Rob Ford and the civic value of embarrassment

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

Cultivate Canada's media. Support Become a member.

There's something to be said for the value of embarrassment. (There'd better be, considering how often it visits us.) I'm thinking especially of the civic value of embarrassment, in the Rob Ford context. This week it came at us from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and other late-night comics. But Stewart is the one who smarts, he has an actual viewpoint. Jimmy Kimmel and Leno just make topical references to public figures and move on.

I speak as someone who never expects to cease encountering fresh new embarrassments. That is no country for old men, wrote Yeats, entering a later phase of his life in which he may have anticipated only serenity and the esteem of others. Kids of course are familiar with shame and embarrassment from early on and if they aren't, their elders will introduce them to it.

The trick is to take these lifelong blows with aplomb and try to wring something useful from them. To provide a soothing perspective on the Ford case, I'd say I find it less embarrassing than a phase Toronto went through awhile back when it couldn't shut up about being world-class. That was humiliating (the stage beyond embarrassing). True sophistication equals not needing to tell people you're sophisticated. Pointing it out wildly undercuts the claim.

Anyway, leaders don't reflect on the citizens who voted them in or suffer under them. If there's any truism I cling to, it's that: people don't get the leaders they deserve. Why not? Because of all the haughty intervenors between the citizens and those who govern -- they generally get the leaders they select, either sooner or later. Here I come to urban guru and U of T prof Richard Florida, who I do find embarrassing in this context, but also instructive. He wrote this week in the Globe and Mail: "It is time to convene a blue-ribbon commission on Toronto's future . . . the top leaders of all of our key institutions must step up -- our banks and corporations, schools and universities, labour unions, the city, the province, and more. No one can stand on the sidelines if we are going to forge the model of private-public partnership that is needed . . . "

Does he really not get it -- that this is exactly the mentality that led to the Ford mayoralty, out of widespread popular disgust for an unelected elect who think they have the right to gather in blue ribbon bodies and decide on behalf of everyone else? The goal, Florida says, is that Toronto's "future mayors will look less like Rob Ford and more like New York's Mike Bloomberg, Chicago's Rahm Emanuel" -- leaders who've aimed to decimate the core of their communities: their public school systems; and have met huge popular resistance. Besides, the sole concrete thing Mayor Ford has done is to public-privatize garbage collection here, if that's your cuppa. Talk about confusing the problem with the solution.

So, at the moment, the city is divided between anti-Forders who often view Ford Nation as irredeemably "stupid" (and I quote), versus stubborn Forders who resent that contempt and are desperately hoping Rob finds a way not to be starring in that crack video. But it's been ever thus, if in less stark terms: Mel Lastman followed by David Miller. Rob Ford against Olivia Chow or John Tory.

Could the current embarrassment be an opportunity to move beyond that ever-revolving bifurcation between roughly equal blocs (whether 51-49 or 60-40) toward a more complete civic consensus, that doesn't leave about half the population seething with rage and waiting for their turn again? Isn't that larger consensus what reasonable people would seek? (I'm drawing here on David Graeber's fine book, The Democracy Project, which I've mentioned before.)

There's another element (that Graeber also mentions); it has to do with the skills women tend to develop. Women often have to deal with embarrassments, not just concerning the kids, but the men, when they strike poses they can't, or don't know how to, back down from. We've seen women take that role on city council, among members of both pro and anti Ford groups -- and also at Queen's Park recently. If it's truly an embarrassment crisis, why not call in the experts?

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Shaun Merritt/flickr

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.