The White Trash Oedipus: Rob Ford and Toronto’s Long, Slow Descent into Madness

“The genius of comedy is the same as the genius of tragedy, and the writer of tragedy ought to be a writer of comedy also.”

So says the character of Socrates towards the end of Plato’s classic work Symposium. On the one hand, this is exactly the kind of pretentious crap aristocrats say to each other at parties as the waiters are clearing away the champagne flutes at two in the morning. But on the other hand, it’s something the Ancient Greeks were acutely conscious of, and the reason that a well-staged production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex still has the power to chill the soul thousands of years later, and a badly-staged one can have you rolling in the aisles long before Eddy claws out his own eyes to atone for unwittingly banging his mother.

Rob Ford has probably never read Oedipus Rex. Even if he heard the name bandied during his two terms at Carlton, I’d still bet good money that he’s totally unable to spell it. And yes, this is a good encapsulation of why he makes a lot of snooty pricks like me so very, very angry. But it’s also a fairly good parable about why he’s totally unfit to be mayor of Canada’s largest city. And yet so far, despite the crack scandal, despite rehab, despite the goddamn cancer he’s being diagnosed with as I write these words, he’s still running for public office. And there are an awful lot of people who are going to vote for him no matter what else happens. At this point he could publicly sodomize a puppy and still probably garner a respectable ten to fifteen percent of the vote.

Welcome to Toronto’s municipal politics in the waning days of the Ford era: a masterclass in insane contradictions more infuriating than the most impenetrable zen koans.

It hasn’t all been a joke. As he’s been barreling his way back and forth across the invisible line between tragedy and comedy, leaving it bleeding under his hooves like Pam McConnell on the floor of city council chambers, he’s been exposing some dark stuff about Toronto that we don’t often tell the rest of the world about, because we don’t necessarily always see it ourselves.

He’s completely blown the lid off of Canada’s strange, invisible class system, for one. I spent five years of my life in Britain, where class infuses everything people do, and they’re all acutely aware of it, conscious of their place in its intricate hierarchy, and don’t have to think very hard about how in any given situation they should relate to other people within its parameters. By the end of my first year there I was obsessively, unhealthily obsessed with the whole concept. Both because I hadn’t ever really thought about it before, and because my own place as a colonial within it was totally uncertain, oscillating wildly between its upper reaches and its nether depths. Coming back to Canada, I did start to dimly perceive that we have one too, even if we don’t often think about it. But it took the blazing white light of Rob Ford’s spectacular self-immolation to really bring its contradictions into stark, glaring light.

His blue collar fans think he’s one of them, and his wealthy detractors find this risible because he’s never had to work a day in his life. But he’s also relatively new money, and the grit of industrial Etobicoke hasn’t yet rubbed off the family name. So he’s got a foot in both worlds, but somehow belongs to neither. He’s exposed some of the worst elements of both camps. Their unwavering support perfectly illustrates the crass, boorish pettiness and self-perpetuating proud ignorance of the working suburban poor. And the undying hatred of the chattering downtown elite illustrates both their totally unbearable snobbery and their nauseating but completely shallow pretensions and compexes about Toronto’s emerging status as a genuine world city. We’re growing up, sure. But we’re also starting to turn into the Eloi and the Morlocks from H.G Wells’ time machine, and it’s getting super creepy.

He’s also blown the lid off some simmering, perhaps even really dangerous ethnic tensions that are too often obscured by the downtown elite’s pious cooing about the glories of multiculturalism. The fact that Ford Nation almost certainly contains at least one urbane, well-educated Pakistani doctor who’s been driving a taxi for the last thirty years because of Ontario’s byzantine, unexaminedly racist system of credential recognition, and who is totally getting off watching the WASPy journalistic elite completely lose their minds is terrifying, if you stop and think about it. That there are people who rude people can call any number of horrifying ethnic slurs, who cheerfully going to vote this October for a person who calls them stuff like that to their faces isn’t just weird, it’s totally fucking insane.

The masks are falling to the floor. The elephant in the room is trumpeting in heat, and shitting all over grandma’s Persian carpet. There is a great disturbance in the force. Our noses are a bit out of joint. The old joke about Toronto being New York run by the Swiss is getting both more and less true. Less because the Swiss wouldn’t put up with this shit for two seconds, and more because the Swiss are also nowhere near as perfect as the rest of the world sometimes thinks they are. There’s still a lot of Nazi loot in the vaults of Zurich.

Honestly? I can’t. I can’t even. I just. Can’t. Even. Deal. Anymore. And while there’s a slim chance that the end is in sight, and this is the last time I’ll ever feel compelled to write something about Rob Ford? Two things are true:

First, how I feel about that reminds me of the scene in the Dark Knight where Batman asks the Joker why he wants to kill him, and Heath Ledger laughs and says “I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you? You complete me.” And when you start seeing where the Joker was coming from, it’s possible you went round the twist a long time ago and just don’t know it yet. So that thought is festering.

Second, I honestly don’t know anymore. This is 21st century Toronto. Not Rome during a Borgia papacy. But suddenly, and I’m still not totally sure how it happened, municipal politics in my hometown has become better TV than Game of Thrones. And while it’s possible that John Tory or Olivia Chow will win in October, and everything will start to go back to normal, it’s also possible that Doug Ford will pull off an upset victory, and then Rob Ford will burst out of his stomach like Alien and declare himself King of the Andals, the Royhnar and the First Men. And if that happens, and it’s then followed by former mayor Barbara Hall bursting out of the sky riding a dragon and reducing City Hall and the financial district to a smoking ruin in vengeance for our repealing the plastic bag tax, then the truly weird thing about all of it will be this:

I will be completely unfazed. And Jon Stewart will put it in a segment, and the world will move on. Because no one, anywhere, can even deal with this shit anymore. Jihadis in Syria will see it today on the internet, and feel bad for two seconds about OUR problems.

I’m both totally losing my shit about this, and so bored with it that I could yawn. At exactly the same time. It’s either an earth-shattering drama with world-historical significance, or it’s of less importance than Kim and Kanye’s pillow talk. Or both. Or neither.

I need a muffin. And a hot towel. And possibly a nap.

Somewhere in Robyn Dolittle’s book Crazy Town, which to my shame I still haven’t found the time to read, she points out that Rob Ford and his family really do think of themselves as Toronto’s Kennedys. This is funny not because it’s a lot easier to picture Doug Ford on the set of Jerry Springer than it is Bobby Kennedy, nor because JFK’s supposed breeding was a total sham, and actual Boston Brahmin society loathed Joe Kennedy as a parvenu, new-money Nazi-sympathizer without a shred of basic human decency. This is funny because it is totally, completely, one hundred percent true.

They are the trailer park Kennedys. The blue collar Medicis. And Rob Ford is the white trash Oedipus. By wishing it, they have made it so.

I’ve never met Diane Ford, nor do I particularly want to, but I can’t shake the terrifying suspicion that I would much rather hang out with Jocasta. By comparison, the suicidal mother of Oedipus seems generally much more grounded and sensible, and we’d probably get along better. RoFo and DoFo may be schoolyard bullies writ large, but I don’t doubt for a second that they come by their demons honestly.

As Rob Ford copes with his cancer diagnosis, and Doug Ford rushes to city hall to file papers to register in his place, and the extraneous tabloid bullshit piles higher and higher around them both, maybe this is as good a time as any to try and take sensible stock about what exactly this all means. And we can’t do that until we stop indulging the narcissistic wankfest that is Furd Nayshun.

This became spectacularly clear to me yesterday when I realized that the health and sanity of some fatass rotarian gasbag who doesn’t even know my name had the power to totally ruin my whole day. That’s completely insane.

Seriously, it’s been spectacular to watch. It’s not every day you get to watch a world city completely lose it’s collective mind, and have a four year nervous breakdown live on late-night TV. But it’s jumping the shark now. It’s time for us all to stop indulging the lunatic pretensions of a gang of feral children, and let the grown-ups start cleaning up the mess they’ve made.

That’s really all. Let’s all go home.

The Red Wedding and other harsh realities.

The Red WeddingMaybe this is all just part of growing up.

Maybe this is just our generation’s way of discovering that life isn’t fair, and that the bad guys can win. There’s nothing, in the end, to stop them except other people. And other people have failed before.

It’s not like that many of us have known true despair or loss. Some of us undoubtedly have, and are stronger for it. And I imagine if you have, you’ll know who you are.

But if you, like me, have had the good fortune to grow up safe and affluent in the Western world, sheltered, secure, and alive at the end of one of the longest periods of peace in our history, you, like me, probably don’t know what real despair means yet.

Odds are you, like me, have to confess that something like the death of Robb and Catelyn Stark can cut like a knife.

Other generations had essentially anecdotal evidence for their fixations and collective experiences. They were real, and are easily remembered, but It was hard to tell what the collective mood on any given subject was with any certainty. Not in the detail we can now.

But Game of Thrones has wounded the collective psyche. We have empirical evidence that it has. Real data documenting the visceral gut reactions of people across the world to a fictional event.

And it would seem that we don’t know what to think of a world where that kind of brutality, savagery, and cruelty is possible. There is a worry at HBO that the series will suffer in the ratings from this. That people will simply withdraw from the series to take away the emotional pain it seems to have genuinely caused.

Because there are no certainties now. No way out of the despair and bleak cruelty of the world Martin has created. (One that is powerful because it is devoid of all traces of the sentiment that cloys a lot of fantasy, and fearlessly holds a distorted mirror to our broken world.)  As it was succinctly put by Tasha Robinson, “Robb and Catelyn were the last appeal to adult authority, the last illusion that someone sensible and severe could come in and take charge.” It’s as though Jack butchered Ralph, and the naval officer never came because the world outside had descended into nuclear war.

I remembered that feeling last night. That sinking, vertigo feeling I’d had before Golding’s Deus ex Machina in Grade 10, the suspicion that Ralph was a goner, and that there was a beast at the heart of human nature, waiting to claim us all. And I remembered how it had lingered for days afterwards. The suspicion that I had learned something fundamental and cruel about human nature, that no amount of authority was going to dispel. Then, it faded from my mind, and life went on.

Now, I’m not so sure it will, or that I even want it to. Not in the same way, anyway.

Because that beast IS out there. Tearing at the eviscerated streets of Aleppo and Qusair, stalking the mountains of Afghanistan, patrolling the halls at Guantanamo Bay or staring balefully out over Tienanmen Square. Mao, Stalin, Franco, Kim-Il Sung, Kissinger, Assad, Putin, Chavez or Cheney; sometimes we forget that some despots die in their beds, and that some evil goes unpunished, and even celebrated.

Adulthood so far seems to consist of hard truths learned. Harsh, brutal truths that no one can possibly tell you, because no one can explain them to you in a way that you’ll understand.

This particular entry is as much for me as it is for you. It’s a call to future me to realize that life isn’t going to get any easier, and problems infinitely bigger than the death of the Stark family are coming, and there’s no certainty at all that any of them are going to end well.

Because in the end, there’s no one to save us from ourselves except ourselves. And we should probably get on with it.