Intervention and the Rob Ford Scandal

Nobody can deny that there was a healthy amount of humour to be found in the antics and misadventures over the last year or more of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. A morbidly obese, ineloquent lout who flips the bird to little old ladies, calls 911 when reporters get in his way on his driveway and engages in drunken debauchery in full view of the public is a hard target to miss. At first, the sheer absurdity of revelations that a video existed showing Mayor Ford engaged in use of crack cocaine with known dealers and criminals pushed the whole affair into the same bucket as the rest of Rob Ford’s comedy of errors. Over the last week, as these allegations have been proven true and an admission has been made by Mayor Ford to corroborate what the public has not yet seen, the laugh track has slowly faded to stunned silence.

While I will readily confess that I am not a resident of Toronto, a fan of Rob Ford or certainly a Rob Ford apologist, as an observer on this entire scandal I can only hope that everyone can move past the apparent comedy and the sarcastically barbed Ford jokes. What we are seeing is a very clumsy and public intervention of a very public and troubled individual, and until everyone gets past the viciousness that indignation and the smell of political blood in the water seems to bring out of the best of us, the intervention will fail us all.

It’s difficult to extract the issue of Rob Ford’s apparent dependence on drugs from his performance as Mayor. Public office doesn’t just rely on the technical aptitudes or scholarship of the person in office, it also relies on the image and perception the public has of that person. This is, unfortunately, why so many elected officials have more charisma than ability (or brains, for that matter.) As voters, Canadians seem more and more interested in the package that looks best on the surface and gives the appropriate sound bites, rather than the content behind the persona. It’s because we’re lazy. You can deny it, but it’s true. We’re lazy, and the majority of us take the easy way out and vote for the guy/gal that sounds the most like us and seems the most up-front, rather than judging and weighing, and investigating, the value of their policies. In this way, we’ve become a lot more like Americans, who have absolutely perfected the dirtiness and superficiality of politics. Rob Ford’s drug and alcohol issues can never be taken solely in context of him as a person and removed from the equation of his leadership of one of the largest cities in Canada, because Rob Ford the person can is, in large measure, the context of his leadership of one of the largest cities in Canada.

That said, Rob Ford’s heartfelt desire to “move forward” and get past this scandal now that he has, phew!, admitted that he’s “made mistakes”, is wishing on an impossibility. He has been seen and videotaped engaged in drunken behaviour, and now in drug use, and his image in the age of social media and the perpetuity of the internet will be stained with those “mistakes” far beyond his ability to apologize them away. Even if Rob Ford never took another drink, another toke, or another hit of the pipe, his image has taken such an enormous pummelling from this entire debacle that he likely will never again be taken seriously within the political arena. Besides, his opponents now have enough fodder to last them a lifetime. You can’t just “move forward” with business as usual when the entire world has stood witness to your embarrassment, a humiliation so immense that it will overshadow any good work that you honestly try to do.

And, it goes beyond mere image. This scandal has brought into doubt Mayor Ford’s credibility, honesty and integrity. This is absolutely crippling to a public figure. Rob Ford has been caught in a lie, or several, and his obvious lack of judgment during his “drunken stupors” brings to question his ability to be responsible for the affairs of such an important office as Mayor. This doesn’t even touch the bigger questions of his close friendship with a known drug dealer, now up on charges including extortion, and his apparent acquaintanceship with other drug dealers and criminals. Can any contract awarded, law enforcement strategy or public funding initiative ever be viewed with anything but a minimum of suspicion when the man making the decisions associates with people involved in various levels of crime?

On the basis of all of this, Rob Ford simply shouldn’t be in office any longer.

But, none of this really matters.

Rob Ford has not been charged with any crime, and likely won’t be. Using an illicit substance is not grounds for criminal charge. Knowing a drug dealer is not grounds for criminal charge. Drinking too much is not grounds for criminal charge. In fact, nothing that has been seen of Rob Ford up to this point has provided grounds for criminal charges, which is precisely why there have been no charges forthcoming from the Toronto police. That may change, and there are abundant questions about manila envelopes, suspicious photos and images, as well as the coincidental murder of one of the men depicted in the crack use video itself. But, for now, Rob Ford has not been charged with any crime.

What he has been charged with, in the court of public opinion, is drug abuse and recklessness. The media, city counsellors and the Toronto public are directly confronting Mayor Ford, which is precisely the wrong thing to do because it most likely won’t work. Everyone is trying to shame Rob Ford into resigning, despite his absolute insistence that he’s not going anywhere. Studies conducted with offenders have shown an inverse relationship between the severity of problematic drug use and motivation to change. Simply put, the worse the drug problem is, the less likely you are to want to do anything about it. Confrontative approaches to dealing with drug abuse are even less effective in motivating change because the motivation for change has to come from within the substance abuser. This public and media intervention of Rob Ford only reinforces his denial and drives his defensiveness, which will make him less and less likely to give up his position. He has also shown that he is trying to justify the obvious separation between his public image and the images that have been uncovered by referring to them as “mistakes,” and adopting the “Good Junkie” trope; sure, he has used drugs a couple times or been a little too drunk, but he has an important job, a loving family, and he’s been voted into his job to do good work for the people of Toronto, to make the city a better place. Under the delusion of this trope, he’s keeping his occasional lapse in judgment quite safely separate from his work as mayor, so there is no harm done. He’s “in control.”

All that this shaming and confrontation is doing is venting the anger and embarrassment that the public and Ford opponents feel as bystanders to his obvious problems. You’re making yourselves feel better, without actually making anything else better.

Don’t bother with the protests at City Hall. Don’t bother with the confrontation, the lewd questions and the desperate attempts to force Rob Ford into admitting he’s a drug addled buffoon. Your time would be better served petitioning provincial or federal authorities to remove him from office, or at least force him to take a leave of absence and undergo assessment and treatment. The greatest embarrassment in all of this is that there doesn’t appear to be any real fail-safe or mechanism for removing a Mayor from office, like a vote of non-confidence or impeachment. Maybe there’s a lesson in that for the rest of us. Of course Rob Ford should resign. And, of course he won’t. Stop pummelling and kicking the guy when he’s down, because you aren’t going to make him change.

Stop trying to make yourselves feel better, and do something to make thing better for everyone else.

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