Not any more

Rob Ford and the loss of hope

In Canada on September 24, 2010 at 08:48

In his awesome book, India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha says, “The world over, modern democratic politics has been marked by two rather opposed rhetorical styles. The first appeals to hope, to popular aspirations for economic prosperity and social peace. The second appeals to fear … about being worsted or swamped by one’s historic enemies.” That’s about as good as generalizations get, except to add that the phases tend to succeed each other. They don’t just coexist. It’s the failure or shortfall of hope that leads to fear.

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The pattern was set by the French Revolution. It sparked hope in onlookers like Edmund Burke and William Wordsworth. But its excesses soon led to anxious rethinking, as in Burke’s conservatism; and harsh reactionary (literally) responses like invasion or domestic repression.

Barack Obama is a current case in point. But the transitions have accelerated. His campaign based on hope, in every possible variation, had scarcely won office when the fear mongering began: about his foreign birth, his “anti-white racism,” the rise of the Tea Party. Look up a chilling piece by Dinesh d’Souza in Forbes, on the President channelling, more or less (mostly more) the “ghost” of his father, “a Luo tribesman of the 1950s … philandering, inebriated African socialist … setting the nation’s agenda.” This isn’t just paranoid conspiracy theory, it’s a right-wing version of voodoo. Barack Obama hasn’t helped his cause by failing to deliver much on those hopes, but I think there’s more to it: a loss of hopeful tone, once in office.

Now consider Rob Ford’s big lead in the race to be Toronto’s next mayor. His success is a reaction to frustration with current Mayor David Miller’s hopeful rhetoric and the failure of visible change. Rob Ford won’t change things, in fact he promises to unchange them. He’s The Unchanger. He’ll stop the patronizing jabber. (“He talks like us,” said a voter. “He doesn’t use words like partnerships and enhance.”) He’ll roll back the taxes that left streets dirty and public transit chancy. Most of all, in his Toronto, which implicitly aspires to be a sort of mini-India in its diversity, there’d be less immigration, to say the least.

The fear/Ford reaction was aided hugely by last June’s street chaos and vandalism during the G20. It embodied, like Rob Ford, fear waiting to express itself. Where was Mayor Miller? Off in the media centre, whining about the damage to the city he loves and approving everything the police did, including nothing. What could he have done? How about being out in the streets he loves, just as he could have gone to the parks during the 2009 garbage strike, to help his fellow Torontonians cope – and embody some hope?

It’s as if the fight went out of him once his personal hope – being mayor – was achieved. But for most people, winning an election changes nothing; that’s when the fight should intensify. Something similar seemed to happen to Barack Obama when he became president, as if his hope was the same as his voters’.

This is partly due to our political system: We get to vote occasionally for leaders, then leave it all in their hands, leading to excessive reliance on “them,” and turning on them when things don’t gel. A political culture of blame and rage is the upshot, rather than shared responsibility and the will to keep going. What could change that? Something more ongoingly, truly democratic, perhaps.

It’s a bit too easy to take shots at Rob Ford. A larger target, if you’ll pardon the expression, has rarely crossed the shooting range. What matters isn’t what one thinks of him; it’s understanding why he has bloomed so sturdily at this point. That’s the kind of question that matters, because it bears on more than this political moment, and because it’s more fun, in the end, to ponder.

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