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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Rob and Doug Ford's Excellent Adventures: Dangerous addictions, hypocrisies and illusions in Toronto

This is a repost of two articles and a radio interview that bridged them. My complete take on the Ford fiasco as I am moving on to other issues! These were originally posted here, on and on The City, a Vancouver urban affairs radio show.

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. Contributor Michael Laxer on Rob Ford | Inaugural Engaging Women, Transforming Cities Conference Brings Equity Lens to Urban Issues
Originally posted on The City FM

The Rob Ford saga shows no signs of dissipating. Is this the end of Mayor Rob Ford’s bumpy tenure at Toronto City Hall? On the podcast, contributor Michael Laxer weighs in on the ongoing Rob Ford saga. He provides a critical and progressive analysis of the Rob Ford affair in a recent article.

And in the second half of the show, we hear about the Engaging Women, Transforming Cities Conference from Associate Professor Margot Young (UBC Law). The inaugural national conference is designed to facilitate discussion about transforming our cities into places where women are more involved in electoral processes, and municipal governments are responsive to the priorities of women and girls in Canada’s urban centres. The conference applies an equity lens to a variety of urban issues, ranging from housing justice to environmental sustainability.

Find it on iTunes and subscribe to have the weekly podcast downloaded automatically.

The Right's perilous denial of reality: Rob Ford and anti-democratic fictions 

 Two weeks on and Toronto's ever evolving "crackgate" scandal seems to show no signs of going away as daily revelations alternately stun and bemuse Torontonians, Canadians and, to a degree, the international press. It has been almost surreal in its absurdity and in the spectacle of such things as city hall security guards escorting a mayor's aide to the bathroom, Doug Ford holding press conferences to allow his brother to sneak out the back door of city hall, and so on.

A comprehensive outline of developments was put together by a Toronto weekly, The Grid, though this excludes the latest days of news, such as the assertion by the Toronto Star that Ford, who has claimed no video exists, told his staff he knew where it was, as well as news that two more staffers in the mayor's office have resigned.

From the first allegation of Rob Ford smoking crack with drug dealers, to the Globe and Mail expose of Doug Ford as an alleged former major hash dealer and their portrayal of the Fords as a wealthy, white supremacist befriending, violence prone, drug dealing Soprano-style family, it is an astounding tale. Given the mayor and his brother's rabidly pro-police, "law-and-order" stances it would seem that the city of Toronto is run by people who truly redefine right-wing populist "tough on crime" conservatism.

The Fords, with typical bullying instincts, have either denied everything or failed to actually answer allegations. As has been their narrative from the beginning of their political career, they have portrayed their opponents and critics, especially in the media, as a coalition of downtown "elites" and public sector workers and unions or as somehow beholden to them.

Attempting to include John Stackhouse and the business newspaper the Globe and Mail in this grand pro-labour conspiracy, as Doug Ford did in TV news interviews, truly qualifies it for entry as one of the dumbest and least believable conspiracy theories ever put forward; on par with David Icke's contention that Reptilian lizard people control the world's governments. The mayor's farcical attempts to claim that his aides (four to date) are all quitting because his office was simply a stepping stone to better things and that they in no way indicate that anything might be wrong at city hall are also humourously delusional.

Ford's allies on council and more broadly are trying to distance themselves from the mayor and the clear absurdity of many of his and his brother's actions and claims. But even here the connection to reality is often tenuous. The Deputy Mayor, Doug Holyday, for example, stated the obvious and agreed that a video of Ford smoking crack exists, but held out hope that it was all a fabrication by some apparently highly skilled drug dealing cinematographers and film editors. Meanwhile Ontario Tory House Leader Jim Wilson, in distancing the once enthusiastic Hudak Conservatives from the idea of Doug Ford running in Etobicoke North in the next provincial election, soared to new levels of denial inanity when he acted like he barely even knew who Doug Ford was, stating "I don't even know the guy ... personally I've never even met him." I am sure Tim Hudak wishes he could even attempt to say the same.

But the whole Ford agenda and narrative, quite apart from this latest scandal, has been a dangerous fantasy from the start and was even before they were elected. The notion that the city government could cut taxes but increase spending on infrastructure and build things like subways, all by eliminating the supposedly wasteful government "gravy train", by privatization, and by beating down the unions was obviously a fiction in 2010, when they got elected on the basis of it as a platform, and it has proven itself as such. Now the Fords are reduced to making claims about an allegedly impressive "fiscal record" in office that reporters such as Metro's Matt Elliott, among others, have fairly effectively demolished.

And the Fords are not at all alone on the right in indulging in wholesale and profoundly socially and economically damaging denial of reality. It is, in fact, the right's new normal in this country and more broadly.

From the spectacular failure of what Paul Krugman has described as "the austerity delusion" that is still widely accepted as economic gospel by right wingers like Ontario's Tim Hudak, to the truly environmentally suicidal attempts to either deny climate change or the seriousness of its implications by the Harper government, the right has completely embraced  false and destructive narratives. They have over the last quarter century created a new populism around lies about supposedly entitled welfare recipients milking the system, and nonsensical assertions about "special interests" and "powerful unions" and so on. In doing so, they attempt to turn the actual power relations in our society on their head, and assert that it is workers and the poor who are lazy, exploit the system, live off of the labour of others, shirk work, have politicians and "big government" in their pocket, etc., as opposed to those who actually indulge and benefit most in such patterns of behaviour and power: corporations and the wealthy.

They have been very successful in changing the discourse so that, for example, many in the media will talk about unions and corporations as if they have equal social, political and even financial clout and political power, a clearly false assertion. When faced with the fight and struggle of women, native people, marginalized communities and others for equality and justice they retreat to cries of "reverse racism" or "reverse sexism" to attempt to claim that it is actually those who have benefited for centuries from colonialism, racism and patriarchy who are now the "oppressed". This results in simply idiotic notions such as those that "men's issues" exist at all independently of race or class, or that white people are being disadvantaged by no longer being automatically granted the superior social statuses and outcomes that they were as a group in the past.

These ideas are ugly and angry and often succeed in enlisting those who have been left behind or who constantly face destitution due to the economics of the neo-liberal era. Further, they thrive on this anger and an increasingly extreme and vitriolic partisanship for them to continue to exist for the very reason that they are false. In this same way they undermine democracy as they are not based on rational discourse at all. They depend on a constant assault and lashing out against their opponents and enemies, real or perceived, in order to maintain their appeal.

The right wing politicians, media and core base in Toronto knew full well that Rob Ford was a bigot with a nasty and violent past, that he lacked self-control and that his platform was pure fantasy before he was mayor and yet they embraced and helped to elect him anyway. That many of them are turning on him now is simply opportunistic, not principled.

Ultimately this is why the scandal continues to matter and is not simply a sad spectacle or a case of personal misconduct. It is both an epic tale of the right's fundamental hypocrisy and an indictment of its anti-democratic false narratives.

Photo: flickr/ashtonpal

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