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Monday, May 20, 2013

Dangerous addictions: Toronto, right wing hypocrisies and Rob Ford

Another week in Toronto, and another scandal involving our sideshow of a mayor, Rob Ford.

This latest one, in case somehow you have not heard, involves an apparent video of the mayor allegedly not only smoking crack cocaine but also using homophobic language to disparage Justin Trudeau and describing the players of the high school football team he coaches as "just fucking minorities".

It really is one thing after another with Ford. For example, very shortly after entirely credible claims were made regarding apparent drunken sexual misconduct by Ford by Sarah Thomson back in March, new allegations that the mayor, prior to this, was asked to leave a different public social function also due to apparent intoxication burst onto the headlines.

Despite the overwhelming and constantly mounting evidence to the contrary, Ford himself and many of his allies have continued to insist that all the allegations are simply a fabrication of his enemies and the "liberal media", most especially the Toronto Star.  (In the specific case of the latest alleged video, this is especially silly given that the story was first published by an online American publication). This is almost humourously delusional for a bunch that presents itself as hard-headed, no-nonsense "realists".

Even before this latest and extremely serious allegation and regardless of its specific veracity, however, Ford has to be seen as having come to symbolize the basic unfairness of our society. If there has ever been a more obvious personification in the Canadian context of the reality that rich white men can get away with actions and behaviour that absolutely no one else would be able to, I am not aware of it. And, not just get away with the behaviour, but get elected to office and defended by otherwise self-described "law-and-order" right wing types despite it! From drug possession, to driving under the influence, to repeated domestic assault calls (and, indeed, charges), to not being held to account for violating campaign finance laws, to avoiding any repercussions for having violated conflict of interest rules, to seemingly using staff payed by the public inappropriately, it goes on and on and on as outlined in this Google doc. And nothing really happens to him as a result. The one and only time he was punished, the punishment was reversed on appeal.

There is an understandable temptation to regard all of this as a bad joke and an irrelevance or to see it as merely fodder for the international press and late night satirists to sneer at Toronto; which is already happening and is richly deserved. A temptation to see it as a distraction from the truly pressing issues facing the city.

But that, I think, is a mistake. First, if this is a distraction that has derailed the city's agenda, there is only Rob Ford to blame for that. But more importantly, the fact that this farce has played out for so long with so little consequence for Ford cannot help but to foster and reinforce entirely warranted cynicism in many communities about our society's claim, such as it is, to the equality of all before the law. It also emboldens the forces on our Far Right who have an essentially anti-democratic notion that their partisans are above the law and that the actions of their heroes, like Ford, should be dealt with and viewed in ways entirely different to how they would view them were they to be committed by citizens who are not white or wealthy and who are not populist folk icons.

Let us recall that many of the same Toronto media outlets, talk radio devotees and reactionary politicians  who are turning a blind eye to this pattern of both proven and alleged behaviour or pretending that it is all an invention of the media, were the same people who were driven to self-righteous rage when a TTC employee on medication for a serious illness (he has since died) and who was, in fact, an actual hero, fell asleep in a ticket collection booth during a shift and had the misfortune to be photographed. They regularly take sadistic glee in pillorying and publicly humiliating public employees and officials for far more minor transgressions than those Ford has been accused of, charged with and, in the case of campaign finance rules, found guilty of having violated.

In fact, of course, much of their whole narrative and vision of the world is based around lies about "wealthy" and "lazy" union workers, the supposed immorality or criminality of immigrant and minority communities, that the poor or people on welfare are the authors of their own misfortune and are usually scam artists, and so on.

How ingrained these ugly and racist views are in right wingers of Ford's ilk can be seen from the mayor's own false and derogatory comments about the young men on the football team he coaches. He has, completely insultingly and erroneously portrayed his coaching as some kind of heroic and charitable act that keeps the players out of jail and gangs (and, ironically, off drugs) and that keeps them in school. His comments so infuriated the parents and teachers of the high school (Don Bosco Catholic Secondary in Etobicoke) that many feel he should no longer be allowed to coach.

Yet, the irony is that it is Ford who has never had to work for anything, who has been caught in possession of drugs in the past, who treats his job as a joke, skipping meetings to coach football or leaving the floor of a council meeting to watch playoff hockey, and so on. Far from being "one of us" Ford is proof that rich and powerful men are not us at all. They get to play and live by an entirely different set of rules.

This toxicity and anti-social attitude on the part of the right has grown more shameless in direct correlation to the rightward drift of our politics and the mainstreaming of what used to be extremist ideas and viewpoints. Moreover it is gripped by a stunning hypocrisy in that many right wing commentators, politicians and voters feel entitled to make sweeping generalizations about the moral conduct and fiber of different communities, and to espouse social philosophies and narratives centered around the necessity of personal morality and "restraint" and the primacy of personal conduct in the determination of social outcome, disparaging notions of systemic oppression and denying the reality that there does not, at all, exist a level playing field or equality of opportunity in Canada, and yet they are completely unwilling to apply to these "principles" to themselves or those they support. It is meant for the "other", not for those in the club.

Otherwise how is Conrad Black, a non-citizen and convicted felon, who was sent to jail in the country that the right idolizes, the United States, in Canada at all? One need only ask oneself if a person-of-colour without the bank account and the lordships would also have been allowed this great courtesy by our supposedly tough-on-crime government to know the answer to that.
Punishment, mandatory minimums and prison are for ordinary people, people who cannot afford fancy lawyers, and people who they see as not really "Canadian". Compassion, understanding and second chances are for their own.

Did Rob Ford smoke crack cocaine with drug dealers while spouting off homophobic and racist comments. Who knows? That it seems completely believable says a lot, but it is, of course, possible that it is not true. It is also possible that the video will never see the light of day. It is possible that the allegations will be proven and that Ford, with near certainty should they be, will be forced finally to resign in disgrace.

But in some respects no matter the outcome the salient fact remains that the system that created Ford, that allowed his rise and that excused and forgave his many transgressions will survive him either way. While Ford may be an unusually buffoonish and ignorant child of social privilege there can be no doubt that a different set of rules are applied to all the other children of the rich and powerful as well, especially if they are male and white.

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