This week’s Rob Ford courtroom show was a profoundly depressing experience—both for what it says about our proudly ignorant mayor and the city that elected him.
But, of course, at exactly the same time, there was the perhaps more sickening realization that, however uncomfortable it was watching the mayor be subjected to this, he was the mayor. And the fact that he seemed unequipped to understand even the simplest levels of abstraction, to comprehend even the simplest pieces of terminology, to even try to learn anything about the procedures of city hall or the law or even to have prepared in any basic way for the questioning he was now undergoing—”I’ve never read it before”—was a shock to the system. It’s not that this level of incuriosity and ignorance and unsophistication was a surprise, necessarily, to anyone who’s followed the mayor for a long time. It’s that it was so baldly, unapologetically displayed in the courtroom for hours at a time.
The mayor’s own testimony, to summarize, was that he is not just ignorant, but proudly so. That he will proceed, confidently and consistently, from a complete lack of any useful information and refuse to seek any insight or advice that will help dispel his ignorance or clarify his understanding. And that he will do so in the proud, unshakable, certainty that he is correct. It was not just a lack of expertise or even basic knowledge the mayor displayed, it was an outright disdain for expertise and knowledge, coupled with an inability to even understand that this was the case. It was not somehow built into the complaint or into Ruby’s submission that this was going to be the lesson we’d all emerge with. It was the mayor’s own testimony, his own contribution to the proceedings, an insistent assertion he made about himself. Ruby’s assertion, actually, was that the mayor was being dishonest. It was the mayor’s own defence that he was not dishonest, he was belligerently ignorant; uninformed, unadvised, unwilling to even momentarily consider that his interpretation of things—matters he openly acknowledged he knew nothing at all about—were in error.
I am certain that sounds unkind. ZOMG, Keenaz, you biased hack, looking for an opportunity to crap on the mayor because you can’t accept that he won the election blah blah blah. I accept that he won the election, and in court it became clear just how troubling a fact that is. I assure you that the perplexed, plaintive conversation of everyone outside the courtroom doors—reporters and civilians alike—was based on trying to come to terms with the idea that the mayor’s legal defence, or at least his legal testimony, suddenly seemed based on the premise that he cannot be blamed for his behaviour because he is too stupid to know any better. He. Is. The. Mayor.
You probably know, already, the background controversy about this case itself: This complaint, launched by a private citizen, arose from a seemingly small conflict, which itself arose from a seemingly small, perhaps understandable ethical issue surrounding Ford’s charity-fundraising tactics. The ethical principles involved—conflict of interest and influence peddling—are important. But the complaint here also deals with cases where the harm is small and, at least in the case of Ford’s fundraising, it is easy to see how he could make a mistake until it was brought to his attention. In any event, it seems like the kind of case that might be dealt with by a firm slap on the wrist, perhaps a fine.
But the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act does not allow for slaps on the wrist: the possibilities are, essentially, no punishment at all or removal from office. If he is found to have violated the Act, he is automatically turfed from office unless he can show that he made a legitimate error in judgement or that the amount involved was inconsequential. Which kind of changes the view of the proceedings. There was some angry debate back and forth before the hearing: Ford supporters saying it was irresponsible for his opponents to bring down the hammer over such a trivial issue (and besides, think of the youth who benefit from his football program) and those who thought the mayor needed to be called to account for his disregard for ethical principles, even though most of them agreed that it was unfortunate that such a seemingly disproportionate penalty applied. But, lawsuit-supporters said, you can’t blame the guy who filed a legit complaint for the stiff penalties in the law, can you? That’s the law, and the one who allegedly broke it is the mayor. And then there was discussion of how Ford would get out of it: error in judgement, technical arguments, the amount being so small in comparison to the mayor’s wealth.
I think most of us assumed he’d get out of it somehow—he’d say he was sorry, and that he misunderstood but has now changed his ways, or something. What we didn’t necessarily expect was for the mayor himself to turn it into a hearing all about his own basic competency for office, and the competency, by incredibly uncomfortable implicit extension, of the city who elected him. And for the mayor himself to provide all the evidence that he was essentially unfit (proudly so) for the position Torontonians elected him to hold.
And when I posted some reflections about that on Twitter after the day of Ford’s cross-examination, I was reminded by others that this whole hearing will likely only elevate his standing among his supporters—since if he is removed from office, the people who filed the complaint will be blamed for focussing on nitpicky details when the mayor is just trying to help the children with his football charity. And that may be right. Which only underscores the sadness of the point Ford was hammering home on the stand.
Next page: Why the mayor’s defence strategy is so puzzling—and dispiriting