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Media Bites: We're All Living in Rob Ford's Canada

11/18/2013 12:28 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the Rob Ford scandal provoked a grand existential crisis of What It Means To Be Canadian. Frankly, what doesn't?

There's been a lot of junk journalism churned out in the wake of Mayor Ford's all-too-public meltdown, much of it rank partisan opportunism -- hypocritical lefties outraged at personal vices they used to insist were none of our business, puritanical conservatives claiming jokes about cunnilingus are no big deal, etc. But in terms of sheer obnoxiousness per column-inch, I would have to nominate this editorial by Tabatha Southey in Friday's Globe and Mail as the most cringeworthy attempt at Ford analysis to date. Southey's the only commentator I've seen, after all, who's somehow managed to spin the never-ending horror of the Ford scandal into a preening, nationalistic humblebrag.

Why don't Torontonians just fire this dopey buffoon running their city, Southey imagines "the world" asking Canada. Answer: "We don't have a mechanism for recalling a mayor. We're Canadians and when it comes to getting rid of them at short notice, we mostly rely on our mayors having a basic capacity for shame" and politely resigning. True, she concedes, Ford's said sorry for his misdeeds, but only "about as many times as the average Canadian says 'sorry' in the process of buying a newspaper, coffee and a butter tart."

In short, Tabby concludes, when Canadians encounter "raging, sulking, bullying men, we're at a loss. Impoliteness is our Kryptonite." Had "the Germans walked into our trenches at Vimy Ridge and put their feet up on the furniture, we might have just stared blankly in embarrassment until they won."

I would never deny that these Pollyannaish clichés -- like most stereotypes -- are based on some kernel of truth. Polite fear of confrontation with rude or abrasive people -- be he the mayor of Toronto or the waiter that brings Perrier when you explicitly asked for Pellegrino -- is definitely an experience ubiquitous to a certain slice of the Canadian populace, mostly the urbane, educated, upper-middle-class part Tabatha Southey doubtless inhabits, and perhaps you as well. But one thing those of us within that privileged bubble really need to stop doing is projecting our charmed lives that know only modest discomfort as the quintessential reality of the Canadian existence.

Mayor Ford, as the Globe and Mail reminded several months ago and the Toronto Municipal Police reminded more recently, comes from a Canada that's pretty far removed from one where the biggest faux pas a person can commit is not placing a tasteful Coast Salish art coaster under his commemorative CBC mug.

Ford's is the Canada where teenagers deal hash out of their parents' garages and play with shotguns in the basement. Where St. Patrick's Day is the biggest night of the year, and grown men get blackout drunk on vodka sold in plastic bottles. Where friends speak exclusively in slurs and swears and think nothing of bragging about their wives' ... well, not cooking. It has nothing to do with rudeness (though the man is certainly that); Ford's going nowhere so long as his Canada -- which is almost certainly larger than Tabatha's -- has his back.

If denial of this other Canada was limited to the musings of airy editorialists that would be one thing, but alas it's not. One of the most distressing revelations of Fordgate, in fact, is the degree to which upholding the myth of polite Canada has apparently compromised the nation's "hard news" reporting as well.

A couple weeks ago, the NPR radio show On the Media brought together editor Tom Scocca, from the American hipster news site Gawker, and Toronto Star publisher John Cruickshank for an insightful tete-a-tete on what the Rob Ford saga says about the state of North American journalism. There's been a bit of bad blood between these guys over the last couple of months, partly because Scocca has long resented the Star for calling the Rob Ford crack video tip their "exclusive" when Gawker broke it first, partly because it's simply ethically unfathomable, from a American journalistic perspective, that a paper as big as the Star could deny its readers the full Rob Ford story as long as they did.

"The fact that his brother, who is a politician actively in Toronto, was a hashish dealer... that that was just sitting there and nobody had reported it, is nuts," exclaimed Tom, referring to the Globe's aforementioned exposé on the dirty laundry of the Ford family, which was published two weeks after Gawker broke the crack video story and a full two years after the Ford brothers were elected to Toronto City Council.

I'd say "something is very, very wrong with somebody's culture of responsible news reporting," when that's the status quo, Tom surmised.

To this, Cruickshank could only lamely assert that he's from a "different country" where we "think differently from your typical American social setting." I can't go "too far" digging up dirt, he spluttered, why, my polite, restrained Canadian audience would never stand for it!

Well, considering your polite, restrained audience elected Rob Ford to begin with, retorted Tom with a truly withering burn, I guess we've learned that "in the land of the passive aggressive, the truly aggressive is king."

Or, to put it another way, reality easily conquers make-believe.

Nothing about the Rob Ford story was ever un-Canadian. Canada produced him, Canadians elected him, and Canadians have clamoured to leer at his downfall. To be sure, his is a story about a Canada the press is often uncomfortable confronting, a Canada many try to hide under a mountain of flattering jokes and bourgeoisie snobbery and fawning praise from self-loathing American liberals, but a Canada that exists none the less.

Like Mayor Ford himself, we'll all be a lot happier once we make peace with the truth.

The Many Faces Of Rob Ford