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What the Rob Ford saga says about modern politics

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December 12, 2013 by Fiachra

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford responds to the Toronto police investigation in Toronto

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s highly unlikely that you haven’t heard about Toronto’s gaffe-prone mayor, Rob Ford. Much has made about the fact that his behaviour in no way conforms with widely held conceptions of the Canadian character, that is to say: generally law abiding, tolerant, sensible and polite to a fault. In fact in many ways, Rob seems to be the very antithesis of everything we expect of a Canadian – he has brazenly admitted to breaking the law, he has said some remarkably stupid things on live television and in the Toronto City Council chamber,  and he has made numerous rude and racist comments on everything from cyclists, immigrants and homosexuals. As interesting and all as it is, however this analysis misses another and far more important point – that Ford is the antithesis of how we conceive the modern politician.

Upon Ford’s public acknowledgement that he had abused crack cocaine, his public approval rankings in fact increased. What does this tell us? There are a number of factors at play, but it looks at least like the public (or at least the segment of the Toronto population that voted for Ford) are tired with learning time and again that the straight-laced whiter-than-white politicians that they’ve been electing for years, usually turn out to have a few shades of gray hidden in their closet. The more you think about it, the more Ford appears to be a massive joke at the expense of our puritanical political system.

Most politicians are slim and photogenic. Candidates pay a small fortune on airbrushed campaign posters, and many top politicians – especially women – get regular plastic surgery. Meanwhile, Ford is overweight utterly and unapologetic about the fact that his face has seen better days. Politicians are expected to be whiter than white – eschewing drugs, heavy drinking, the “wrong kind” of sex (more important for women than for men – Clinton smoked but apparently did not inhale, and did have sex with that woman), and law abiding. Ford has admitted to heavy drinking, drug abuse and driving under the influence. At least he’s smart enough to deny consorting with prostitutes. Politicians are expected to be reasonably polite and respectful at all times – an expectation they admittedly don’t always live up to. Nonetheless they aren’t supposed to use the kind of crude language Ford is famous for using. Perhaps most absurdly, politicians are expected to be experts on mostly everything. Ford meanwhile displays cheerful ignorance regarding the sort of stuff he should have learned in primary school.

This demand for perfection is not restricted to politics, of course. We expect public life to be a rose garden, and the minute a weed begins to sprout it is ruthlessly exterminated. In the real world, however, we know that weeds exist. The level of genetic perfection we see on our television screens isn’t mirrored in reality. Politicians and celebrities may make a virtue of jogging regularly and cycling to work, but how many of their fellow citizens do likewise? We know that overweight people exist – we seem them every day. New years resolution to lose those few pounds are regularly abandoned. Nonetheless, overweight politicians are always at pains to disguise that fact. Overdrinking on one occasion is enough to lose a politician his job, but how many people drink the same amount if not more on an average Friday? One night stands make tabloid front page news, but we all know people who’ve done the same on more than one occasion – maybe all we need to do is look in the mirror. As for illegal drugs, our streets are awash with them, and for that to happen someone or several someone’s must be consuming them.

In short, while Ford might be fairly exceptional in the real world – what he does certainly isn’t. Whilst I would not want any politician I vote for to consume drugs or drink too heavily – it impedes their ability to work effectively – I think that our obsession with beauty and moral purity is pointless. I really don’t think it is anyone’s businesses if the Minister for This and That or the Member of Parliament for West-Nowhere has gained a few pounds over Christmas or is cheating on their spouse. I want someone who is competent, ready and willing to represent me. The only moral demand I make of them is that they not abuse the public trust and abuse their powers and privileges for personal gain.

We’ve learned to become a more tolerant and forgiving society in or normal everyday lives, and it’s now time to apply those changes to public life. We need to accept that our politicians are human beings not Gods. They will make mistakes in their private and public lives. While it sometimes makes sense for us to eject politicians for having incompatible values and opinions, we need to accept that they will at times make public gaffes that seem ignorant to you and I, but may in fact have an innocent explanation. We need to accept these, primarily because we make them ourselves. This is why Rob Ford is a massive joke at the expense of our political system. The demands we make on politicians are completely unrealistic and at times absurd. The moment we relax these demands is the moment our political discourse will become healthier, more honest and more in touch with the world we live in. This cannot be a bad thing.


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