Beyond the Rob Ford Sublime

Rob Ford

Trying to Look Past the Man

Rob Ford: Sublime? Or just difficult to miss?
Rob Ford“What are commonly and ever more often perceived as ‘public issues’ are private problems of public figures. The time-honoured question of democratic politics—how useful or detrimental is the way public figures exercise their public duties to the welfare and well-being of their subjects/electors?—has fallen by the board, beckoning to public interests in good society, public justice, or collective responsibility for individual welfare to follow them into oblivion.”

—Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, p. 70 (italics his)


I saw Rob Ford before I knew who he was. I could hardly look away. I was headed for work and he stood on the side street nearest the kitchen I worked in. He stood alone, his head reared and rocking back into a smile so raucous it was like you could hear it. He looked like the big kid on the playground, reveling in the fact he’d scared the others away—because screw those stupid weenies. This was his playground.

Inside I overheard from the wait staff he was running for mayor. What a joke. But he had caught their attention.

I still cannot look away from Rob Ford. I think that means you should write an essay about the Rob Ford Sublime. He makes you turn your body away from the screen, while your neck jacks back, eyes even more locked in. You hate, but cannot stop, looking.

Which brings us to Bauman, who asserts that politics have moved from a focus on the public interest—with politicians thought of as leaders—to a focus on politicians as examples of individual “life conditions.” Thus, politicians are considered as individuals, rather than as products and servants of the community. Even before the crack allegations, Rob Ford fit rather nicely into Bauman’s argument. He could be trusted to disrupt the status quo because he was, personally, so obviously not status-quo. 

That’s a flawed argument, but the conflation of Ford’s ego with his political agenda is to some extent natural. He distrusts notions of the public good as cover for the “gravy train,” and he believes instead in a privileged individual autonomy. So in Ford’s case, Bauman’s argument against personality-based politics could possibly be argued away as a disagreement with an individualist ideology, an ideology shared by an ever-growing group of North Americans. (The same cannot be said of Ford’s “personal touch” appeal—his answering phone calls, addressing specific citizen complaints, etc.—which is clearly personality-based.)

In any case, Rob Ford’s life has recently come so far off the hook that it’s absurd to match the form of his personality to any political goal. Yet, when this craziness passes by, it will become lore, while the actual politics of Rob Ford will live on. Thus, the Rob Ford debacle bears out Bauman’s argument that personality has obscured the communal consequences of politics. I’ll leave the political scientists and historians to sort those consequences out.

Instead, I want to know how the electorate—the communal body in question—plays into all this. Toronto elected the progressive-left leaning David Miller before Rob Ford. This is generally framed as reflecting the urban-suburban divide that also fuels frustrating debates like the “war on cars,” if you can call that a debate.

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that that divide is as stark as is generally accepted. Does that man it is inevitable? Living downtown, I must admit that the suburbs and their frame of mind are difficult for me to conjure. I know one person with a car. So how can I relate to the suburban mindset?

Literature, it has often been said, promotes empathy. So I thought to visit Rob Ford’s native Etobicoke through literature, to see what might come of it. My portal was Baridia Sanee’s “Etobicoke.”

The poem is set in a Tim Hortons’. It speaks as if estranged from its setting—dominated by “wax paper cups,” “the suburbs more outgoing shut-ins,” “myriad plazas”—but is not totally disconnected. The characters populating the poem, like anyone, are besieged, and end up “looking for somewhere / private to go.” “To go” has a double meaning here, chiding a fast food culture as it feels its pain, but the overall effect of the poem remains neutral, if not sympathetic, to its scene. It treats the suburbs as a strange place, but one where people live and feel a particular kind of pain in the course of living. From a political perspective, it also links the area to its supposed other: “Six lanes of traffic on Dundas / follows a gothic procession of hydros downtown.”

This may only be a minor act of recognition, but “Etobicoke” allows the link to run the other way too: it allows us city-dwellers a nuanced glimpse into what we might easily ignore or oversimplify. In the wake of Rob Ford’s recent extreme behaviour, it seems right to willfully forge that link.

It is easy to see Rob Ford and dismiss anyone who might still support him. But that would be to play into the very lie that many accuse Rob Ford of using to win in the first place: that his persona matters more than his politics. You are, of course, welcome to disagree with those politics, but to dismiss them completely because of Ford’s disgusting behaviour is a questionable stance. What politics Rob Ford’s persona obscures is far more important than the man himself. And the people who share those politics, or seem to, are far more important than those politics themselves.