Home > Current Affairs, Navel-Gazing, Politics > Rob Ford and the Failure of Thinkpieces: A Rob Ford Thinkpiece

Rob Ford and the Failure of Thinkpieces: A Rob Ford Thinkpiece

Regular readers of this blog may have registered a noticeable silence as concerns the headline-making scandals of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford as of late. The absence of writing about the latest round of nonsense from the Ford circus might indeed appear to be in inverse proportion to the avalanche of media coverage in recent weeks. The burst of revelations (videotaped crack cocaine use, drunk driving, sexual harassment allegations, lies and more lies), clownish Ford brothers antics (Rob bumping over a female councilor in the chambers while his brother Doug confronted hecklers, his mayoral powers and budget being removed by lopsided council votes, a SUNnews show that was cancelled after a single episode) and ridiculous statements (Rob dismissing the cunnilingus-related harassment accusations with graphic language and by crassly claiming that, as a married man, he “gets plenty to eat at home”, Doug telling CNN that the embattled mayor is “the white Obama”, the Mayor comparing the council-voted reduction of his powers to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait) has been run into ground in mainstream, online, and social media all around the world, and has provided nightly fodder for American late-night comedians.

To a certain extent, this radio silence on the subject of Ford was a matter of long-promised principle. I’ve mostly said all that needs to be said about the man, his noxious politics, his counterproductive policies, his off-putting cultural associations, and his inflamed rhetoric. Nothing that’s happened in the past weeks changes these opinions, and if anything it deepens and broadens their applicability. Admissions of crack use and other evidence of misconduct and erratic behavior doesn’t really change the core problems with the man as a public figure. This tendency to avoid further discussion was also likely fed by the maelstrom of media attention and the heaving surplus of opinion pieces on the continuing Ford debacle. Why simply be one more voice in the crowd, echoing not only other voices but my own as well?

But is there not something more profound lurking behind the unwillingness to engage with the significance of this public mess of a mayor, I began to wonder? There might well be, and if there is, it might be this: what’s the point of thinking and writing about a subject that is so defiantly resistant to thinking and writing? Rob Ford has aligned his public image so thoroughly against the intellectual imperatives of the liberal-humanist tradition, made himself the personification of “common sense”, “gut feelings”, and other manifestations of Colbertian “truthiness”, that the traditional public discourse of the written word cannot dislodge him from his perch.

The central material function of the opinion piece (if it possesses one beyond the public edification of its author, that is) is to consider, to argue, to persuade with evidence, logic, and insight. Such a piece assumes that it’s part and parcel of a basic civil exchange of open, honest discussion that engages problems and is at the very least a lightning flash in the collective brainstorm for solutions. But the firewall approach of Ford Nation, the extreme epistemic closure of the self-contained conservative ideology of resentful blame, righteous victimhood, and unshakeable certainty of purpose stymies these lofty aims of the thinkpiece. It has no room to maneuver, no space to exercise its mental gymnastics. Or, rather, it has all the space and time in the world, but goes unacknowledged by its subject and unchallenged by the anti-Ford choir it preaches to. The sheer amount of writing on the subject of Rob Ford doesn’t help this case either. How do we sort through it, separate the wheat from the chaff? If everyone is thinking and writing about Rob Ford, is anyone?

This analysis should be unsurprising, being as it is a pretty clear diagnosis of the realities of the echo chamber in political discourse in our time. But there’s another angle to the shortfalls of the thinkpiece in the context of Rob Ford: Rob Ford himself. He doesn’t avoid or deflect the criticism, the diagnoses, the condemnations so much as absorb them, process them almost instantly, and make them elements in what we can call (hopefully not pretentiously) his growing public legend. He’s a blackhole of discourse, drawing in all surrounding matter that could threaten him and cosmically digesting it into oblivion. But it’s an oblivion that he loves, and that serves him well.

In a characteristic moment of propagandizing, Doug Ford has recently referred to his mayoral sibling as “the most honest politician in the world”. Strictly speaking, this is not remotely true; both Ford brothers have told many provable and publically contradicted lies and mistruths (whether or not Rob smoked crack is only the most sensationalist of them), to say nothing of the various assertions and convictions they have expressed that are contrary to observed reality. But in a subtly differing meaning of the word, the line is absolutely true. Rob Ford is “honest” in the same way that, say, a medieval peasant toiling for 14 hours in the fields is honest, wearing his pains and personal dramas in his fleshy, open face. “Frank” is perhaps a better adjective, as is dispenses with endless vagaries of objective truth. Ford Nation might prefer “real” or “authentic”, but these terms are likewise fraught, as Andrew Potter told us.

“Frank” works fine, and encapsulates how Ford will let fly with disarming truths and absurd, brazen lies in equal measure, without the classic wily politician’s instinct for whether what he says will help him or not. That same frankness, heavy and blunt as a cudgel blow, defeats the exquisite consideration of the thinkpiece, knocks it off balances, all while Ford transforms its surviving barbs into new pieces of armour. This may serve to explain this otherwise disgraced mayor’s strange resilience, despite any number of slings and arrows that would have felled a politician with more self-regard and a more robust sense of shame.

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