist politics. 

We need only look at two issues to demonstrate this fact: the public library budget crisis of 2011 and the light rail transit debate in 2013. Most rational thinking people knows the importance of libraries in the building of vibrant communities. In her book The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby writes that a culture which celebrates ignorance and frowns upon critical thinking poses a serious threat to the two pillars of intellectual life--reading and conversation. The verbal attacks on public libraries made by the mayor and his big brother, Councillor Doug Ford, who complained that "I have more libraries in my area than I have Tim Hortons" and boasted that he would make cuts to libraries "in a heartbeat," are perfect examples of this threat and are at the core of anti-intellectualism. In July of 2011, an emotional Anika Tabovaradan of Scarborough went to City Hall and expressed to the mayor how important Woodside Square Library is to her and to people who don't have Internet access. Note Ford's disrespectful body language and disengaged demeanour in the video clip.

The light rail transit (LRT) debate in July 2013 was another example of the mayor's ignorance and obfuscation of the facts. In his exchange with Councillor Josh Matlow, Ford refused to acknowledge a difference between cumbersome streetcars and the proposed LRT line, claiming--wrongly--that an LRT line would tear up roads. Ford refused to engage with Matlow and answer specific questions. Instead, he portrayed himself as a victim and, in full anti-intellectual mode, said sarcastically to the councillor, "I wish I was as smart as you."

Now, let's go beyond politics and take a chronological look at Rob Ford's past behaviour as an elected official whose salary is paid for by taxpayers:

  • August 2010: Ford admits to being arrested in Miami on drunk driving charges and marijuana possession, which he had previously lied about. 

  • March 2012: a conflict of interest application was filed alleging that Ford had participated in a vote absolving him from having to pay back over three-thousand dollars in donations to his football charity. 

  • August 2012: Ford admits that he was reading documents while behind the wheel of his SUV. 

  • November 2012: Ford was ordered removed from office by an Ontario judge due to a conflict of interest in relation to his charity. 

  • March 2013: The Toronto Star alleges that Ford attended a gala dinner for the armed forces in a drunk and incoherent mess and was subsequently asked to leave. 

  • May 2013: The Toronto Star alleges that Ford was depicted on video with known gangsters smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine. Ford denies the video's existence.

  • October 31, 2013: Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair confirms the video's existence.

The latest news is that Ford, in an attempt to turn the tables on Blair, now wants the police to release the video, knowing that it will be impossible for the public to tell what it is he is actually smoking. But whether or not he was inhaling crack cocaine is irrelevant. The only thing for Ford to do now is to take the lead from his lawyers and hide behind a labyrinth of legalese and perpetual denials. On Sunday afternoon, Ford uttered an ambiguous apology on his own radio show, portraying himself as a regular guy who makes mistakes. Nobody outside of Ford Nation was impressed.

Looking at the laundry list of Ford's incidents, the question needs to be asked: at what point does a Rob Ford loyalist concede that the mayor's conduct is unbefitting of an elected representative, that he lacks any sense of dignity or decorum, and that his behaviour has repeatedly compromised the city's reputation? Would they accept that kind of behaviour from their child's teacher?

Those who cast a practical vote for Ford but lie outside of Ford Nation are more likely to view Ford's moral shortcomings more objectively. So why do members of Ford Nation continue to make excuses for the mayor?  

There are many answers. One is that people who hate liberals or dislike gays, or books, or spend little time thinking about social justice in general, are not going to simply abandon ship. For them, their dislike of certain segments of society is too rigid to be inconveniently affected by anything as meaningless as objective values. Another answer is because they see themselves in Ford. They see him as a flawed but loveable everyman. They see him as Don Cherry-like--loud and obnoxious--and equate it with a refusal to back down. And they seek inspiration from his stubborn refusal to voluntarily step down from office (which is what Team Ford is counting on). They will see him as they want to see him, principles be damned. Now more than ever, Ford needs his sycophants to see him as the victim of a witch hunt. That's a whole lot easier than looking within and blaming yourself. Cheerleaders and sympathizers increase exponentially when the bully suddenly becomes the victim or the underdog. After all, in Ford Nation, the mayor is the Emperor, and perhaps only children too innocent to know otherwise are able to see the naked truth. 


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