Yesterday, I sat through the latest and possibly last instalment in the Rob Ford courtroom drama that has gripped the city for months: his appeal of the conflict-of-interest ruling that would remove him from office. The short version of my impression is that the proceedings didn’t do much to change my expectations. I still think the most likely result is Ford being removed from office near the end of this month. (Although, what do I know: I’m not a lawyer, and all the other usual blah-blah-blahs and qualifiers and caveats, etc.)
But throughout the day, a possibly interesting divergence of viewpoints on the defendant (ahem—appelant) emerged, as others have noticed. Alan Lenczner, Ford’s lawyer, painted the mayor as an honest man who made an innocent mistake. He called him a “high school graduate” who stuck to his simple, homespun understanding of the mean old complicated conflict-of-interest laws. Clayton Ruby, representing complainant Paul Magder, forcefully argued that Ford was, as the judge in the original hearing put it, “willfully blind,” and equated that blindness to lying.
As our commuter daily put it in a headline:
Good question. Maybe it’s natural that, in a courtroom, one lawyer will say a person is good and another will say he’s bad. It’s an adversarial system, after all. But in this case, I think the interesting thing is that both are right.
Here’s the thing about Rob Ford, and it strikes me as almost too-obvious to say it (yet again) at this point: He is a simple man. People have a hard time believing that he could rise to the position in government he occupies without being some kind of genius, and indeed I think he has savant-like qualities in connecting with the alienation a lot of people feel from the bureaucracy that’s meant to serve them. But he is not sophisticated, and he is every bit as bumbling and unguarded and unprepared as he appears every time he opens his mouth and talks. For a long time—especially when he was busy winning the election and, in its aftermath, crushing his opposition and ramming his agenda down his opponent’s throats—observers thought he had some kind of carefully hidden mastery of political strategy. That his Homer Simpson persona was a mask concealing a devious tactician.
But, of course, in retrospect, as I was discussing with Ivor Tossell yesterday and as John McGrath and David Hains discussed on Twitter today, those months of rolling over opponents were a crazy, apparently aimless joyride. At that point right after the election when his strength was greatest, when regular politicians lived in fear of the wrath of Ford Nation and grudgingly respected the expressed will of the electorate, he chose not to do anything that would require such great political capital: He didn’t get council to cancel Transit City, or repeal the Land Transfer Tax, for instance. Instead, he pissed away his greatest moment of strength doing things that were already really popular with the electorate. He repealed the Vehicle Registration Tax (which even Joe Pantalone had promised to do), declared TTC workers an essential service (a fiscally reckless move that had the TTC workers’ union crying “don’t throw us in the Briar Patch”!), and contracted out some garbage collection.
So his early strength relied not on doing anything politically difficult, as much as his fiercest opponents kicked and screamed at the time. It was just a matter of lining up the most popular of all his populist pledges. And by the time he ran out of those and started looking at the hard work that was left, he’d managed to piss off a lot of people, his own private-life behaviour had become a joke, and the goodwill was long gone.
So, coming back to the Metro headline question: the real Rob Ford is every bit as simple and well-meaning, I think, as his lawyer claims. He is open about his ideas and opinions and behaviour, mostly. He tells it like he sees it. He stands up in defiance of the integrity commissioner and council on some questions on principle. And the principle he stands for often is, “Folks, I’m a good guy.” I think he believes it. As the activist Desmond Cole said recently, his attitudes are not mean-spirited; he has a certain “innocence.”
But there’s a point at which this particular type of innocence—a destructiveness that lacks malice because it comes from complete ignorance—becomes inexcusable. If I built a bridge and it collapsed because I am not an engineer and have no idea how bridges work, my steadfast conviction that I had built the best bridge that I could and that I was certain it would be strong (and, in fact, I am certain it was strong and it was a good bridge) would be of little solace to anyone on it when it caved in; I would have had no business building the bridge in the first place, given that I have no understanding of how to build bridges.
Which is to say that Ruby is correct: that Ford’s simpleton routine—even if it is entirely genuine, as I think it is—is not redeeming. It is damning. He ran for and holds a job in which a core responsibility should be ensuring he understands things: the nuances of the policy arguments he’s engaged in, the issues he’s facing at city hall, the rules that govern the place. That he does not understand those things, as he has repeatedly demonstrated, and that he makes no effort to even try to understand them—indeed, that his own lack of understanding is such that he seems not to even recognize his ignorance for what it is—represents gross negligence.
It is an interesting question whether, on some personal moral level, he is culpable for his behaviour, given that he seems constitutionally incapable of understanding why and how what he has done and is doing is wrong; his simultaneous acknowledgement of how uninformed he is and certainty that he is correct appears almost literally delusional. (Jesus said something about how those actively engaged in killing him deserved forgiveness for they “know not what they do.”) But for the purposes of the city he serves, there is really no distinction between ignorance and dishonesty, between bumbling and malice. Lenczner’s point was that Ford means well. True enough. Ruby’s point is that good intentions need to be coupled with honest efforts to commit good actions. Also true. For the city, in the bigger picture, all that really matters is whether those two things lead to good results.
Anyhow, in my not-legally-binding judgement, Lenczner and Ruby both have it right. He was honest. And he was recklessly, willfully, blind, in this matter as in so many others. That combination of qualities is the real Ford. And it should be disqualifying.