What we can learn from the general principles of Rob Ford's behaviour

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Long ago in New York City, I had a psychoanalyst who reluctantly agreed to discuss a difficult life decision I had to take. Not, God forbid, to tell me what to do -- that was my lonely responsibility -- but solely, he said, as an opportunity to examine some general principles of my behaviour. It's in this spirit that I enter the Rob Ford discussion: solely for what we can learn from it; not, God forbid, because it's totally, morbidly mesmerizing. Hence:

The human defence. This is a common reaction when prominent people get caught. "I have made a mistake. I am human," the mayor said Wednesday. "I apologize. I want to move on." It shows how unrepentant the perp actually is because it tells us what we already know (you're human) and not what we really need to know: what kind of human are you? It usually reveals not remorse but seething rage, as in: Yeah, I'm human, so sue me. A variant is: I Made Mistakes. Like columnist Margaret Wente when caught plagiarizing: "I'm far from perfect. I make mistakes. But I'm not a serial plagiarist. What I often am is a target for people who don't like what I write." You can sense the rage there. In fact, perps like Mike Duffy are more honest. They say they never made a mistake. Even if they confess, they can't bear it and reverse themselves. Genuine remorse is different, but it's rare. You know it when you see it.

Penny-pinching. "I love saving taxpayers money," said Ford explaining why he won't step down. It's another thing he doesn't get. It shows how out of his depth he is as mayor and has nothing to do with personal behaviour. He doesn't get that mayors of great cities are concerned with big things about their cities, not just saving money. It's probably what made him a good council member and a horrible mayor. This applies to right-wing mayors or any kind. New York, Chicago, London often have right-wing, fiscally conservative mayors (Daley, Bloomberg, Boris Johnson) but they spend on things that enhance the city, like Chicago's waterfront, which puts us to shame, or public spaces in New York and London. This isn't just urban vanity. People in big cities often live in cramped spaces due to the density, so it's helpful to feel good not just at home but out in public. It's why a sense of architecture is inherent in city politics though not at other levels. A pride in public space helps compensate for the risk, crowding, inconvenience and impersonality. So somehow they find money to enhance the public environment even as they denounce lefty and pinko profligates. It goes with the territory but it's something Rob Ford is totally clueless about.

Mere allegations. "These are only allegations, they haven't been proven in court," is a favourite line of TV anchors when trying to prove they're not just airheads with good hair. I think they think it makes them sound studious and informed. But it implies that truth and proof are things that primarily exist in a court of law, which is ridiculous. It's like confusing law and justice. Proof and truth exist among us in the midst of life, we deal with them constantly. Most truths and proofs never find their way into, and don't belong in, a courtroom. The whole thrust of the Ford imbroglio isn't that he committed crimes. It's that he betrayed "the people" who entrusted him with power.

Silver linings. Like the poll that showed two-thirds of Torontonians don't want the province to intervene. That isn't despair or cynicism, it's confidence in democracy and the ability of the community to handle its own debacles. Or a sign at a protest outside city hall: Quit Something! This mayoral fiasco has activated the citizenry in its sage, witty awareness. Compared to that benefit, some mockery from the U.S. networks is a small price to pay. Anyway, in their politics Americans have given us lots to laugh at and feel superior about over the years. It's only right we pay them back in kind. Think of it as one of the more benign components of free trade.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: parkdale pigeon/flickr

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