Home > Current Affairs, Politics > Rob Ford, Sarah Thomson, and the Partisan Diminishment of Sexual Assault

Rob Ford, Sarah Thomson, and the Partisan Diminishment of Sexual Assault

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.

An unflattering photo that will live in infamy.

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).

That lazy, ubiquitous scandal suffix is surely Richard Nixon’s most lamentable legacy.

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.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics
  1. brendan
    March 12, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    Those two need to get on Maury Povich.

    “Rob Ford, when it comes to the case of Sarah Thompson’s Ass-Gate… you ARE the father!”

  1. November 21, 2013 at 9:58 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: