Sunday, November 17, 2013

A tale of two politicians


I tried to stay out of this nonsense, but I figured, you might one day in the future, wonder what I thought of the spectacle that was happening in my city back in 2013, when that Mayor that was getting headlines around the world was making all those waves.  So these are my words to you, just to give you some food for thought when it comes to supporting people, policies, and brands of politics.

I was watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and I found the contrast striking: in one story you had the erudite, thin, Black* President of the United States, showing contrition and regret at the poorly executed rollout of the public health insurance program that he's remembered for even in your time...and in the very next story you had the common, burly, White Mayor of Toronto standing defiant in keeping his role as the leader of the 4th largest city in North America, in the face of admitted crack cocaine use while in office, alcohol abuse, police investigations, fired and/or resigned staff members and general poor behaviour, both private and public.  And I thought, what a curious, and even, marvelous world - so diverse and challenging a world in which we live, where some people could figure that the most powerful person in the world admitting a mistake and correcting it was thought to be a disappointment and the Mayor of Toronto drawing ever more ridicule to his city through his brazenness was probably thought by those same people to be a wonder and a triumph.

Then, beyond the press conferences, you had the punditry - the sound generating the fury, the fuel poured on the fire - from both right and left.  Ford fiasco proves that council is worthless.  Media bullying Mayor because he's fat.  If he wasn't white, he'd be done for.  To me, these ancillary discussions are white noise, generating page hits more than actual thought.  At the essence of the Rob Ford issue is a real question about the nature of platforms, policy, political support and politicians.  That is to say: if a politician was steadfast in his platform, one that made for debatable policy and was nonetheless popular, but does things during his off-hours* that would get most of us fired, should he be held to the same standard?  Should the mayor be judged professionally by his personal actions or should he be held to a different standard based on his merit as a messenger for large swaths of the electorate?

This isn't a small thing - and the more I think about it, the less trivial it becomes.  How long have people thought low of politics and politicians?  We all mostly agree and acknowledge that for reasons that we understand (power corrupts) and reasons we don't, people don't change politics, politics changes people.  Good people don't change politics for the better, politics makes good people decent and decent people into crooks.  Death by a million cuts.  Way to hell paved with good intentions.  Mr. Smith goes to Washington...without the happy ending.  We struggle in our liberal society to make the process more transparent while forever remembering the words of Bismarck: like sausages, we probably don't want to know.  We don't want to know how laws are made, how deals are struck, because we don't want to have even less faith in the process than we have already.  We don't want to have still a lower opinion of politicians, about our fellow man, about human nature.  We'd rather just watch what entertains us.

This is the context through which the small question of firing someone for behaving badly becomes large.  Politicians are a dime a dozen.  Politicians that have a cult following are rare.  Politicians that have one, singular, solitary, unified, unwavering, invariant, unapologetic, steadfast, cantankerous, intractable, simple, resonant message - really I can think of only three off the top of my head.  Cato the Elder.  Winston Churchill...

Rob Ford.

Whether I like Ford or not is immaterial to the fact that I am certain that the man has no greater priority than reducing the municipal taxes of the people of Toronto.  Can he do those things?  I don't think he can.  Is it reasonable, feasible, or wise to do those things?  I don't know and Rob Ford doesn't care.  Neither do his constituents.

What do his constituents care about?  Lower municipal taxes.  Subways.  So, if every other politician is a wind-bag, a dirt-bag, in bed with special interests and say what we want to hear just to get elected, shouldn't we give a little slack to the guy who is a wind-bag, a dirt-bag, in bed with special interests, a confessed drug user BUT actually sticks by what he says?  Barack Obama is a good man.  But Guantanamo Bay is still open and his commitment to closing it isn't what it used to be.

Grandtots, you know I like karate.  You should also know that in karate, your karate is only as good as your word.  If you say, your going to do 10 pushups, you do it.  If you say, you'll run a marathon, you run one.  Of all the other things that karate is about, it is first and foremost about honesty and commitment.

Rob Ford has never wavered in his public commitment to lowering taxes.  He is a man of integrity.  Rob Ford has wavered and prevaricated on his word.  He lies and discredits and attacks people who discover his lies.  He is not a man of integrity.

So he is and he isn't.  Which one is more important?  Here's where I come down on it.

The ultimate rationalization of the Ford nation - his group of ardent supporters, most concentrated in the surrounding boroughs of Toronto proper - is that he, ultimately, hasn't been charged with anything and hasn't broken the law.  That he hasn't committed a crime, and until he does, the court of public opinion is biased against him, fuelled by a media coverage that is unfairly slanted, in particular, by the Toronto Star's relentless hounding of the Mayor.  Like any good rationalization, there are elements of truth to this.  The Toronto Star is made up of humans and humans have biases and I have no doubt that the staff of the Star do not like the Mayor personally as well as politically.  But Rob Ford consciously and deliberately decided to go to war with the Star.  That's totally on him.  Did they go after him more enthusiastically than they otherwise would have if they didn't have the chip of "protecting the fourth estate" on their shoulder?  Of course they did.  Ford made it a matter of principle for them to go after him.  He made an enemy that he didn't need to (something that is decidedly not karate).  But regardless of any of that, the Star isn't making it funny that he smokes crack.  They aren't making him a laughingstock the world over, and Torontonians the butt of jokes from every other metropolis on the planet.  Ford is doing that to himself and his city --  he's making himself look like a rudderless idiot -- first by denying it, then by admitting it after having denied it and firing most of his staff for trying to help.

But he hasn't done anything illegal.  Well is that the only standard?  There are a lot of things that we can do that are legal that are still wrong.  It isn't illegal to smoke while pregnant?  To cut someone off in traffic?  Is it illegal to unscrew and loosen the cap on a salt shaker?

Was it illegal when Lehman Brothers destroyed the livelihoods of millions?  Should those people be given responsibility over managing money because they didn't break the law and are sorry?  Rob Ford is sorry he smoked crack.  He's sorry he gets publicly drunk.  He's still hasn't admitted that he lied - even though his lie is on camera for the world to see.  Doesn't this make him more dangerous than the politician that lies and admits to their lie?

Because the law has no recourse to discipline such people and show them the err of their ways, Ford nation suggests we should just turn a blind eye to wilful bad behaviour and separate these decisions totally from what people do publicly.  So then, I am to assume that all the social pressure of ostracization that mankind has been doing since the beginning of time was all wrong?  We shouldn't pressure people to acknowledge and seek help for substance abuse problems because, if they haven't broken the law, they're a-ok?  Who cares if it destroys lives and communities down the road.  Likewise we shouldn't try to discourage people from smoking, tell kids to behave, or eat nutritiously because the alternative isn't actually illegal?

I guess we really have given up when we can't even pretend that a politician is a good guy.  Kids go on field trips to city hall and meet the Mayor and the teacher has to give a warning like on a cigarette's pack: see its great that he's the Mayor, kids, but when you grow up, you don't want to smoke crack and get drunk like he does.

Fair enough.  But to say: as long as he hasn't broken the law, there is nothing that he can do to make me care more about the man than his message - that is a very dangerous thing.  The medium becomes the message, the messenger becomes part of the message.  The message of Ford nation is: we are prepared to support politicians that we know are shifty, over politicians that we merely assume are shifty, if they give us what we want.  Well that just encourages more shifty people into politics.  As bad as politics is already, that is the starter's pistol on the race to the bottom.  Any huckster can tell you what you want to hear.  Populism isn't difficult. If the message is all that matters, we'll start seeing ever worse messengers.  Who's next: the self-acknowledged pimp who champions a municipal tax on anyone who owns more than 3 vehicles?  "Well, he ran girls, but he's looking out for the little guy!"  The proud and admitted gang member who runs on a platform of eliminating red light cameras and photo radar?  "Those cops rob us like crooks, so what he sold some dope!"

I think that if Ford nation needs to support someone who says what Rob Ford says, they can do better. They should support someone who doesn't do hard drugs or have substance abuse issues.  Put your backing behind Mammoliti or even Ford's own brother.  Rob Ford can then make it about the issues, not himself, and put his backing behind them.  Full endorsement.  Sorry to say, but the Rob Ford formula isn't so special that you can't put someone else in a suit and rhyme off zingers like "Respect for Taxpayers."

Ultimately, the main job of elected officials, public administrators and politicians is not lifting things or building things or cleaning things, things done of the body.  These people decide things - their mind is the tool of their trade.  These are people who choose things.  They are people of judgement.  They can't simply be elected because of their positions - if for no other reason than their positions change with the public opinion polls. They must also be supported because of trust in the person - trust in the person's judgement.  "Ford nation" seems to suggest that we should trust in a person who sticks by his word - stands by his public positions even if they are unreasonable and unrealistic - regardless of the fact that their private life gives us no reason to trust them.  If their judgement in the past has been flawed, doesn't that reflect on them?   If their judgement in their personal life is reckless, are we to assume that it won't manifest itself at work?   People don't change depending on what room they are in, they are who they are.

Rob Ford is who he is.  Who are we if we care only for what he says to us and nothing about what he says about us?

- K