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Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Rob Ford slow-mo train wreck

Staying up late to watch a replay of a mayoral candidates' debate from earlier this week on CP24.

Mea culpa: a few weeks ago, I was chortling at the prospect of Mayor Rob Ford because I thought how entertaining it would be. The guy's feet would be in his mouth so often, he'd need a welcome mat on his chin. Reporters would be fighting to get on the city hall beat. Every time he served up a gaffe, it would be a straight shot to the front page. It would make Mayor Mel look like Winston Churchill.

I hate to say it, but he's still got a way of capturing my attention. (No shit. Rossi's talking now and I don't even need to mute the sound in order to focus on the keyboard.) Unfortunately, he's capturing a lot of attention, and somehow he's turned into the frontrunner. And, as a comment on another worthwhile blog puts it, a certain columnist thinks he's the cat's pyjamas.

Not much point in writing about what an embarrassment he'd be. Other observers have made that point already. What's worth pointing out, I think, is the nasty current he's tapping into. It's one that Blatchford  rides as well, and is going to continue riding for as long as it puts kibble in her dog's dish.

Both Ford and Blatchford channel and exploit a mean-spirited, anti-intellectual approach to politics, a small-minded worldview that shuns reflection or nuance and champions gut reaction. It's the mindset of the torches-and-pitchforks crowd. Catching Ford lying or contradicting himself or seemingly failing to understand the normal complexities of municipal governance doesn't matter to people like this, because all it does, according to Blatchford, is burnish his "regular-guy" cred. (You want to see the same dynamic at work in another setting? Watch Don Cherry on Coaches Corner sometime.)

While visceral reactivity may have a momentary emotional kick, though, it's no basis for well-considered public policy, and listening to people like Ford and Blatchford, you start to understand where mob rule begins. There's a point beyond which the rejection of the complex for the simple veers into simple-mindedness, and they're both well past it. But there's something else at work here as well, and it ties into currents that go well beyond the confines of Toronto's current municipal election campaign.

Once upon a time, ignorance, stupidity and belligerence used to be character flaws. They were things to be ashamed of, things you wanted to hide, things to work on, things to overcome. Nowadays, they're actually celebrated as evidence of authenticity, of Real American / Canadian character. It's part of the explanation for Sarah Palin's ascendancy, and it's a big part of Rob Ford's shtick too. And thanks to the extent to which the Fox noise machine and its wannabe Canadian counterparts at Sun Media have managed to push the boundaries of civil discourse, pointing that out doesn't matter any more. It's just another example of the snooty left-wing liberal urban elites, sneering at hard-working Real Canadians while showering their hard-earned tax dollars on effete theatrical festivals that glorify Islamic terrorism.

Rob Ford may well self-destruct over the next couple of months, because I don't see him growing his drooling base, but reversing a political and cultural movement that's turned ignorance into a civic virtue is going to take a hell of a lot longer.

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