Every time I write something about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, I swear it simply must be the last time. Few would have expected that the man and his erratic, controversial actions could prove to be such a fruitful, tenacious subject of discussion. For a figure whose view of the world is so simple, whose motivations and psychology appear so entirely self-evident, Ford has proven to be a portal to access deeper social and political issues in Toronto, Canada, North America, and the West in general. This seems to be why critical analysts and opinion writers can’t quit Robert Bruce Ford, can’t seem to shake this bad habit of a subject. He’s like a drug.
But what’s even more like a drug is the drugs. Namely: crack cocaine, which a now-notorious (and still unconfirmed) video taken by an anonymous Somali-Canadian drug dealer from Etobicoke allegedly shows Mayor Ford smoking from a pipe. First reported on by a writer for American snark-oriented news site Gawker and very soon after corroborated by the Toronto Star (the Ahab to Ford’s elusive White Whale), the tantalizingly unsubstantiated cell phone video is the subject of much public and press speculation, a brusque dismissal (but not a full denial) from Ford and his brother Doug, and a “Crackstarter” fundraiser project at Gawker which seeks to raise $200,000 (the drug dealer’s supposed asking price) in donations to purchase the video’s rights in order to exhibit it to the world. The story has spread to the American media, may have contributed to Ford’s removal as head coach of a local high school football team (though the school board claimed to have been reviewing his tenure since March), and has (possibly) led to the dismissal of his chief of staff.
But my interest is not in the ins and outs of this latest Ford scandal, yet another movement of the continuous, aggressive paso doble between his conspiracy-spinning defenders on the right and the relentless critics on the left hoping for his ouster. One moment, one alleged quotation from Ford in the infamous video as described in the Star, caught my attention and suggested previously unsounded depths to Rob Ford. I don’t mean when he apparently referred to Justin Trudeau as “a faggot” or to his football players as “just fucking minorities”. I mean this described instance of apparent introspection, doubt, and self-analysis:
“Everyone expects me to be right-wing. I’m just supposed to be this great.…” and his voice trails off.
We cannot be certain until the video is confirmed to be real and actually viewed, but if Ford did “mutter” these words, how can we understand them except as a sort of existential cry for aid? Is Ford voicing his own self-awareness, his knowledge that smoking crack is understood as being beyond the pale of the sort of settled suburban conservativism that he claims to represent? Is he chafing under the mantle of celebrated champion of the tax-hating, union-bashing, hippie-punching right wing, or retreating from its extreme pressures into narcotics abuse? Are the stresses cracking Rob Ford? Or is it something else?
The trailing off after that bitterly ironic amplifier “great” is interesting, indeed. The lament of Ford is one of deflated expectations of towering achievement, of the failure to live up to the ideological grandeur of the axis-shifting agenda that his Nation’s “revolution” was supposed to engender. Tone of voice is hidden from us (as is any certainty that he said it at all), but the chosen words sound resigned, melancholic, and above all self-deprecating. He doesn’t say that he does not meet these expectations, but the subtext is there; it would be the next sentence, surely, perhaps followed by a pithy quotation from Nietzsche or Kant (unlikely, yes, but then he’s purportedly doing drugs as he speaks; his power of intellectual recall may well be enhanced).
It is reminiscent of Ford’s greatest (alleged) moment in my experience, perhaps the only time that I’ve ever liked him or understood how he might be appealing to anyone other than your run-of-the-mill, pinko-raging, self-interested political reactionary who clings to a comforting narrative of persecution and victimhood even while reaping socioeconomic rewards. An inebriated Ford was reported to have responded to a female critic on the Esplanade on St. Patrick’s Day who told him to his face that he was “the worst mayor ever” by kissing her on the forehead like a corpulent linebacker Jesus is a sweaty suit and saying, “I know. But I try.” Ignoring the invasion of personal space, his kiss struck me as a simultaneous act of benediction, forgiveness, and atonement, and his response betrayed self-awareness, wit, and even humility.
This latter quality is perhaps the most salient common feature of these two otherwise very different reported exchanges, and the most fascinating for its brief, unrehearsed appearance. Ford, a comfortable son of a wealthy businessman who now rubs shoulders with the Prime Minister and has much of the city’s elite on speed dial, has built a meticulous populist image for himself as a fighter for the self-perceived marginalized suburban conservative tax base.
Whatever we might think about this image’s authenticity or lack thereof, it is at its heart based in an essentialy humble proletarian ideal. But it has been adopted by a man whose boorish, aggressive, confrontational and self-aggrandizing approach to being a champion of the people has left little room for humility. When Rob Ford talks in an alleged drug-using video about what his fellow citizens expect of him, he is stepping outside of that image, examining it, critiquing it, and finding it wanting. How much more productive his tenure as mayor may have been had he applied this same cool eye for self-examination and constructive criticism to his application of civic policy.
In the midst of the bizarre and incredible story of the escape of Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus, and Michele Knight from 10-year forcible confinement at the hands of the Castro brothers in Cleveland, Ohio, one unlikely player in the saga has grabbed the spotlight. The Castros’ neighbour Charles Ramsey helped Berry and a young girl escape from imprisonment (dropping his Big Mac and kicking in a door to do it) and joined them in calling 911 to summon the police to free the rest of the captives. Hailed as an everyday hero by a media culture that loves to anoint such figures, Ramsey gave a television interview after the event that has already become an internet meme of notable proportions:
Seized upon by the online remix culture almost immediately, Ramsey’s notable catchphrases were macro’ed and his expressive proletarian cadence duly autotuned before you could say, “Hide your kids, hide your wife”. Indeed, Antoine Dodson’s enduring internet meme-fame seems the closest analogue to Ramsey’s, and shares in its shaded outline of doubtful white guilt at the perceived exploitation and mockery of working-class African-American vernacular speech and endemic social problems. There is more than a hint of racial prejudice in the remix reaction to his entertaining interview, certainly; it’s not possible to locate the response entirely in a non-racist context, nor is it prudent to tar all responses with the brush of prejudice.
But there is also a strong underlying note of praise for Ramsey’s “heroism” (a term that Ramsey has waved aside with a modesty born out of circumstances of socio-economic deprivation) that defuses even the most flippant and thoughtless of online racially-tinged jokes. “This man did a fine thing, and he’s hilarious and expressive and breathtakingly honest!” would seem to be a fair summation of the lion’s share of the chatter around his media appearances. His longer and more thoughtful chat with CNN’s Anderson Cooper embedded below displays these qualities away from the madhouse atmosphere of his famous man-on-the-street interview. This is what seems to be grabbing people most about Ramsey, as it does in differing ways in Dodson’s case and in the cases of most of the other viral media clips (which mostly come from the less-filtered quasi-reality of local television news). What’s notable in a media culture of canned responses and cliched euphemisms is how real Ramsey sounds, how authentic he comes across as being.
Or perhaps I should type “real” and “authentic”. I’ve previously considered in this space how these terms have become detached from their prevalent meanings by their use and dissemination as dominant marketing tropes in the discourse of consumer capitalism. From this perspective, it may not really mean anything to say that Charles Ramsey comes across as “authentic”. Even the more precise and less abused adjective “honest” (so often misconstrued as an excuse for the utterance of unfashionable discriminatory opinions, mind you) does not quite serve our purposes, but we have to make do with it nonetheless.
And there is a guileless honesty to Ramsey’s view of the strange events that he finds himself a part of that many appear to find highly refreshing in a popular discourse marked by linguistic obfuscation and diversionary statements. Most noted is his forthright statement at the end of his initial interview about race relations: “I knew something was wrong when a pretty little white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Dead giveaway!” The (white) reporter responds to some inner warning (or to his producer’s voice in his earpiece) and cuts the discussion short at that moment, confirming that this assessment of racial issues, of the inability of fellow humans to see beyond outward prejudices except in moments of great stress and trauma, cuts a little too close to the bone.
But Ramsey’s growing share of televised appearances is full of such quotidian observations, such (perish the diminishing term) homespun folk wisdom. His writerly details about the inoffensive appearance of his deeply disturbed criminal neighbour (that stuff about ribs and salsa music and cleaning his motorcycle) and his own stated haunted feelings about the knowledge of what troubling horrors unfolded right next door to him encapsulate the emotional impact of the story more succinctly and powerfully than any number of expansive journalism-school adjectives could do.
And at the end of his interview below with Cooper, Ramsey holds up his paycheque and states unapologetically how lucky he is to have a job and income in a country where this sort of thing happens to his fellow citizens mere feet from his porch. It may not be as supremely meme-able as any of his more-famous catchphrases from his more emotional initial interview. But this momentary emphasis on America’s fundamental narrative of the tenuousness of economic survival, even in the face of the monstrous violations of the abduction, confinement, and rape case at hand, is a penetrating instance of direct commentary. The memory of Charles Ramsey’s role in this current-affairs crime story will fade, and the internet memes will recede into the rearview mirror. But if not only what he says but how he says it resonates with enough people, the media culture need not be poorer for his being a part of it.
Since Monday afternoon, when two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing 3 people and injuring 183 more, one of America’s great cities and the whole nation and much of the world beyond has been fixated on the unfolding aftermath of what can only be labeled a terrorist attack. As details about the methods of the act and eventually information about the suspects trickled in over the course of the week, it fed not a sense of healing and calm but an edgy mass anxiety tinged with the sting of popular mourning. It certainly could not help that another mid-week large-scale disaster, the deadly explosion of a fertilizer plant near West, Texas, added to the tragic public mood.
This low simmer of unease rolled rapidly into a violent boil of renewed, sustained terror late Thursday night. Late that night and into the early morning hours of Friday, the recently-revealed bombing suspects (and brothers) Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev shot and killed a MIT campus police officer, engaged in a major gun-and-explosives battle with police that left the elder Tamerlan dead, and touched off a tense, overwhelming city-wide manhunt that saw all of Boston locked down and, by 9 pm on Friday, the younger Dzhokhar arrested by the authorities. All of this was reported breathlessly by both traditional television as well as online media, minute-by-minute.
It was fascinating to watch events unfold and reactions unfold with them on real time on social media. The online community was both more timely in disseminating and interpreting the deluge of information on the day of the bombing and of the manhunt than the old media (even cable news, where usual reliable mainstay CNN did not precisely cover itself in glory) and less responsible and certain in this dissemination. Nothing new and exciting emerged about the relative current affairs potential (and pitfalls) of web communities like Twitter or Reddit that we did not basically know before, and if anything was revealed it was how well certain hoary old media giants have adapted to the new formats as opposed to others (the Boston Globe’s Twitter feed was indispensible; their reports were far out ahead of other outlets, and usually proven right in the end).
Beyond the standard analysis of media coverage, however, the events of this past week in the Boston area carried grimmer implications for the American political and social order. The overwhelming force of the ever-growing national-security-complex-enabled police state was out in full force in Boston, as a major U.S. city was completely locked down for the better part of a day due to a single teenager with a gun (who turned out to be grievously injured and sheltering in a boat in someone’s backyard all that time). Coming at the end of a week in which major new gun-control legislation was defeated in Congress, the applicability of the situation to these events was not lost on gun-control advocates.
Nor was the heavy-handed invocation of public safety measures as an excuse to curb constitutional freedoms (of Boston-metropolitan residents as well as of Chechen-descended, Kyrgyzstan-born American citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was not read his Miranda rights despite a Department of Justice indication that criminal courts will handle his case) in the name of security lost on civil liberties defenders, of which Glenn Greenwald is the most imperiously vocal. It isn’t simply that constitutional rights or the rule of law are suspended in the face of terrorism (domestic though it may be) and a resulting atmosphere of fear. Nor is it that a vindictive jingoism (the bullheaded “USA” chant erupted in the streets when the living suspect’s capture went public) and xenophobic persecution (a Muslim woman and her child were bullied in public in the city’s suburbs in response to the events) are the most fundamental reactions to any threat in post-War-on-Terror-era America (to say nothing of geographical ignorance; many angry “Real Americans” wanted military action against the Czech Republic once the suspects’ ethnic backgrounds were made public, mistaking the Central European democracy for Central Asian Russian breakaway state Chechnya).
What the Boston Marathon bombings, the hunt for its suspects, and the undercurrent of authoritarianism of the entire exercise has shown is that America has changed deeply in the decade-plus since the 9/11. Or, perhaps, certain darker, more oppressive elements in its national character have simply come out more strongly and inevitably than before. How the justice system and the wider public approaches the denouement of these events will go a long way towards suggesting whether or not the authoritarian impulse is ascendant in American life, or if a civil society can still be reconciled with widespread anxiety over terrorist threats.
In sad and arresting news for lovers of film and of good, honest, nuanced writing, famed movie critic Roger Ebert has died at the age of 70. Afflicted with a tenacious and ultimately fatal case of cancer in his thyroid and salivary glands, Ebert’s illness transformed his kindly professorial appearance and even prevented him from speaking, but never proscribed his ability to express himself. Indeed, Ebert underwent what we can now unfortunately call a late renaissance as a writer and disseminator of ideas in recent years, embracing the opportunities presented by the Internet to redouble the voice that keenly dissected movies on television and in the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times for decades. His Twitter (now silenced) was an unspoken must-follow, and his website expanded beyond his own reviews to include those of many acolytes (including his last regular television review program co-host, Richard Roeper) as well as essays on politics and other contemporary subjects worthy of his particular commentary. As the cancer that would take his life spread, so did his considered words, his clear-eyed reason, and his legacy.
It’s delusional for me to place my modest critical efforts anywhere near those of the United States of America’s foremost film critic. But I can’t say that I have any doubts that were it not for the influence of Ebert’s reviews in my formative years as a writer, I would not be writing about the movies today, or likely producing criticism of any stripe. If it has not done me much good professionally, then that is my failing and not Ebert’s. In my pre-internet days, I watched Siskel & Ebert and devoured his movie yearbooks, absorbing not only his perspectives on movies (which I often disagreed with) but also the subtle turns of his prose rhetoric.
Roger Ebert did not write the greatest reviews for the greatest movies (although his commentary track for Citizen Kane is a must-listen for appreciators of one of Hollywood’s greatest moments). His opinions on Peter Jackson’s epochal Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, were hopelessly quaint and outdated, and his reviews in general fell in my estimation after he championed the staid and limp first Harry Potter film (“the new Wizard of Oz” or some inert praise to that effect) over the clearly superior Fellowship of the Ring (read Stephanie Zacharek’s take for Salon on the latter for a review shot through with transcendent and erudite awe at greatness). But he could dismantle a poor cinematic effort with velvet gloves and a surgeon’s knife. No wonder that his latter days saw him directing his powers more and more at the fever of Republican madness infecting American political and social life with the same righteous rhetorical scalpel.
More than anything, though, Roger Ebert outlived the public utility of his profession. His stated goal with Siskel & Ebert, with its famously reductive thumbs-up/thumbs-down summary judgements and edited critical discussions, was to bring the often stuffy, smug and ungenerous craft of film criticism to the people. His direct writing on the movies he watched and either loved, loathed, or often found lingering in the liminal space between those poles empowered readers and film fans (present blogging company included) to form and express their own interpretations and opinions on American culture’s foremost entertainment product. His own work spread easily to the internet, and he championed online film writing as a necessary and exciting form even as it rendered the formerly privileged position of the paid traditional media critic almost entirely vestigial. There are some great stories about this sector of his public work at Ain’t It Cool News, a movie fandom site that Ebert spoke glowingly of on many occasions.
Largely due to these efforts of democratizing and decentralizing film criticism, Ebert is likely to be last hugely prominent film critic in pop culture. No longer do filmgoers wait patiently to read what a New York Times critic like Pauline Kael has to say about a movie before judging it for themselves. If they ever did, that is; if anything, film criticism has had to work hard to catch up to the public’s clear-cut assessment of cinematic product, with populist writers like Ebert at the head of that column. Hundreds of critical perspectives of varying degrees of sophistication and positivity can be accessed with a single online search, including those of major media critical voices. The cultural capital of the movie critic has been drained away, ironically thanks to the passion for myriad views on film felt by the man who held more of that capital than anyone else. Writing about movies, as this humble if long-winded blog proves, is no longer merely the province of the privileged. Perhaps Roger Ebert would have appreciated that more than any other part of his legacy.
How painful and irritating to be doing this again: Expending words and intellectual effort to explore the nuanced and implications of yet another embarrassing public controversy raging around Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Whatever one thinks of the man, his views, his affiliations, or his behaviour (and regular readers of mine shouldn’t be under any illusions about how little I think of all that), it can be generally agreed that his tenure as mayor of Canada’s largest city has been characterized by too many of these distracting media kerfuffles. As with most issues involving this divisive political figure (or, rather, a figure who feeds upon political division), each ideological camp blames the other for the litany of scandals.
The binary nature of the responses to Ford’s hiccups is usually irritating and counterproductive, but in this latest uproar has become more complex and troubling. Without getting into too much detail, the latest problem involves former left-leaning mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson, who publically accused Mayor Ford of making a verbal pass at her and then groping her ass (to put things frankly) at a fundraiser function late last week.
Even before political or ideological considerations are factored in, complications abound. Thomson publicized the accusation on Facebook the night it purportedly happened and has thus far declined to press charges or involve the law in any way. There are also apparent inconsistencies and holes in the story, which has emerged as and is yet to move beyond the kind of vicious, unsatisfying he said/she said back-and-forth dispute that sexual harassment and assault cases too often constitute.
But the real complications come in after political and ideological considerations are factored in. The reaction to the story on both the right and the left has been riven by dynamics both pragmatically political/electoral and related to wider ideological convictions and undercurrents. For Ford’s loyal supporters on the city’s right wing, Thomson’s accusation is further confirmation of what is perceived as a vast, underhanded downtown pinko conspiracy to tear down the gravy-cutting mayor (can one cut gravy? If so, how? Presumably only once it has congealed). This plays neatly into the siege mentality of comfortable suburban conservatives that Ford has so astutely and cynically exploited for electoral gain, as social victimizers of minorities and the poor imagine themselves to be the victimized when their excessive share of social wealth and privilege is mildly threatened.
As much as the aggrieved reaction on the right has sprung from a partisan defence of their tribal champion, the nature of many of the reactions to Thomson’s public charges has laid bare an ugly, misogynist sore of anti-feminism that has long festered underneath the scrubbed façade of conservative rhetoric, alongside racism, xenophobia, and authoritarian assumptions on the nature of power. Thomson, we’ve been told (mostly on the fever swamp of right-wing talk radio, so I have heard), is doing this all for political or financial gain, just wants attention, is on a vendetta against political opponent Ford, is fabricating the incident, is hysterical, and is simultaneously overreacting (“Big girls keep quiet,” was a phrase I read being used, painfully without irony) and underreacting (much has been made of her unwillingness thus far to go to the police, as if the same people criticizing her for not doing so would not criticize her for going too far if she did).
Such rhetoric hardens the resolve of Thomson’s supporters on the progressive side of the issue, so reflective is it of the standard negative responses to such challenges to what is known as “the rape culture” (perhaps better calibrated as “the sexual assault culture” in this specific case, to evade hyperbole). The progressive feminist imperative to expose and root out instances of harassment and assault of women and to give the whistleblowers the requisite level of serious public support is important and, indeed, praiseworthy. But it may likewise meld into the popular distaste for Ford felt on the left and the effort to oppose and undermine his attempts to impose the sort of conservative policies he has espoused since his election. All of these partisan elements may also have a tendency to trample legitimate rational doubts about Thomson’s story and/or motivations in leveling such serious accusations, it must be said.
Saying any of this does not commit one invariably to a position on this incident, the truth of which may never be known for certain and the furour around which will likely continue to drag all the operative issues at hand through the mud. Such is the Toronto political scene in the Years of Our Ford, however, the cleavages and bitterness pre-dating even the current mayor and likely to outlast him as well. With more potential legal issues looming for Rob Ford, conservatives may be heard to lament yet another bump in his road, wondering why liberals won’t just leave him alone. The best answer is that it would be foolish for Ford’s opponents to leave him alone, since he does not seem to intend to leave them alone. Indeed, his entire tenure as mayor has been less about solving glaring civic problems than it has been about assaulting and wearing down as many of the city’s existing liberal policies and conventions as possible, as aggressively as possible.
None of this, of course, is terribly new, hence the nascent malaise over having to write yet another post about Rob Ford’s buffoonery. What is new, and not at all something to be happy about, is that the always-contentious issue of sexual assault, which inflames so many popular passions and is responded to with such harmful and hurtful notions, has been raised in relation to Toronto’s divisive mayor. Feminists and other sympathetic advocates for a deep-seated culture change in the social stigmas around sexual assault and harassment have a difficult-enough job disseminating awareness of the crime and its related structure of excuses, labels, and insinuations without running smack into the immovable wall of reactionary opinion that is Ford Nation. Perhaps the left can pledge to leave Rob Ford alone when he agrees to leave intricate and thorny social issues like this one alone. Neither option seems probable.
At the time that this post was published, the Catholic Church had just become, if only briefly, a captainless vessel. The sitting Pope Benedict XVI (the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) had announced on February 11th that he would resign as the head of the Catholic Church effective at the end of the month (call it a holy two-weeks’ notice). As the College of Cardinals assembles for a Conclave to elect one from amongst their august selves to the post of the 266th Vicar of Christ (with the swing vote belonging, in hoary doctrinal tradition, to none other than the Holy Spirit), there have already been numerous considerations, analyses, and accountings of the legacy and meaning of Benedict’s brief papacy, which officially ended today.
Though I can hardly claim to be qualified to assess the pontificate of the outgoing Bishop of Rome in the company of career Vaticanologists (they’re like vulcanologists, only they study celibate old men instead of upswelling magma), there is something of interest in the conclusion of Benedict’s reign at the top of the rapidly ossifying ecclesiastical hierarchy. Ratzinger, upon assumption of the office, was clear about conceiving his time at the wheel of the Popemobile as being a transitional phase after the long and popular papacy of John Paul II. A pinched, detail-oriented German who was the oldest Pope to be elected in 250 years and formerly headed the Vatican’s successor office to the Inquisition, Benedict had neither the inclination nor the evident ability to match his predecessor’s world-spanning celebrity and outreach to the faithful and the unfaithful alike (although he was one of the unseen architects of that opening to the world, ironically enough). That the Church pulled back into itself, focusing on conservative countermeasures to the relative openness of past decades since the Second Vatican Council, was perhaps characteristic of its leader. That this leader spent most of his time wearing the big hat in the throes of the morally-damaging, unresolvable worldwide Catholic priest sex abuse scandal, and who displayed an unwillingness to move the goalposts of justice on the manner very far at all, can be attributed similarly to his rule by inertia.
Indeed, there was something substantially contemporary about the papacy of Benedict XVI, a certain current character dancing above the immovable bedrock of millenia of clerical traditionalism and even the open derision for secular modernity that he often expressed. John Paul II, himself not much more liberal than his successor in many key push-button matters of public Catholic doctrine like ordination of women, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, or birth control, nonetheless projected through his status as the first multimedia Pope the dominant characteristics of the waning decades of the century that his papacy just outlasted. As a dissident figure of an oppressed people who resisted and was a vocal opponent of dictatorial tyranny and lived to bask in the glow of the collapse of such regimes and replacement by a species of globalized, liberalized capitalist prosperity, John Paul II’s papacy was a compressed narrative of the 20th Century. That his shimmering coda of mass adulation (mixed with the begrudging admiration of even his Church’s most vocal critics) was darkly-lined by the spreading sex abuse scandal dovetailed with the tonal mix of anxiety, instability, and inequality of power that has thus far swallowed the 21st Century.
Benedict’s papacy saw a distinct uptick of these darkening feelings, along with a renewed conservative emphasis. Where John Paul II turned his moral-rhetorical megaphone at actual dictators and their oppressive systems (to oft-inflated but undeniably existing effect), Benedict XVI turned his ire, like many a foppish “conservative intellectual”, at the inherently dubious “dictatorship of relativism”. It is never terribly convincing when the acolyte of an institution whose moral and temporal authority is slipping further and further away by the hour blames every ill of the past brace of centuries upon the subjective, self-interested refusal of people around the world to do what he and his fellow Catholic theologians say they should. If our young century has been very much defined by the stubborn firmness of those looking to preserve their prized imbalance of power, wealth, and influence, then the inability of Benedict to keep his institution from backsliding is a rare instance of that act of preservation failing.
And yet Benedict’s Church was defined not only by these anti-modern factors but also by a distinct increase in the corporatization of the Vatican, a consolidation of its activities, messages, and public image into a well-oiled transnational company that should have been expected under the influence of a longtime clerical bureaucrat. But his departing act, his wilful resignation from the Papacy and assumption of the peculiarly academic title of Pope Emeritus, is the most modern and business-world-ish element of his pontificate.
The last Pope to vacate the office while living was Gregory XII in 1415, who abdicated quite against his will so that the Antipope at Avignon could unite the Catholic Church and end the Western Schism (you did not need to know that, but I just really wanted an excuse to write the words “Antipope” and “schism”, as well as link to the contemporaneous but only tangentially related First Defenestration of Prague). No Pope has abdicated entirely willingly since the 13th Century, when Celestine V decided he’d really much rather live in a cave than in the Vatican, thank you very much. But then Benedict XVI did not abdicate, he resigned, like a businessman might.
Though I’m not sure there is as much sinister, hidden intent in this development in papal history as Andrew Sullivan thinks there is (Sully, like many with libertarian leanings, has a tendency to see nefarious institutional collusion almost everywhere), there is something odd and unrevealed about Benedict’s choice to become Ratzinger again. Stated health concerns aside (I have joked that he should have said he wanted to spend more time with his family, har har), perhaps the outgoing Pope preferred influencing the progression of the Church’s glacially-slow evolution from behind the curtain rather than from the dais of St. Peter’s as the Vicar of Christ himself. In a global culture so often dazzled by flashy celebrity (and the Pope, geriatric though the role may inherently be, is as flashy and prominent as religious celebrity gets), the gloved hand that manipulates the tiller is that much more easily overlooked. Ratzinger has seriously influenced the course of the Catholic Church, for good and for ill, for 50+ years. If today marked his retirement, it remains to be seen how retired he will be, even when a new Pope emerges from the Conclave.
British novelist Ian McEwan’s exploration of upper-middle-class malaise and uncertainty in the wake of 9/11 was contemporaneously heralded as a timely and prescient slice of insight into the then-current social and political mentality of the bruised world order of liberal-democratic capitalism. Following his almost universally-praised Atonement, a finely-balanced novel about guilt, forgiveness, and stortytelling set in the Britain of the 1930s and ‘40s, Saturday was bound to be greeted as a high-profile follow-up in literary circles, and greatness was again expected.
How disappointing, then, that Saturday finds McEwan facing up to defining issues of the early part of the 21st Century and having little of consequence to say. Reaction at the time of publishing trended towards the positive, but with the benefit of hindsight, I generally found myself agreeing with John Banville’s scathing take from The New York Review of Books: the politics are “banal” and the tone is “arrogant and self-satisfied”.
Even in Atonement, McEwan was concerned primarily with the problems of rich people (although WWII had a certain class leveling effect, at least on his characters), and once again he drops a big, heavy happening of consequence into the middle of their lives to shake them up and make them question their privilege, though not too much. In Atonement, it was a child rape and then the most deadly and destructive conflict in human history; in Saturday, it’s a fender-bender that leads to a home invasion set against the backdrop of historic protests against the Iraq War, all unfolding in the space of a single Saturday in London.
But McEwan’s whole package is redolent of the smug, conventional moral rectitude of then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who pedantically lectured his country and the world on the righteousness of the neoconservative-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s rogue state and paid for it with his political life when he turned out not to be quite correct enough. McEwan does include a small comic tableau of Blair’s politician-ly willingness to ingratiate: at a gala opening of the Tate Modern in London, the PM mistakes the protagonist Henry Perowne, a capable but humble and self-doubting neurosurgeon, for an admired contemporary artist, and smarmily covers his error.
It’s a nice moment, and there are plenty of nice moments in Saturday. McEwan writes with extreme control and poise, building occasionally towards measured epiphanies and strictly-apportioned truths. The problem with this is that he often strives to knock his regimented fictional reality off-kilter, to introduce elements of unpredictability and chaos into his plot to keep it interesting and, one supposes, to advance his central themes as well. But the precision of his prose undermines these efforts, renders them busy and forced, like an elaborate laboratory experiment mimicking natural stimuli. This writing approach works fine when employed in describing the Georgian layout of London’s Fitzroy Square or in detailing Perowne performing brain surgeries, but is perhaps not the best method for imparting the stressful aforementioned invasion of the Perowne home or a furious amateur squash game.
The details are subordinate to the larger social-political observations that McEwan is aiming at, however. In its time, Saturday was one of those artistic works that were odiously prefaced by the term “post-9/11”. Suggestive of both mainstream pundit-peddled sociology and watered-down critical theory, the phrase indicates, essentially, a text that deals with the then-prevailing mood of paranoia and disquiet that followed the terrorist attacks on America (and continued into later such acts in Madrid and London, the latter which McEwan predicts with muddled idiot-savant generality in the late stages of the book). If this idiom carries less weight now, that must be a statement of the extent to which the events that once stood astride all public discourse have faded in intrinsic cultural importance, if less so in shared memory.
For all of the metaphysical fulminations of our Ian McEwans and Jonathan Safran Foers, the West moved on from 9/11 and its aftershocks. We internalized its lessons and even came to regret the paths its looming spectre scared us into following, namely the Iraq War, the Bush-era surveillance state, and the United States’ descent into the moral stain of officially-sanctioned torture of terror suspects, to say nothing of the more quotidian suspicion and mistrust it inspired. But all of this is still mostly in the unforeseen future for McEwan and his characters, although some younger anti-war figures (Perowne’s poet daughter, for example) pessimistically see it coming and are generally dismissed by McEwan through Henry, who adopts a wait-and-see approach that dispenses with the moral clarity of youth (and is thus dismissed by youth, for its part).
An argument between Henry and his daughter Daisy lays out all of the now-dated Iraq War talking points on both the pro and con side. Although it is difficult to separate McEwan’s own views from his main character’s psychological perspective, his sympathies appear to be with the baby-boomer father, who abhors a war but is swayed by the sudden governmental concern for disposing of the monstrous dictator Saddam. His daughter suggests a fiasco and distrusts American power, especially as wielded by the neo-con bogeymen (Paul Wolfowitz’ name is mispelt as “Wolfovitz” in the text, a typo that one hopes has no intent of inflating his Semitism for nefarious purposes).
They rage at each other with surprising intensity, a political teeth-baring episode that is common enough in family gatherings Stateside at all times, but especially in our partisan age. And yet the perspective of time that Henry Perowne (and McEwan through him) appeals to vindicates neither perspective fully. Iraq was rather a fiasco; there were no WMDs, too many civilian and combatant deaths, an undammed flood of foreign nationals affiliated with terror cells into the country to target American troops, nasty sectarian violence, and a tenuous, imposed democracy that may not last far beyond the U.S.-led coalition’s withdrawal. But Saddam was deposed, captured and eventually executed for his crimes; his regime was wiped from the national slate. There has even been a relative flowering of liberty, or at least non-specific demands for greater freedoms, across the Middle East, very much as the neocon fantasists were derided for talking up.
Iraq’s relation to the Arab Spring is likely more one of correlation than of causation, and it was hardly a bloodless victory without suffering even if it eventually proves to be anything more than a regrettable venture at all. But Ian McEwan’s Saturday sees that war, those turbulent times, and everything else that could be construed as upsetting through the prism of wealthy refinement and comfort. It is too prim, too controlled, too eminently respectable to get near to the spirit of our era of subcultural fragmentation, social balkanization, and political division. The novel is a scrupulous-chosen vase on a pristine coffee table for a world that fears that it cannot keep a roof above its own head. It’s an ill-suited vessel for its ambitious contents, and the liquid leaks out from the cracks.
Contrary to our best hopes but entirely in line with our fearful expectations, there has been another deadly school shooting in America today. Facts continue to trickle in and the outline of the tragedy remains sketchy (and Columbine should have shown us the folly of leaping on patchy, unreliable initial reports and tying them into a narrative that suits our prejudices). But what we know is that a gunman opened fire at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut this morning, killing 26 people including himself, among them as many as 20 children between the age of 5 and 10.
Reasons and causes are as yet unclear, but then, really, they always are in such cases. What can we know of the mind of any mass shooter, let alone one who targets children? Reason collapses in the face of such senseless hate, such reckless destruction. What does “why” matter in the face of wilful murder of innocents? “Why” matters no more or less than “how”, which will also become more terribly, painfully clear in the coming days. This is the only certainty in such an event: the gradual, painful unfolding of details and facts, the picture filling in but the accretion of information offering little solace and less enlightenment of meaning. Reason holds that evidence leads to conclusions, solutions, and closure. Reason cannot fathom what has happened in that school in Connecticut.
And so emotion and ideology step in to fill the void left by impotent rationality. The immediate reactions, especially among the decent mainstream in the centre and on the left (the right has been and is likely to remain fairly silent; nothing their belief-system suggests to them can avail them in this discussion), have been righteously angry, in particular at the continued laxity of American gun control laws. The same arguments for and against stricter gun laws have been and will continue to be loosed from their rarely-closed cages. Perhaps 20 or so dead children are enough to shift the Overton window on the subject; perhaps not even dead children can shift the axis of the NRA and their gun lobby confederates. Yet despite the inordinate number of mass shootings in the past decade or so in America, gun laws have moved more towards permissiveness than restriction. Protestations aside, Americans have, by and large, chosen to live in a country with a liberty of access to guns, and have not yet been moved to change this by any number of massacres. If dead kids are the price to pay, lawmakers and even the general public have seemed to say, “So be it”.
Still, this time already feels different, and we are still in the immediate aftermath of the event. As can be seen in the video statement below, the President (hardly known for his hysterical displays of public emotion) can barely compose himself when discussing the cruel murders of so many children. Barack Obama is not a feel-your-pain sort of politician; indeed, at times during his re-election campaign his even-keeled nature seemed so at odds with the frustrated, strained barometre of the nation’s voting public that he threatened to lose control of what turned out to be an easily winnable contest against the flawed representative of a moribund, cynical ideological movement.
But this may be a moment that defines him, especially if it sparks long-overdue legislative action on gun control. Obama’s tenure manifests the earnest hopes of level-headed Americans who wish an end to the counter-productive practices of political-tribal resentment that have frozen America’s longtime upwards trajectory in mid-climb, if not actually spinning it back down into a precipitous plummet from progress. It is tragically ironic that it may require an intense and raw emotional wound to make a more reasonable and productive social polity possible. But for all of our hope for the future and attempts to forestall its darker possibilities, it often takes a horror to move us to real action. This may be that horror. What, then, will be the action? The American future awaits the answer.
Media buzz over the British royal family – in particular their current youthful standard-bearers, Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – has been relatively subdued as of late. This is the nature of royal-watching, as opposed to the promotional vagaries of entertainment celebrity. Unlike pop singers with new albums to sell or movie stars with new film releases to promote, the British royals don’t really do anything that contributes in an immediate wqay to our mass culture. There’s no consumer-capitalism-driven reason to push them to the fore, most of the time. If there’s clear popular interest that drives media coverage of the monarchy, it’s not related to any sort of time-sensitive product release. At least, not most of the time.
Media interest in Will and Kate has spiked again recently with the public announcement that there is something new on the way: the Duchess is pregnant with another heir. The Windsors can’t seem to get enough of those, in these contemporary times of minimal mortal danger to lines of succession to the throne (Henry VIII would die of envy at the abundance, were he not already a corpse of long standing). The hands of the monarchy and their handlers seems to have been forced to some extent in the timing of the public reveal by a minor health crisis for the expecting Middleton, who was hospitalized early this week for severe morning sickness. What followed was the usual media blitz, which is entirely characteristic of the British tabloid press but only exacerbated by the established international celebrity of its principals.
As the cameras and microphones and their wielders stood vigil outside of King Edward VII hospital in London waiting for updates, an absurd tragedy began to unfold in this shimmering spotlight. A pair of radio DJs from Australia (since suspended from the air) executed what they likely believed to be an amusing prank call at the time, phoning up the hospital to check into Middleton’s condition while pretending to be Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles. Some of us had a laugh with them, some of us engaged in some hand-wringing over the security breach, but no serious consequence from the incident seemed to be forthcoming.
Then, the news broke that the duty nurse who transferred the call through to another nurse (who dutifully gave out the requested info to the presumed monarchs) had turned up dead just days later. Suicide over the humiliation of being duped in the care of such a high-profile patient was the widely speculated cause in the death of Jacintha Saldanha (and how English a reaction would that have been: death from mortal shame). No official statement of cause has been forthcoming from Scotland Yard, who are calling the death “unexplained”. Thus followed recriminations of and apologies from the Aussie radio station, statements from the various parties including the word “tragic”, and, of course, even more hand-wringing.
As we are well aware, this would not be the first time that the breathless media predators circling the gilded form of the British royal family have wound up with blood on their hands, if the Australian prank call is indeed judged to be the fatal catalyst. William himself, we can’t forget, has felt the sting of this sort of thing rather more personally before, and it may be that he’ll make some more direct statement about it drawing on past experiences when more information comes to light (or maybe not; the stiff-upper-lip stuff is also highly English). But the ironic juxtaposition of death alongside the promise of a new life, a life sure to be lived in the same harsh glare that its parents have experienced, is interesting as a metaphor for the ravenous fame machine that is sure to entrap this unformed infanta. A fairly inspired Twitter account for the Unborn Royal is already providing a commentary on the convergence of power, fame, and infantile innocence to be put on display. Will the hype monster around the royal family of Britain expand its appetite to matters of mortality as well as of birth? It seems like it already has, whether it would choose to or not.
Yesterday’s remarkable news that the consistently controversial mayor of Toronto Rob Ford has been legally removed from office by a judge who ruled that he violated provincial conflict of interest laws has sparked a flurry of immediate reactions and imminent possibilities. Ford will certainly appeal the ruling, and both the divisive mayor and his ever-dwindling base of conservative support in city council (his Executive Committee lost staunch defender Giorgio Mammoliti hours after the decision was released) and in the public will couch the ruling and its yet-to-play-out aftermath in the comforting paranoid terms of a vast left-wing conspiracy aligned against him and his gravy-cutting agenda. This martyrdom narrative will doubtlessly form the core of Ford’s practically inevitable campaign to recapture to the mayor’s chair, whenever the next election is held (Justice Charles Hackland could have banned Ford from running again, but pulled back from this even more radical judgement).
Ford is a political figure who has long posed as the champion of the marginalized working-class suburban right against the supposed liberalized interests of the downtown core. He and his supporters will hardly hesitate to build up the ruling (concerning his unethical use of his own power and influence to solicit donations for his football foundation and then decision to debate and vote on a council resolution concerning those actions) as a perceived injustice to render him as an even greater hero to a municipal constituency best described as the righteously unoppressed. The key upshot, therefore, of this day in Toronto political history is that Rob Ford is far from spent as a political force in this city. He will fight on, if only because the stubborn, entitled heedlessness (“Wilful blindness”, in a memorable description from Hackland’s decision) that led him into his illegal folly in the first place will not allow him to back down.
But Ford’s widely-arrayed opponents (including not merely the demonic pinko leftists that he darkly warns about but increasingly the moderates and even right-leaning sorts who took a flyer on him in the election but have turned away as his blustering ineffectiveness as a reformer and administrator has become apparent) should not get too giddy about this small but perhaps fatal blow against his odious mayorship. Certainly, Ford is not even close to finished, and neither the legal and procedural denouement of this ruling nor the eventual election that will truly decide the immediate future of Toronto’s political leadership will be a cakewalk for liberal candidates.
It will take more than a prominent mayoral hopeful with name recognition like, say, Olivia Chow to sweep aside the Ford taint at City Hall. It will take a strong voting coalition and organizational structure in the election and afterwards, as well as a concerted effort to advance a progressive vision for the city’s future that encompasses more than incremental elements like plastic bag bans and restored bike lanes. It is not enough to merely rid the city of Ford, a buffoonish frontman for greedy business interests and anti-union zealots. The regressive ideology that he represents must not merely be temporarily deferred by a legal technicality. It must be convincingly proven to be insufficient to the challenges posed by a modern city and unquestionably displaced by a set of ideas and policies that show it to be nothing more than the thin set of demagogic slogans that its critics dubbed it even before it emerged, full-throated and imposing, in the mayoral campaign of 2010. It may only take a court ruling to removed Rob Ford from the mayor’s chair, but it will take much more that that to remove his damaging ideology from the political cityscape.