I’m no fan of Rob Ford. I find him to be a regressive, rude, bullying, half-witted right-wing douchebag I wouldn’t trust to have my back in a bar fight, let alone as the mayor of one of the most progressive cities in the world. Yet this uproar over his recent purchase of some fried chicken at a local KFC, dutifully recorded and uploaded to the Internet for the digital world’s derision, is a step too far. I recall a conversation with a guy I used to work with, when we were talking about Ford and I was relating my less than favourable opinion of him. This fellow said to me, “I appreciate that you don’t ever talk about his weight.” My response was, why should I? He could be a 98-pound beanpole and still advance policies that make my stomach turn. Ford’s physical condition has absolutely nothing to do with how he conducts himself or how he performs as a public official, which are the only things we should be judging him on.
The counter-argument is that Ford made his weight an issue ripe for public scrutiny by politicizing his “Cut the Waist” challenge. Contrast this with the response to Vic Toews and his infamous “child pornographers” comment. There were two major initiatives on Twitter: the @vikileaks feed, which posted publicly available records of Toews’ divorce, and the spontaneous #TellVicEverything campaign, in which users overwhelmed Toews’ Twitter feed with the mundane details of their lives – what they ate for breakfast, what was playing on their iPod, how many pigeons there were in the park and so on. The former was disgraceful, because it made political hay of Toews’ family problems. The latter was hysterically funny, because it mocked Toews’ boneheaded political stance. It made the policy a laughingstock, without belittling the man’s private life. That’s what the other guys do.
Imagine if Rob Ford were a liberal titan, boldly advancing green initiatives and progressive social policies and vowing to make Toronto car-free and overgrown with trees by 2020 – would we on the left side of the spectrum be so inclined to laugh about a lapse in his diet? Anyone who’s ever dieted knows how hard it is, how bad the cravings can get, even when you’re not under the 24-hour stress of leading a city of millions. We’ve all had our weak moments where we reach for the ice cream. That’s not a criticism of Rob Ford; if nothing else, it humanizes the guy a little, and reminds you that under all the bloviating and bluster there is in fact a very vulnerable soul. Which I would still never vote for.
The past few elections in Canada, and the upcoming American presidential contest, have brought to the forefront of the public consciousness a hideous scorched earth form of political campaign where nothing is off limits. Effective government leadership demands that the best people step forward, and how will we encourage those folks to step out into the spotlight when the mere public rumination of a run for office can spark the filthiest invective from the opposition in response? The silent demographic who do not vote because they cannot abide the cynicism of politics are not silent without cause. They have been systematically alienated from a public debate that operates on the intellectual level of a high school cat fight. It’s all too tempting for liberals to want to get down into the mud and fight just as dirty as their conservative counterparts, but doing that only accomplishes two things – it accepts with resignation the premise that government and public service is the realm of savages, and often engenders sympathy for the opponent (and by accidental consequence, the opponent’s argument). It takes more courage to stand up to a bully with words instead of fists. But sometimes, a victory won with words – the right words – can be all the more decisive. Canadian and American progressives may dream of a day when right-wing parties are a nausea-inducing anathema to the voting public, but we won’t get there by calling Conservatives and Republicans fatty-Mcfat-fats.
A comedian whose name I can’t recall once opined that it was stupid to be a racist, because if you got to know the person really well you could find a much better reason to hate their guts. Likewise, it’s ridiculous to go after Rob Ford because of his weight. He could be the most drool-worthy, sculpted embodiment of Adonis on the planet and still be a lousy mayor. Call him misguided, call his policies ludicrous, call his approach to governing positively inept, but if the guy wants a bucket of extra crispy chicken for dinner after a bad day, leave him the frack alone.