THE BLOG

Rob Ford Brings out the Puritan in Media

11/04/2013 12:25 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford should resign. Of this there is little disagreement among the editorial boards of his city's four largest newspapers.

"For the good of Toronto, Rob Ford must step down," declared the National Post.

"If Ford possessed even a scintilla of respect and concern for the city he is supposed to lead, he would do the right thing," agreed the Toronto Star"He would step down as mayor."

"He needs to step down or step aside, and get his life in order," piled on the Toronto Sun.

"Toronto deserves better than Ford" concluded the Globe and Mail, completing the unanimous quartet.

We all know what provoked this. That legendary video of His Worship allegedly smoking crack cocaine -- previously a mere phantom promise of Gawker.com's failed "Crackstarter" fundraiser -- has now found its way into the hands of the Toronto PD, with the chief confirming, in his weirdly roundabout cop-speak way, that it does indeed contain "images which appear to be those images which were previously reported in the press." As in, footage the mayor of Hogtown calling Justin Trudeau a "fag" between hits on his pipe.

In the process of digging up that gem, the coppers also managed to find tons of salacious new info on the Mayor's ah, "colourful" ex-chauffeur, who's now being charged with extortion and drug trafficking. So yeah, you could say Ford's stock isn't exactly at a record high right now.

That the cries for the man's head would be so loud and unanimous after a week of damning bombshells is hardly surprising. Slightly more unusual, however, is what such reactions reveal about this country's ever-shifting standards of political accountability.

Back in the day, it used to be considered the height of rational sophistication to go around declaring, usually with great puffed superiority, that you couldn't care less what a politician did in his private life, so long as his policies were sound. The logic stemmed from one of the late 20th Century's great contributions to the canon of political philosophy, this idea that it was possible -- nay, desirable -- to sever a politician's immoral or offensive private eccentricities from his competence as a public servant.

It was an argument used by partisans of all stripes to justify standing by politicians in compromising situations of all sorts -- President Clinton during the Lewinsky mess, Premier Klein of Alberta when he got into the sauce, Jack Layton and his "massage parlours," the sext-happy Congressman Anthony Wiener, and perhaps most recently, that new boss of the Liberal Party who's been known to puff a doob or two. Those guys seem pretty good at their jobs, the thesis went, so who are we to judge what they do behind the curtain? The only asterisk on this doctrine, if there was one at all, was a cautious clarification that the above only applied "so long as nothing was illegal."

The unanimous condemnation of Mayor Ford by the media set basically vetoes all that precedent.

As the Toronto editorial boards openly admit, there's no criminal charge pending against Ford. Even if we someday get to see his crack video, the Mayor's lawyers are already arguing that it's pretty much inadmissible as legal evidence, since there's no way to know for sure what their client's actually smoking in it.

For all the criminal misadventures of ol' pal Alexander, meanwhile, it seems equally unlikely Ford will ever be linked to the man as anything other than a witness. No one can really argue, in other words, that all these calls for the Mayor's resignation have much to do with upholding the law.

Likewise, as far as I'm aware, no one has provided any concrete evidence that Ford's personal foibles have impacted the proper functioning of the Toronto municipal government. As the Sun notes, scandal or not, "garbage is being picked up, clean water comes out when we turn on the taps, and when we throw the switch, the lights come on." The Mayor hasn't missed any council meetings -- or even a taping of his strange radio show -- and he's busily performing all his official mayoral duties, from proclaiming made-up holidays to networking in Texas.

His 44 per cent approval rating -- which he maintains even now -- actually makes him one of Canada's more popular politicians, certainly much better liked than any federal party leader and the premiers of most provinces. In such a context, the supposed damage Ford's inflicted on his city can only be expressed in subjective, emotional terms -- he's "embarrassed" Toronto, "hurt its reputation" etc. -- hardly indictable offences.

But still enough. As the Senate scandal has reminded (another situation in which none of the accused have done "anything wrong," legally speaking), Canadians are privileged to live in a democracy where standards of politically acceptable behaviour are ultimately dictated by no authority higher than the preferences of the populace. In the Globe's words "Mr. Ford is now on trial, not in a court of law, but in the court of public opinion," and public opinion -- or at least the media version of it -- is evidently still judgmental enough to condemn buffoonish crackheads with criminal buddies simply on the basis of being.

That's a perfectly sensible opinion, but it's also an essentially arbitrary measurement of fitness for public office stemming solely from a subjective standard of morality (how monstrous, shudders the Star, to imagine "the mayor of Canada's largest city obviously impaired and talking in a disgusting manner") -- the very sort of old-fashioned puritanism all the smart people were telling us was tacky and passé back in the 90s.

Through the breathtaking magnitude of his outlandishness, however, Mayor Ford has inspired a dusting off of old standards, and proven that even in Canada's current era of liberated permissiveness, it's still occasionally worthwhile, in the pursuit of public dignity and decency, to filet a leader who flaunts what long ago ceased to be just his private demons.

The quartet was unanimous for a reason.