Why Rob Ford is the Amy Winehouse of Canadian politics
By Andrew Potter, Ottawa Citizen
They tried to make me go to rehab but I said ‘no, no, no’ — singer Amy Winehouse, before dying of alcohol poisoning.
“Everything’s going fine.” — Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to the media, after most of his staffers resigned.
By now it is pretty clear that whatever else he may be, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is a very sick man who suffers from any number of pathological cravings, obsessions and addictions. And like all addicts, he has more than his share of enablers — people who gleefully propel his way down the road to self-destruction even as they pretend to be acting in his best interests.
For the better part of the past three years, pundits, reporters and fly-by-night political commentators have been proclaiming that Ford’s vices are actually virtues, that his addictions are features of his personality, not bugs, and that the brand identity that Ford Nation has been sold on is that he’s “authentic.”
They couldn’t be more dangerously, even criminally, wrong.
Like a lot of bad ideas, the cult of authenticity seems to have entered our political vernacular from the United States, where over the past decade there has been a growing conviction that the biggest problem with politics these days is that our leaders are not authentic enough.
The argument goes something like this: modern politics has become dominated by large political parties and their camera-friendly prefab leaders who are more image than substance, who speak only in sound bites and talking points, who govern with both eyes on the overnight tracking poll and who lament the rise of negative politics while chumming the waters with the bloodiest of attack ads.
In short, the electorate is completely alienated from this mass-marketed phoniness, and what it desires instead is authenticity.
The American writer Joe Klein signposted the search for the authentic in his 2006 book Politics Lost, an essay about the decline of straight-shooting in presidential politics. Klein took his inspiration from Harry Truman’s “Turnip Day” speech at the Democratic convention in 1948 that confirmed his nomination for president.
Coming on stage after midnight, speaking simply and without notes, Truman challenged the “do-nothing Congress” to act upon the views they claimed to endorse, and get back to work.
Klein thinks we need more Turnip Day moments, more politicians like Truman. He argued politicians need to “figure out new ways to engage and inspire us — or maybe just some simple old ways, like saying what they think as plainly as possible.”
It’s a good anecdote, but it spurred every authenticity-mongering pundit to invent their own Turnip Day homily. The most famous variation is the New York Times columnist David Brooks’ throwaway line about how Americans always vote for the presidential candidate they would most like to have a beer with.
A year and a half ago, Canadian pundit Allan Gregg delivered a lecture to the Public Policy Forum — called “On Authenticity: How the Truth can Restore Faith in Politics and Government” — in which he described his own Turnip Day moment: the night he went to see a band in a club in Manhattan when the guitar player’s electric pickup broke. Instead of stopping the show to fix the guitar, the band unplugged their instruments, moved closer to one another, and performed an intimate number that had the crowd hooting and hollering in delight.
Gregg saw a lesson in this for our politicians. He claimed that the most systematic failure of our leaders is that “they have not picked up on the electorate’s craving for authenticity nor adjusted their behaviour to conform to this new reality.”
The avatar of this movement, according to Gregg, is Ford, whom he describes as “a leather-lunged, no-necked, know-nothing.” And in case you think that’s an insult, Gregg goes on: “In Rob Ford’s instance, his very crudeness and unrefined nature made him seem ‘real’ and signalled he was not trying to hide anything from voters.” That is to say, Ford won the race for mayor of Toronto because he’s authentic.
Gregg is far from the only person to have made this argument. The “Rob Ford is popular because he’s authentic” line started during the 2010 election and continues even as he fights to keep his job over allegations surrounding a video that purports to show him smoking crack. In a recent Toronto Star column about some “fascinating artifacts of authenticity” in our politics, Judith Timson wrote, “When Rob Ford was first elected, I stood in a public square listening to him speak, thinking, uh oh, this man is trouble for all who oppose him. Why? Because the mayor says what he means, and he doesn’t give a flying fig what opponents think of him.”
Writing in the Citizen last fall, Adam Goldenberg wrote that “Ford, who won by running as an unrefined, yet garishly authentic, outsider, is an outsider once more. His war against the downtown establishment — they of bike lanes and gravy trains — can now continue with renewed relish, and perhaps even success; if Ford runs again, he may well win.”
Finally, Postmedia’s own Christie Blatchford has written a number of columns lauding Ford for his “authenticity.” As she put it in a column last November, “Mr. Ford is surely deeply flawed. Well, so are most of us, me anyway. But, to use a modern term, he is also authentic.”
How can we get any critical traction on Ford when we are told, by highly intelligent and critical-minded people, that what looks to all the world like a serious problem with his character is actually his greatest asset?
The reason so many are driven to this conclusion is because they have fallen for the authenticity hoax — the idea that “being yourself” is a virtue, and that someone is most like themselves when they are letting their basest and most animal urges run rampant.
But this version of “authenticity,” of which Ford is supposedly emblematic, is something that is extremely dangerous for the electorate and for the man who cloaks himself in its embrace.
Authenticity, at its core, describes someone who is self-contained but transparent to the world, innocent without being naive, and sincere without being cloying. Such a person, if he or she ever existed, would make an atrocious politician.
But Ford is not authentic in this way. Instead, he’s just another populist. In America, populists thump bibles and warn against commies and talk about huntin’ and the heartland and the family farm. In Canada, populists write books about hockey and hold press conferences at Tim Hortons and warn against crime and talk about stopping the gravy train.
But populism is not authenticity. Populism in politics is a pose, a marketing position, a brand that is just as phoney as any other political stance out there. Sometimes it works spectacularly, as it did for Bill Clinton. And sometimes it flames out spectacularly, as it did for that moose huntin’ maverick mom, Sarah Palin.
But it isn’t clear that Ford is even much of a populist. About the only truly populist kite he’s ever flown is the whole stop-the-gravy-train thing, which some people thought meant he was committed to lowering taxes. As it turned out, he actually thought there was a literal gravy train at City Hall and that stopping it would fix Toronto’s finances. He’s also a bigot and pretty obviously hates the gays, but it isn’t clear how many populists are keen to strike up the band on that wagon.
No, there’s something more basic to Ford’s personality, and there’s nothing that appealing about it: the man has zero self-control. From reading while driving himself to work, drinking to excess at official functions, going to KFC while on a much-publicized diet or allegedly smoking crack and hanging out with drug dealers, it is clear that Ford is simply incapable of resisting temptation or delaying gratification.
And — it is crazy that this needs pointing out — there is nothing politically or morally praiseworthy about this. From Plato to Freud and everyone in between and since, self-mastery of the passions by our capacity for reason has been recognized as the key to being a proper-functioning adult and to the proper functioning of the city. No one has seriously made the case that rule by the passions, the id, the animal instincts, is a viable way to run a polity of any size. More to the point, no one has credibly argued that this is any way for a grown-up to behave.
Except, that is, Ford’s enablers, whose greatest fear is that he will go to rehab and expose their ongoing support for what it really is: a dangerous and foolish egging-on of a very sick man. Which is what makes Ford less of a buffoon and more of a tragic figure. He is the Amy Winehouse of Canadian politics.
Winehouse’s signature song was Rehab, with its casual defiance, the stick-it-to-the-man refusal to go along with square society’s medicalization of boozing. It was a massive hit that struck at the core of our cultural ambivalence toward art and self-destruction. Why should Winehouse go to rehab? After all, weren’t her problems — her drinking, the drugs, the depression and the self-harming — the very font of her creativity and her soul? Rehab became a rallying cry for barflies everywhere. It also showed that, despite decades of public education on this issue, we still don’t take seriously the proposition that alcoholism, drug abuse, and even depression, are real illnesses.
Imagine if, instead of being an alcoholic, Winehouse had cancer. And imagine she wrote a song called Chemo with the lyrics “they tried to make me go to chemo, I said ‘no, no, no’.” Or if she had an infection, and she sang “they tried to give me antibiotics, and I said ‘no, no, no’.” It would be a joke. But deep down, most of us don’t quite accept that alcoholism or drug addiction are diseases like any other. It’s self-destructive, sure, but there’s also something romantic about it.
When Winehouse recorded Rehab, she was telling the world that she didn’t buy into the notion that her drinking was an illness that needed treatment. When we bought the record by the millions and gave her a Grammy for it, we told her we agreed.
Did this popular support play a role in her subsequent death? When she sang about not going to rehab and we cheered and called her authentic, did she internalize the value system we were pushing on her? That is, is it possible that Winehouse, like others before her and since, bought into her self-image as a messed-up singer of the blues, which made it that much harder for her to get clean?
All identities are social constructs that get their strength from the extent to which they are recognized by others. As a result, there is a feedback loop in our identity construction, where we internalize the norms that govern our chosen (or assigned) identities — wife, parent, warrior, rebel, scholar, criminal. When the norms of a given identity contain a built-in mechanism for both radicalization and self-destruction (as they do for an identity like “messed-up singer of the blues”), it is not hard to see how it could become literally inescapable.
So then imagine you one day find yourself the mayor of one of the biggest cities in North America. You aren’t without your charms, and the people around you aren’t without political savvy. But you also have serious personal problems, which play havoc with your health, your personal life and threaten your ability to do even the most minimal parts of your job. Yet the worse things get, the more you spiral down, the more your so-called supporters cheer you on and tell you that is exactly how you are supposed to behave.
What would you do? Who would you turn to for advice? In such circumstances, you would hope you could rely on someone who has known you all your life, who loves you for who you are but who knows that who you are involves habits and appetites that, unchecked, might get you killed. That is, you would hope there was someone close to you who loved you like a brother.
Does Rob Ford have such a person near him? We can only hope he does. His life — and perhaps that of others as well — depends on it.
Andrew Potter is the Citizen’s managing editor. He is also the author of The Authenticity Hoax: How we get lost finding ourselves. Follow him at twitter.com/jandrewpotter
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