Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Rob Ford and the Danger of a Single Story

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First, let me clarify a couple of things. Part of my title (the danger of a single story) is stolen from the brilliant African writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. If you haven't already seen her TED talk with the same title, you should. It's at Second, I'm no fan of Rob Ford. I think he's an embarrassment to Toronto, his antics turning what purports to be a "world class" city into an extension of Etobicoke, and his whole persona is a deception. He offers himself as a friend of the working stiff, and a penny-pincher; but he was born to privilege, drives a Cadillac Escalade (badly), and appears to be his own gravy train.
This blog is not about his policies, or lack of them. It's about a quality that makes his character interesting to me, because my day job as a professor of Learning and Teaching at Centennial College has led me to puzzle over the different ways people learn or refuse to do so. And there is, however remote, a connection to writing here: Ford is living a fictional character, and he keeps putting his career in danger because he won't abandon the narrative he's written himself into.
The true Rob Ford story, I believe, goes something like this: "I'm right, and if you disagree with, or question me, I'll just keep saying I'm right until something blows up. Even if I do make little mistakes, like getting caught driving under the influence in Florida, or yakking on my cell while bulldozing through Toronto expressways, they don't matter. Because I'm right. Why am I right? Because I'm Rob-freaking-Ford, that's why." Structurally, this is a circular narrative -- the Ouroboros of plots.
Indeed, the single most remarkable thing about Ford is not his weight or his terrible driving habits. It's his outright refusal to learn from his own behaviour, to refine his strategies so he doesn't get caught making the same mistake again. He had widely-publicized run-ins with a cellphone-recording fellow driver on the Gardiner (Ford was reading, of all things, while piloting his obese SUV),a mother and her child to whom he flipped the bird, and a TTC streetcar driver, all of whom caught him indulging in distracted driving. Even when his brother suggested he hire a driver, Ford wouldn't do it.
The fact is that his size (and covey of equally large brothers), politically connected father, and well-paid-job-for-life with the family business all have allowed him to escape consequences for his behaviour. When he almost loses his mayoralty over a foolish refusal to apologize for inappropriately soliciting charity donations from lobbyists, he goes right on doing it -- albeit in a slightly modified way.
The other aspect of the fictional Ford that he won't abandon is his own hero myth. He must be the saviour, whatever the facts. So his volunteer work coaching high school football teams must be elevating the Don Bosco school's quality of life and keeping many of its male students from lives of crime and drugs, even if if people at the school deny it. He will continue to rescue hapless Torontonians from the overspending "gravy train" at City Hall -- even when audits reveal that said metaphor is really a fiction.
Did he or did he not grab Sarah Thomson's posterior? Only those directly involved know the truth, but I can guarantee you that the Ford narrative will be: "I didn't do it." Even if someone produces a video, he'll claim it was edited. The fictional Rob Ford, saviour of Etobicoke youth and Toronto taxpayers, would never do such a thing. The real Rob Ford? Well, that's quite another question.
Perhaps he should take a leaf from "I buy your gold!" Russell Oliver, don an oversized Superman suit, and get himself special-effected into commercials showing him flying around Toronto and saving the helpless. Because that's the Superford supra-narrative.
Even if you don't buy it, many Torontonians still do. Fiction rules.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

John Oughton

John Oughton is the author of several books, including Time Slip: New and Selected Poems, published by Guernica Editions.

Go to John Oughton’s Author Page