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Don’t Celebrate Rob Ford’s Deposition Too Hard

This morning my Facebook feed has lit up with left and liberal friends celebrating the court-ordered deposition of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Although I knew Ford would be a terrible mayor, vigorously encouraged strategic voting in order to block his election and strongly agree with the court’s decision, I lack any of the sense of triumph so many of my friends are displaying. That doesn’t mean I feel sorry for Ford or sympathize with him in any way. He was and remains an incompetent, bullying liar who has worsened the lives of Toronto’s poor, unionized workers, cyclists, transit riders, youth and seniors during his short reign as mayor.

When describing him to non-Torontonians, my usual shorthand has been to say that Ford was a character Chris Farley would inevitably have created had he lived long enough, a piece of Saturday Night Live sketch comedy come to life in Canada’s largest and most arrogant city. I pointed out that no one was more surprised than Ford, himself, that he was unable to make good on his election promise to fund $23 billion worth of new spending with $10 million worth of cuts or that simply saying “new subway lines will be built by the private sector,” did not result in private construction firms constructing free subways all over the city.

Nothing about Rob Ford the politician was an act; he was just as stupid, just as ignorant, just as confused, just as flustered as he seemed, unclear even on his last day on the job as to the most basic information about what it entailed. Ford was deposed for the simple reason that he believed that attaining the office of mayor emancipated him from all rules governing his city’s other 2.5 million residents. In my view, he sought the office of mayor so that he could finally be free of conflict of interest rules, traffic laws, the Criminal Code, and the various other laws under which he had chafed his whole adult life. And, like most of his other beliefs about how the world works, this was demonstrated to be false.

So why am I not joining my friends in celebrating his court-ordered removal from office?

Despite his abandonment by nearly every serious conservative in Toronto, including members he appointed to his own executive committee, Ford has maintained a sizeable following, according to polls, about 30% according to Angus Reid’s most recent survey. Those who support him are the kind of people to whom leftists once sought to appeal. They make less money; they have less education; they live in the least-serviced neighbourhoods; their apartments and homes cost less; and they are deeply distrustful of elites. And what I find most unsettling in my friends’ opinions is their relief at Toronto’s anticipated return to business as usual.

In 2010, Ford appealed far beyond Stephen Harper supporters and the small number of Torontonians who actually believed the previous government was corrupt or lavish in its spending. Nearly half of Toronto residents voted for him because of his populist rejection of the way Toronto had been run since its founding by conservative war refugees in the late eighteenth century. The United Empire Loyalists and Family Compact set a tone of high-handed, patronizing elitism that has defined Toronto’s governing class ever since.

During the six years I lived in the city, what struck me was that, like the Roman and American senatorial classes, this crew seemed to control every political faction, movement or party that had any real shot at power, providing an extraordinary continuity in the basic principles of governance that prevailed in the city. Not until Mike Harris’s dramatic break with this tradition at the provincial level was this hegemony threatened. By forcibly amalgamating Toronto with the four suburban municipalities that surrounded it, Harris was able to drown temporarily drown the old Anglo elites in immigrants and suburbanites to destabilize the city’s political culture and give those outside a certain class of educated Anglos real, as opposed to tokenistic, access to the city’s levers of power.

By the time I moved to Toronto, the mayoralty of Mel “what is this World Health Organization!?” Lastman had ended and Toronto had returned to its political traditions under the leadership of Harvard-educated social democrat, David Miller, traditions eloquently described by former mayor David Crombie during a dispute over the City of Toronto Act. Speaking against this new legislation expanding the powers of the mayor’s office, Crombie lectured council, “You have forgotten what your job is as city councilors. It is not your job to run this city. It is your job to listen to the people who run this city and follow their advice.” Western rube that I was at the time, I thought, initially, that he was talking about the voters but he soon made himself clear: the city was run by career civil servants who were far better-educated and better-informed than mere elected officials, whose job, I took it, was to report potholes and overflowing waste bins to them.

Toronto, in Crombie’s vision, was a mandarinate, a complex system that needed to be run by an elite group of technocrats who could guide it far better than some hypothetical uneducated immigrant councilor from North York. The debate between Miller and Crombie was over how to run a proper mandarinate; Miller believed that, as a man better-educated and more qualified than the mandarins, he should govern and manage the system directly. Crombie, with a longer view, correctly discerned that Torontonians could not be trusted always to elect men like Miller and himself and that safeguards needed to remain in place to prevent it from devolving into full-on democracy.

So my problem is this: the people who backed Ford were not ignorant fools; they were people who, for the most part, chose to vote against the mandarinate, despite the deep flaws in the candidate who emerged to challenge it. On the other hand, those who welcome his removal with the most enthusiasm seem to be expressing support for the return of elite governance. At last, they seem to say, we can get back to having the city governed by qualified condo-dwelling technocrats and make sure that we never again have to chafe under the rule of an uneducated suburbanite from a low-income ward.

The upset Ford caused the constituency David Brooks terms “bourgeois bohemians” extended far beyond his policies to what he represented culturally. Like George W. Bush, Ford adopted working class cultural mores because he simply could not master the cultural affectations of the haute bourgeois class into which he was born. While he was not, himself, a man of the people, it seems that what rendered Ford most objectionable to his critics was his sincere embrace of proletarian culture and values. It was his weight, his love of sports, his lack of emotional reserve, his lack of education and his big, noisy parties that pushed people over the edge. Leftists and liberals certainly found Ford’s policy similarities to Stephen Harper infuriating but I am left with the disquieting feeling that they found his stylistic similarities to Hugo Chavez equally upsetting.

And that is the tragic legacy of Rob Ford. As an assault on Toronto’s mandarinate, his regime has been a dismal failure. The only significant group he has managed to marginalize has been unionized city employees working in the dwindling handful of decent-paying manual labour jobs in the city. Meanwhile, the credibility of suburbanites, low-income voters and of populism, itself, have suffered enormously. And once again, people who imagine themselves to be socialists have come to identify ever more closely not just with liberal elites but with elitism, itself.

There is nothing, wrong, in itself, with electing a mayor who comes from a poor and underserviced part of town, instead of the self-consciously hip downtown core. There is nothing wrong, in itself, with electing an autodidact with no university credits under her belt. In fact, there is much right about these things, if we truly believe in the social democracy of Rosa Luxembourg. The mandarins whose grip on the city will once again tighten do not see such people as full citizens, much less potential mayors, of the city. They are people to be managed, patronized and gently guided until the forces of gentrification push them into some adjacent, less hip suburb.

Rob Ford’s election was an angry, desperate cry from Torontonians who feel marginalized and unheeded by downtown elites of all political stripes. Leftists would do well not to join these elites in crowing overmuch about their triumph over the suburban rabble and its unlikely champion. Instead, we should ask how it is that we are welcoming a return to Torontonian normalcy instead of beating the bushes for a better champion to challenge the heirs to the Family Compact.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Celebrate Rob Ford’s Deposition Too Hard

  1. Sharon Jackson says:

    OK Stuart, I have stopped dancing. You are right.

  2. charliedemers says:

    It’s a good, thoughtful piece, and I agree with most of it — but how does Etobicoke count as a ‘low income’ ward? In 2005, average household income in Etobicoke was $76,429 compared to $80,343 for the City of Toronto; median income was $54,874 compared to $52,833, and Etobicoke had a lower percentage of low income families and individuals than the city. Ford is not working class, and to me his cultural indicators are not working class — they are those of a particular layer of decidedly angry, hateful middle class small businessmen and professionals. The working class, especially in cities and, increasingly, suburbs, doesn’t look or act like Rob Ford — for the most part they are racialized, women, immigrants. They don’t coach football or go to their cottage on gay pride weekend. The fake working class posturing of the Dubyas and Fords of the world appeals to people who are, in effect, doing the same thing: pretending to have it tough as a way of venting a jealous rage that comes mostly from a place of frustrated affluence. Acting like a fucking idiot doesn’t make you working class. It makes you a fucking idiot.

  3. Renee says:

    While I read your blog and post with great interest and pleasure, I’ve been having trouble discerning what you (and our friends Bruce and Geoff) actually see as positive and productive forms of government. You reject public consultations, while criticizing David Miller turning to the civil servants instead of the public. You dismiss career civil servants, who are (mostly) NOT in it for the money, but rather because they value the concept of service (sure, job security and benefits come into play, but having working directly as a civil servant and WITH other civil servants, I’m firm on the “serving” motivation for being here). City workers are not invested in how they look in the press, or being re-elected, so really do strive to make things better. You reject any focus on neighbourhoods, although I’ve seen extensive indication by people in Vancouver that their geographic connections are very significant – accessible services, safety/security, connectedness….

    I’d be grateful to hear a “Stuart’s Utopian Guide to Government” blog post sometime. You mention rational populism at some point I believe – it would be great to see you expand on that concept.

    And on to Rob Ford: Uneducated? No, he went to Scarlett Heights Entrepreneurial Academy, with a very well regarded leadership program. And while he never completed his education at Carleton University, he was able to gain admission and do SOME coursework. Thanks to his father’s business holdings, he was more than well off. When people are angry and frustrated, they tend to lash out at easy targets, hence the displaced insults towards Ford’s girth and boorish tendencies. But looking around the web at many, many sites, and from the expressed opinions of my Toronto AREA friends (not all downtowners), the problem was an almost incomprehensible level of entitlement and ignorance of the responsibilities of his office – things you yourself noted.

    Signed, Your Condo Dwelling Technocrat Friend/Comrade Who Would be Making Double her City Salary in the Private Sector but Likes Doing Public Service (which includes lots of public consultations) and Working on Neighbourhood Based Initiatives

  4. Chris Wiseman says:

    This is a genuinely thought-provoking piece written by someone with an obvious gift for speaking courageously against dominant strains of thought. I must agree with the last two comments, though (Renee’s and charliedemers’) … and also disagree strongly with this article’s characterization of the celebration in leftist circles over the ruling against Rob Ford as in any way “elitist.” It isn’t, in fact, it’s the exact opposite, and should be recognized as such.

    It boils down to this: Rob Ford broke the rules and, like anyone who breaks the rules, he now has to face the consequences. That’s the major sentiment I’m hearing from most of those celebrating, and it’s about as “populist” a sentiment as it gets. The rule of law means that nobody, including the powerful, are exempt. Period.

    Contrast that with the prevailing attitude among many of Rob Ford’s supporters, that is far more dangerous, and far more deserving of critique, than the recent celebrations on the left. This attitude is coextensive with the culture of elite immunity that has recently gripped American, and now increasingly, Canadian society as well. Glenn Greenwald has described it thus:

    “[T]he ethos of elite immunity is that the more important someone is, the more urgent it is that they not be subjected to things like investigations, prosecutions, and especially prison, even if they were caught committing serious crimes. After all, this propaganda teaches, we need Wall Street tycoons (or CIA torturers, or NSA eavsdroppers) for our own security and prosperity, so shielding them from punishment is in the common good.”

    (This ethos, by the way, is just as prevalent with progressive supporters of Obama as it is with those on the right who supported George W Bush. Obama had a great populist victory, and now governs with the same imperious attitude and even more egregious violations of civil liberties as did GWB. But because he’s “on our side,” i.e. the Democratic side, and because he seems like a nice, respectable guy, he’s above accountability for his reprehensible actions and policies, so much so that executive authority in the US is now virtually unchallengeable, and will likely remain so for a generation or more.)

    In addition, the author of this article (without saying exactly these words) seems to embrace the right’s duplicitous identification of social and political “elites” with those who happen to have an education, or some scientific or technical expertise, or an interest in culture. These are not “elites” in the socio-political sense, by any stretch of the imagination… and they are most certainly not the enemies of the working class.

    While there is a legitimate critique to made of technocracy in general, and an illuminating narrative to be told about the way Toronto’s political upper crust has maintained its power, this article misses its target by equating with populism the displaced resentment against unions, feminists, the arts, and oftentimes immigrants, that fuels support for Rob Ford and other contemporary conservatives. They are not the same at all.

    Neither is populism equatable with the leader-worship that is so prevalent on both the left and the right.

    “I am left with the disquieting feeling that they found his stylistic similarities to Hugo Chavez equally upsetting.”

    Interesting thought. Can you elaborate on how you see these similarities?

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