Here in Toronto, under the looming shadow of a mayor impervious to criticism, repercussion, or logic, you don’t have to go actively looking for irony—you just wait for the universe to oblige.
Last week, it did just that. First, news trickled out that former Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio is launching a tabloid-news site called Ratter that will aggressively go after local, viral-worthy hits—mostly because Daulerio is convinced that “there’s a Rob Ford-type story in every city around the world.” On the very same day, the mayor in question was finally grilled on this city’s most popular morning radio show. For all the tough questioning, though, Ford came out looking as if he could not only hold his own against a polished journalist, but could even win the forthcoming Toronto election.
Welcome to modernity, where the man held up as an example of how politics is a seething pit of corruption and idiocy is not only still in power, but stands a good chance of being re-elected. You will, I hope, forgive me if all I can do in response is quote Chris Rock, and ask: “how tha’ fuck we get here?”
Why is this so frustrating and exasperating? Why is it that listening to a practiced interviewer trying and failing and get Rob Ford to admit wrongdoing or shame feels tortuous? There’s a simple answer: because people like Ford are contraventions of an assumed set of rules. Bad people should be punished, hypocrisy should carry a price, and incompetent politicians should get the boot. That none of this has happened to Ford is fodder for genuine political cynicism: the system is broken, and Ford has somehow taken advantage.
Yet as the Ford story broke to the wider world, I was and remain struck by something said by the writer Erin Kissane. She suggested that, instead of being just a simple aberration, Ford is rather “a glimpse of the true Deep Weird of the world”—that “it’s actually all like this if you dig enough.”
It’s a chilling thought if one takes it to refer to Ford’s corruption and incompetence. Yet it’s more unnerving still if the “Deep Weird” is in fact about representation itself. What does Ford actually mean for what we in the contemporary moment desire from the figure of “the politician”?
The night that Ford was elected, I was sitting in a bar in west Toronto, drowning my sorrows amongst a clearly left-leaning crowd. As Ford’s face appeared on the many TVs hanging from the ceiling, a friend sitting next to me despaired. “No no no!” she cried, shaking her head. “You don’t represent us! You don’t represent this city!” It wasn’t just the beer speaking, either; there was real anguish in her voice.
It wasn’t just a political divide, a simple question of disagreement over policy—rather, it was an issue of identification. That the public figure of “the mayor” represented a set of anti-urbanist, socially Darwinist views was something that created a discord between some people’s internal sense of what a place was, and the image or figure that symbolically stands for that space.
What it suggests is that political leaders aren’t simply figureheads, or even mere representatives of our views and interests in an assumed public sphere: they’re proxies and vessels for our visions of “the way things should be,” the public representations of our private utopian desires.
Consider how progressives balked when, in the run-up to the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election, Noam Chomsky suggested Barack Obama would be no different from Bush when it came to questions of American Imperialism or extrajudicial killings—Chomsky was breaking the illusion. Obama, the Great Hope, could not be allowed to be the representative of racial harmony at home, and, at the same time, American imperialism and white supremacy internationally. Obama was and is not just a politician—he is a cipher in the public imagination for that ever-receding sense of what America actually “is.”
Ford in his own way is a similar kind of proxy for a city, which, at the time of his election, found itself making the leap from being a “small big city” to a “big big city.” Yet that very linkage in the circulation of ideas between a person and a place is why—despite the bafflement of people like Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, and, let’s be honest, half of Canada—so many people support Ford. The mayor stands as the realization of a dream. That someone with so-called “common sense” and an everyman’s take on what should be done to those fat cats down at city hall is finally in power is a manifestation for working people of a long-held dream. It’s also why the seemingly deep cynicism of his supporters—that they are willing to overlook his glaring hypocrisy, unsuitability, and substance abuse issues—is actually something more like idealism: now that we have this paragon of our values in power, let’s keep him there.
Political action itself is thus always symbolic—forever a representation of a set of utopian ideals that work in relation to these diaphanous senses of “what actually is” and “what should be,” however you happen to define them. Politicians may in theory be meant to stand in for “us,” but what they in fact are in the circulation of images and ideas in the public sphere is, instead, a representation of our dreams.
I’m not sure whether this is a function of politics itself, or the contemporary moment. It’s possible that 24-hour news, the televised election, and the increased pace of web discourse has produced within partisanship a new, disfigured form of utopianism that forever hopes politics will exceed itself and finally create the promised future—and finds its expressive hope in the figure of the leader who stands above it all.
What seems clear, however, is that we increasingly line up behind the leader who might not express our actual policy beliefs, but our desires for the way the world should be. This, it seems, is the Deep Weird—that if politics was always a question of utopian desires, the cult of personality has made it such that the politician is always angelic symbol and Machiavelli at the same time, forever a stand-in for pure beliefs and the amoral grit to do whatever it takes to get there. That drone strikes, incompetence, or exposing the mayor’s office to extortion from drug dealers is part of the deal seems an acceptable tradeoff, and is now just par for the course here in the global village of Weirdsville. Because when it becomes public knowledge that politics is simply corruption and power-hunger the whole way down, the only thing to do is line up behind the piper who, in our imaginations, represents Heaven cast against the corrupted vision of the living World.